Some thoughts on Lochnagar by Richard Dunning MBE

Richard Dunning owner of Lochnagar Crater
and Founder of The Friends of Lochnagar
Richard Dunning owner of Lochnagar Crater
and Founder of The Friends of Lochnagar

Once a scene of untold courage, suffering and sacrifice it is now a tranquil place where pilgrims can gather and reflect in a spirit of reconciliation, fellowship and peace. Its presence remains a massive scar on the face of the battlefield - a poignant and powerful symbol of the unique horrors of that war.

The Lochnagar Crater is an awesome sight. I first saw it in 1972 and even today, hundreds of visits later, it never ceases to take my breath away.

I believe Lochnagar plays a unique role for all those who are drawn to visit the battlefields of the Great War. People who stand on the lip for the first time, including the thousands of young people, instinctively understand the fearsome power and destruction of modern warfare and, in reading the many evocative memoirs of the soldiers themselves, the terror and vulnerability of those who experienced it.

And never forgetting those who suffered bravely at home - the wives, mothers and families who daily dreaded the telegram.

Standing at Lochnagar, often with other visitors, one shares a unique feeling of compassion and connection with those who fought and fell there. There is a special spirit of fellowship that unites all who visit - and all who seek solace at the unimaginable suffering, the sacrifice, and some say the futility of that conflict.

I believe that that war especially was a stain on mankind and in some small way, Lochnagar, whilst remaining a vast, open wound on the battlefield, symbolises the eternal pain, loss and sorrow of millions of grieving people throughout Europe. A lost generation of good, gifted and innovative young men whose loss we still feel today.

I urge you to come and stand at Lochnagar and, in doing so, commemorate those who fell there. But to do so, not simply by remembering them, but by seeking to make the world that they were so cruelly denied a much more peaceful, forgiving and loving place. In their memory and in their honour.

That is the true and on-going legacy of Lochnagar. And possibly, if enough of us do that today and in the years to come, its creation may not have been entirely in vain.

I am forever grateful for the continued understanding, kindness and hospitality of our many French friends. However, since 2008 the raising of any funds and donations at the Lochnagar Crater has been strictly forbidden by a local French authority.

Those who come to Lochnagar pause to remember those who fell. Yet I believe there is no better way to honour them than to return home and vow to make the world they were so cruelly denied a better, kinder and more peaceful place. In their name.

The Lochnagar Crater was formed at 7.28am on Saturday, 1st July 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was created by the detonation of a huge mine placed beneath the German front lines and its aim was to destroy a formidable strongpoint called 'Schwaben Höhe'.

Close to a British trench called Lochnagar Street tunnellers dug a shaft down about 90 feet deep into the chalk. They then excavated some 300 yards towards the German lines, placing 60,000 lbs (27 tons) of ammonal explosive in two large adjacent underground chambers 60 feet apart. Two minutes before the attack began, the mine was exploded, leaving the massive crater that we see today.

The reason that it is so large was that the chambers were overcharged. This means that sufficient explosive was used to not just break the surface and form a crater but enough to cause spoil to fall in the surrounding fields and form a lip around the crater. The 15ft lip created protected the advancing troops from enfilade machine-gun fire from the nearby village of La Boisselle.

Debris was flung almost a mile into the air, as graphically recorded by Royal Flying Corps pilot Cecil Lewis in his superb book 'Sagittarius Rising'.
The whole earth heaved and flared, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet.
The Lochnagar Crater receives no official government funding or support, with all finance provided by the generosity of individuals. (However a number of years ago the French provided a small but much appreciated grant towards the creation of the entrance.)

Lochnagar now has in excess of 200,000 visits a year, many of them British and French school children. Schools.

In 1986 a large cross of medieval wood was erected close to the lip. It was made with roof timbers from an abandoned, deconsecrated church close to Durham - most likely a church used by some of the soldiers from Tyneside who themselves fell at Lochnagar.

Cross

On the anniversary on July 1st, a remembrance ceremony is held, starting at 7.28am - the exact time of the explosion. It lasts about an hour and is attended by up to 1,000 people. Over 60 wreaths are laid commemorating all those who fell at the Crater as well as the brave men and women of all nations who suffered in that terrible war.


The Friends of Lochnagar

Over the years one of the greatest pleasures has been witnessing the dedication of the Friends of Lochnagar. From the initial group of about a dozen like-minded people we are now nearly 300 strong. They share much of the work and worry of maintaining the Crater and helping with the annual Ceremony; it is impossible to consider it without them.

That said, if anyone feels they too would like to help in any way they are most welcome to join us and I would be most grateful for any assistance in any way. Click on the links on the left to discover more about Lochnagar and how to join the Friends.


Some questions often asked about buying the Lochnagar Crater

When did you buy the Crater?

