BUCQUOY ROAD CEMETERY
To read the Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry on this Cemetery please click here.
Work is currently underway to research the original French local authority notes of the interment of the soldiers killed in Ficheux and this immediate area, with the aim of possibly identifying those casualties who have no known grave, but who were killed in the ambush at FICHEUX, and were buried with their comrades. Grateful thanks are due to the decorated French historian Andre Coilliot, who resides near the Cemetery and who has performed an act of remembrance at this spot for many years. Andre is responsible for arranging most of the Memorials erected in the area in recognition of the efforts of 70th Brigade, and also of those forces involved in the ARRAS Counter-Attack on the day after the fateful ambush - which included the 6th and 8th Battalions of The Durham Light Infantry.
The photographs taken during the research trip are set out below. Those of the individual CWGC Headstones have been uploaded to the personal pages of the casualties concerned, in particular to that of Piper Lance Corporal Laidler of 1st Tyneside Scottish, uncle of the composer and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, whose song "Piper to the End" was played by his headstone during our short commemorative ceremony:-
An article, prepared for the Regimental Journal which, inter alia, describes the research visit to the Cemetery, is set out below:-
The Memorial History of 70th Infantry Brigade Group
An Anniversary Visit to the Battlefields of Ficheux, Mercatel and Rauray.
20th May 2012
As part of the initial submission for Heritage Lottery funding to carry forward this Memorial Project, now underway at www.newmp.org.uk/70brigade I included a plan to visit the relevant Battlefields and Cemeteries of Northern France and Flanders, in respect of May 1940, and then Normandy, in relation to the actions of the Brigade in 1944.
As always, I have been extremely fortunate in being given helpful advice and assistance from a variety of sources, which suggested the shape and structure which this visit should take. I particularly wanted to see as many of the places referred to in the official War Diaries, in personal accounts lodged with The Imperial War Museum, and the stories relayed to me by my late father, as was possible in the time available.
I was particularly fortunate in being pointed, by the author Kevin Baverstock, in the direction of decorated French Historian André Coilliot, of Arras, who proved to be a mine of information and a delightful companion on what was a sobering journey.
André knows more than anyone living about the events around Arras in May 1940 – when he was a young lad - and has several books on the subject to his credit, supported by a personal archive and memorabilia collection which has to be seen to be believed.
I took the opportunity to add to his archives with a gift of one of the DLI Association statuettes as a thanks for all his help. The Bren Gunner was chosen and, with the addition of a plate which transformed him from a 1944 to a 1940 figure, and from 151 to 70 Brigade – he now stands as part of a magnificent private collection of militaria.
André immediately offered to take myself and my Battlefield Guide – Colonel Oliver Warman – around; the villages of FICHEUX and MERCATEL, the Canal positions occupied by the Brigade before the battle on 20th May, and the Cemeteries at Bucquoy Road and MERCATEL, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The day was cloudy, damp and cool when we arrived at Ficheux – only a few miles from Andre’s home on the outskirts of Arras - and significantly different from the blazing hot May of 1940 that we had come to this quiet village to commemorate.
There are many new houses here now - neat, tidy and a credit to the village.
Today, unlike in 1975 – when a commemorative event, organised by André Coilliot, took place, with the Mayor, parades, bands, colours, French military personnel and, above all, coachloads of surviving Veterans, many from the North-East – there was no overt interest in the events of 1940 here in Ficheux.
The one consistent factor between 1940, 1975 and 2012 was the presence of this indomitable Arras historian, who has paid a personal homage in this place on 20th May for each of the last forty years.
There is little or nothing left now, other than the memorial tablets erected around the area by André, to show the disaster that overtook the three Battalions of the 70th Infantry Brigade here, as they were moving from the Canal du Nord, where they had been holding key defence positions along the canal line that stretches between the roads that run from Cambrai to Arras and BAPAUME – looking East – to their new locations.
The 23rd (Northumbrian) Division had been requested, by the French High Command, via GHQ, to occupy those Canal du Nord positions as a second-line of defence to support French troops in the front line. This was despite the 23rd only being equipped as a Labour Division. The Division had selected 70th Brigade for this Canal du Nord location – their companion 69th Brigade were on the other – western - side of Arras. All the 70th Brigade’s patrolling and reconnaissance since taking up the defence positions had failed to find the first-line French positions linked to the Canal du Nord, which they were supposed to be supporting – the reason being, quite simply, that the French troops were not actually there, and never did materialise.
