Its 4am on Tuesday 1st July 2008, Simon Pettett and I are driving south out of Arras on the N17 a long roman road heading towards Lochnagar.
Somewhere to the east in the direction of Neuville Vitasse the sun is rising and is absolutely stunning – I stop to take a photograph. I can see a number of wind turbines silhouetted against the morning sky. Rather than rotating hypnotically they are eerily still and silent reminding me of the large cross which presides over Lochnagar. At that moment my thoughts were with the lads who at that precise time 92 years ago were waiting in the trenches all watching the sunrise anticipating the events that would unfold that day.
Anybody who has an interest in military history, especially World War I, can generally recall how they became hooked. For me that time was around 1980 when with my Royal Engineer pal, Ian Wyllie, we visited my paternal grandfather in his last few days at Heath Road hospital in Ipswich. When he died shortly after his medals from the first and second world wars were given to me. This stemmed my interest so much so that they remained shut away and untouched somewhere in the house for the next 19 years!
I attended my first battlefield trip around 1999 with a headmaster from a local secondary school in Horley, Surrey. He had been taking pupils across the channel for the last 20 years and as demand from the parents grew, he began running trips for adults. Over the next 3 – 4 years I attended 7 – 8 trips, either for the day or weekend overnighters. The headmaster was Andy Thompson who runs Eyewitness Tours, he had the ability to capture the moment whilst speaking to a group and I for one never tired of listening to him. I brought along various friends and work colleagues on the trips during which we visited all the usual sites around the Somme and the Ypres salient. On more than one occasion we stopped at Lochnagar and took in the peace and tranquility peace which prevails there. At this stage neither Simon nor I knew the significance of this place or the part it would play in our lives during the coming years.
I recall being at the Crater sometime in 2000/2001 with Andy Thompson. He was standing on a bench by the edge of the Crater addressing a large group of us, on seeing this Les Disbrey who was working close by took him to task for climbing on the bench. So, instead of being the headmaster reprimanding naughty schoolboys, the roles had been reversed and he received a taste of his own medicine! Thankfully that incident was merely an introduction and Andy is now a committed ‘friend’ and raises funds from his trips to help with the upkeep of the Crater.
Simon and I have been members of the ‘Friends of Lochnagar’ since 2002 and for the last 6 years have enjoyed attending the services on 1st July. This has now taken over as our annual commitment to and connection with the Somme as we feel more inclined and confident to undertake our own trips and the flexibility which comes with this as opposed to organized tours. Throughout this time we have thoroughly enjoyed our involvement, plus meeting and making friends with many of the Lochnagar ‘stalwarts’. Each year, we have undertaken a little more responsibility than before, mainly revolving around the day of the ceremony with general assistance and stewardship. We have seen the tenacity of Richard Dunning and his unswerving commitment to the cause which to a large degree has taken over his life.
Over the last couple of years we have become much more aware of the demands this places upon him and have witnessed the stresses and strains etched on his face in the lead up to and throughout the day itself. We decided we would like to become more involved to help alleviate some of this pressure by utilising our experience gained during 25 years in the police. This led to a series of e-mails between the three of us throughout the summer of 2007 tentatively exploring ways of assisting with the planning. This culminated in a brainstorming session at Richard’s house in December 2007 along with Clive Gilbert. The intention was to review the ceremony overall and to come up with a procedure to improve the day as a whole. We had identified the most pressing issue as the queuing system for those waiting to lay wreaths. At the end of a long working day we came up with a plan which put in place a one-way system whereby those waiting to lay wreaths kept moving to avoid bunching. Richard compiled a comprehensive report which was shared with committee members. It received full approval and was set to be rolled out on the morning of 1st July 2008.
Having photographed the stunning sunrise along the N17 Simon and I arrived at the Crater at 4:30am to put our planning into operation. After one or two failed attempts we eventually laid out the route and wreaths to our satisfaction and waited for the ceremony to begin. As the crowds started to arrive and the wreath layers assembled apprehension and nervousness began to build in anticipation as to whether all our hard work and planning was going to pay off.
Throughout the service Simon remained at the front of the queue and I was at the rear in an attempt to keep the people moving. Although this was more difficult than envisaged, the system worked sufficiently to ensure the process was a major improvement on previous years and received numerous comments of approval. However, the main bonus for us was Richard smiling and enjoying himself with the ability to be able to do the ‘front of house’ bit which he is so good at.
The day as a whole was fantastic for us and brought together seven months of planning and preparation. the Crater and everything it stands for is a credit to all involved especially Richard Dunning and the sense of belonging and camaraderie is immense. We both feel extremely privileged to be a part of something which is now an integral part of the Somme battlefield and can only encourage as many others to join as possible. A really pleasing aspect is the small but ever increasing number of young people becoming involved as this is where the future rests if the honour and memory of all those who died on the Somme is to be kept going for many years to come.
As you can see for Simon and myself the road to Lochnagar has been a long one, but being a ‘friend’ has been a hugely positive experience with many wonderful and friendly people to meet. We encourage as many to join as possible to keep the memory alive.