On July 1st 1978 I was handed the 'deeds' to the Lochnagar Crater in an informal ceremony at the site. This followed years of searching and negotiations - not just with the vendors, who were most helpful throughout but mainly with the Bank of England who were not helpful as they said the sale of the site 'created a dangerous precedent.' This was decades before buying property in France became commonplace.

The day after the sale, the BBC did a small piece on the radio news about it and the result was that I received over 600 letters in a week, with about 150 from veterans who had personal memories of Lochnagar. Getting to know them all, via personal visits, letters or telephone calls was one of the greatest privileges of my life. With friends, we managed to bring several over to the battlefields and to hear their evocative experiences first-hand was priceless.

How much did you pay for the Crater?

I am often asked how much I paid for Lochnagar (especially by the young). I have never told anyone, nor ever will. All the accountants and solicitors involved are no longer with us.

All I do say is that it was the going rate for a hole of its size. I know you'll agree - compared to what happened there it is just not important.

How did it get its name?

In the summer of 1915 the British troops took over the trenches from the French Army on much of the Somme. At La Boisselle there was a battalion - the 7th Gordons, formed mainly from Deeside with many soldiers former workers on the Balmoral Estate. An officer went round naming all the trenches after familiar landmarks and towns, with Lochnagar being the name of the mountain not far from Balmoral.

How many men were killed by the explosion?

We will never know for sure although in the 1980s a veteran recalled entering German dugouts close to the south-west corner of the site. Inside were scores of seated German soldiers all killed by concussion from the explosion. The dugouts were sealed and remain there still.

The Crater itself was used as a temporary resting place immediately after the battle with many hundreds of bodies placed in it before re-burial elsewhere. Inevitably, with the constant heavy shellfire focused on the Crater some bodies were covered by debris and are there to this day. In 1999 the remains of Private George Nugent of the Tyneside Scottish Northumberland Fusiliers were disinterred and today a small cross commemorates him and the countless others at Lochnagar who have no known grave.

Yet more lives were lost when the Crater was fought over again in the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.

How did you come to buy it?

It's a long story. In 1972 I was in the States travelling on my own and stuck overnight in the Greyhound terminal in downtown Chicago amidst the smoking remains of recent terrible riots. (If all that sounds exotic let me say that until that time I had never travelled anywhere abroad.)

It was 3am, I was sat in the corner on my bag, very anxious, having recently been the victim of an attempted mugging and assault. I took out the only book I had with me which was John Masefield's superb 'The Old Front Line' and, for some reason when I came to a few lines about the Crater the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I returned to New York that night, next day flew to London and the day after that got in my battered old Hillman Imp and drove to the Somme. I didn't know anything about it, didn't have a map but headed for Albert. I got lost, went up a lane to some high ground to get my bearings, climbed a fence to a small 'hill' and to my amazement found myself at the Crater.

It had 'called' me over 4,000 miles in four days. In the following years I returned time and time again and invariably it was deserted. I found it a magical, poignant place, rich with memories and atmosphere.

Never thinking I would one day own the Crater, I decided to buy a tiny piece of the Somme battlefield, anywhere, simply just to own a 'corner of a foreign field'.

I wrote over 200 letters to mayors, solicitors, newspapers etc, stating that I wished to buy a small plot of land on the Somme Battlefield. I went to one of the Queen's solicitors in Westminster and they sent out the letter on their hugely impressive engraved letter heading - the thinking being that if someone thought I was both mad and rich it would cause something to happen but nothing ever did.

In the meantime I was regularly visiting Lochnagar, often travelling overnight on the ferry to save money and arriving at the Crater just before dawn. Then one day, to my amazement I got a letter from a notaire saying that he had seen one of my letters written over a year before and had in his office a farmer who wished to sell me a piece of land. It was Lochnagar. The farmer was in the office to get permission to fill it in, a fate that befell its sister mine, Y Sap two years previously.

The sale had to be done in utmost secrecy and took a long time but I consider myself enormously blessed and privileged to be its 'steward' for this stage of its life and, along with many dear friends to help preserve it for the next generation.


Richard Dunning owner of Lochnagar Crater
Richard Dunning owner of Lochnagar Crater
Picture taken by Australian photographer David Bailey © July 2015

From day one at Lochnagar, the long term aims were:

  • To care for it and maintain it in its natural unspoilt state.
  • To ensure that is was never exploited for commercial gain.
  • To create an annual ceremony on the anniversary to honour the memory of those of both sides who fell there.
  • To preserve and share with its growing number of visitors the unique atmosphere of peace, reconciliation and remembrance that is always there.

This website is owned by Richard Dunning. Editor, Clive Gilbert, deputy editor Richard Dunning. The webmaster is Clive Gilbert. If you have any comments on the Lochnagar Crater or this website please contact me


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