Looking back, it’s now very hard to untangle the hundreds of different trips to the Somme.
The first one is easy to remember as is the last. The hundreds in-between, less so. There has, though, always been one single thread in every trip, no matter what, rain or shine, cold or warm, and that’s to visit Thomas Lemon and stand by his side. The reason for the first trip was to visit Thomas – and this was more than just a visit to a family member’s grave. If I remember rightly, I was about 23 or 24 years old. It was a whole new adventure: booking the ferry, getting francs (it was before the Euro), where to stay, how to find Lonsdale Cemetery. Nowadays, of course, it’s just like a trip to your local supermarket, done without thinking; it was different then. But where does Thomas come from? Who was he? And why does he mean so much?
One of the main reasons why so many people are captivated by Lochnagar Crater is because of a personal family connection with the men who fought on the Somme and other battlefields in the First World War. This is particularly true of the people who volunteer as Friends of Lochnagar. In this article, a long-standing Friend, Warren Osborne, explains his family story.
He was my great uncle by marriage, my grandma’s second husband’s brother. He was one of four brothers, three of whom went to war. The other two brothers, Bob and Ernest, served with the north Staffordshire Regiment; both were wounded, but both made it home.
In fact, they used to sit my brother and me on their knees and tell us about their exploits in the Great War. Sadly, none of these memories remain, and I so wish I could speak to them today.
Thomas, however, served in the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (west Riding). Family lore says there’d been a disagreement within the family, and he’d gone to stay with his aunt in Keighley. So instead of a north Staffs, he becomes a Duke of Wellington.
Years would pass before some of this came out. It was difficult to get information out of my grandma. Sometimes, I think she still lived in the WW2 era. I remember once being sent to get a bag of sugar from a cupboard upstairs. It was a tall cupboard from floor to ceiling and quite wide. I found it was filled with bags of sugar, tinned fruit, tinned everything. All the things that had been hard to get during and after the Second War. This must have been the mid 1970s. So if you wanted information from her, you had to be very careful how you phrased the questions. Thomas was killed three years before she was born, so everything she knew came from his brothers. She would give you a photo and say: ‘This is Ernest’; six months later a photo of Bob would appear.
I think the saddest thing of all was Thomas’s Common Prayer Book. This never came to light until after grandma died. It’s a small pocket book brass bound with a little clasp; sadly the front cover has come away from the spine and at one point it had been stuck together with electrical tape.
In the front there is a dedication from Thomas’s mother, it reads: ‘T W Lemon. 47 Stafford Street, Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire. Feb 8th 1911, from Mother, with Love x’. Thomas was 16 or 17 then.
I had this Prayer Book a number of years before I realised the front page was not in fact the first page, which had been tucked under the brass binding; it took me ages to get it out without damaging it. I found that Thomas had written in it – the only known hand-writing of Thomas which I have. Which makes it all the more special. The Prayer Book has made a couple of trips to France. The first was when I found the writing in the front, and the second and most poignant occasion was the 100th anniversary of when he was killed in action on September 17th, 1916, attacking what was known as the ‘Wonder Works’ German defences at Thiepval. He’d been wounded only two weeks earlier.
According to the Battalion’s War Diary, he was killed by German 5.9 shells. It’s unclear in the diary when he actually died, but the diary mentions 6.30pm, so this was the time, on September 17th, 2016, when we stood by his head-stone at the Lonsdale CWGC cemetery at Authuille, where he was finally laid to rest.
Four other men died at the same time, so we commemorated all five. We made posies and flags to place on their graves, and lit five candles. We were joined by David and Julie Thomson from La Boisselle; Julie read from Thomas’s Prayer Book, and I will be eternally grateful to her for the choice of passages and the emotion in which she read from the book. Everyone in our small gathering by the graves of these brave men was deeply moved. The pictures David took that day will be a lasting reminder.
Lonsdale was not his first cemetery; he was originally buried on the Authuille-Thiepval road nearer to Thiepval, which we also visited on the 17th.
Of course there have been other visits by friends to Thomas, including the German Police who regularly visit Lochnagar Crater on July 1st, and Martin Schwam, who played his trumpet to Thomas and then the whole cemetery. Once, I drove over on a September 17th – I think it was 2007; it was pouring with rain, I placed fresh flowers on his grave, walked around Delville Wood and went to the Crater. I saw one other British car and decided to drive home again the same day. It never stopped raining once.
Does it mean it’s all done now?
Far from it, although I don’t visit Thomas once or twice a month now like I use to. I still think Thomas’s grave is one of the most visited by family and friends in France.
We will carry on writing in Lonsdale’s visitors’ book as long as we can, and I hope one of the kids takes it on and passes it on to their kids and so forth. So Thomas is always remembered and visited.
It has just occurred to me that I have been visiting Thomas longer than I have not, and that I’ve already lived twice as long as he had. A sobering thought.
On the first trip, I got hooked on field walking, and it took me 26 years to realise that I was in the same field where Thomas was originally buried. On one of these trips, I ran into a chap called Richard Dunning at the Hotel De La Paix in Albert one evening. A chance meeting that has turned in to a lasting friendship with the kindest man I know, plus the friendship of all the other friends I have met along the way with my ‘Journey with Thomas’. Some of those friends are very sadly no longer with me on my journey, but they will always be in my heart and I always smile when I see their pictures. ‘Walk in shadows no longer for once again we stand by your side and remember you.’