The Brigade were on their way to their newly ordered positions on the west of Arras, looking South, as the extreme right flank of the British forces, facing, had they but known it, three oncoming Panzer Divisions with accompanying Panzer Grenadiers, including the Division led by the then General Rommel.
The Brigadier – Philip Kirkup – had been advised by the Division the previous day that the position had improved and that he could take more time for the move west, allowing his weary men some rest after several days of continuous marching and counter-marching. Arrangements were therefore made for troops to be billeted in villages en route to the new locations and for a few hours rest to be taken as part of the move.
The move to their new locations after that short break was underway, using grossly inadequate transport – so they were largely on foot - when the ambush of these North-Eastern troops by the German Tanks took place early on the morning of 20th May 1940.
They were ill-equipped for this new role they had been given and poorly briefed – some may argue, in the light of what the Brigadier had been told - deliberately misled – about the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Many of the soldiers were not yet fully trained and, as a second-line Territorial Brigade, they were regarded by many as suitable only for pick and shovel work on tasks such as airfield construction – the purpose for which they had been sent to the British Expeditionary Force in the first instance only a month earlier, and which they had been doing to good effect at NUNCQ and BEAUVOIR Aerodromes, further west of Arras.
These were, however, hard men – Durham men – many of them manual workers who had volunteered for the Territorial Army for the comradeship – and the useful additional cash to supplement the family income.
A good leavening of the men, my research has shown, were ex-Regular soldiers who either still had a Reserve commitment at the outbreak of War, having completed their seven years with the colours, or more often, had joined the TA voluntarily, despite their formal reserve commitment having ended, when the European crisis made itself known.
When the time came, they died hard too.
That strong leavening of “old soldiers” ensured that the esprit de corps of the Durham Light Infantry ran strongly through the ranks of the 10th and 11th Battalions – a spirit that had carried over, in the case of the 12th Battalion, to the Black Watch – a Regiment not by any means short of its own pride and swagger – when that Battalion became officially the 1st Battalion Tyneside Scottish, The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) on 1st February 1940.
All the élan in the world, however, counts for naught when an Infantry Section with its bolt-action Lee-Enfields – of First World War vintage – and perhaps one Bren Gun per Platoon, and possibly a Boys anti-tank rifle of unfamiliar aspect, are facing a fast-moving armoured phalanx, almost impervious to their fire, however accurate, and supported by Stuka JU87 dive-bombers. With no artillery support, no communications equipment and only that Regimental pride and comradeship to sustain them, what chance did they have?
Hardly any – but that did not prevent them from delaying some of the best Panzer units the German Army had for five hours or so – a slice of time that proved invaluable in the defence of Calais and the movement northwards to Dunkirk of the British forces. The very thought of an Infantry Platoon counter-attacking Tanks sounds ridiculous, but it did happen, and the inevitable price in blood and captivity was paid.
The archives, held by André, record where those men fell, and where they were laid to rest before the Cemetery was further developed. Those who went into captivity – most of whom were wounded - started their journey to hospital, and then PoW Camp, from those fields and simple streets
So, on this cool, cloudy morning three of us stood at attention, first at the small group of graves at MERCATEL CEMETERY, and then at the Bucquoy Road Cemetery, where the majority of the casualties of that morning lie at rest. The previous day we had stood silent at the small gathering of graves at WANQUETIN CEMETERY, where a Commonwealth War Graves gardener had, on his own initiative, taken a group of bodies for burial some days after the 1940 action.
The well-known words of The Ode of Remembrance from Binyon’s “For the Fallen” were quietly, but proudly, spoken, in English, and then, by André, in French. It is one thing to speak those words at a local War Memorial Service, and certainly not easy, but I defy you to carry out that task with a clear voice, when faced with those accusing rows of Portland stone headstones. I tried, and I couldn’t do it without at least a tremor.
We had an extra element on this occasion. Perhaps for the first time in any Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, a small netbook computer was switched on and a track from a current CD was played, by permission of the composer.
The song was “Piper to the End” by Dire Straits guitarist and composer Mark Knopfler, and the computer was placed by the headstone of his uncle, Lance-Corporal Piper Laidler of the 1st Tyneside Scottish, to whom it was dedicated. L/Cpl Laidler was seen to be killed in action at FICHEUX, still carrying his bagpipes – themselves understood to have been recovered from the battlefield of Loos twenty-five years earlier, and refurbished for the Battalion to take back to France in April 1940. André laid a memorial cross at the foot of the headstone and the three of us stood with bowed heads as the music played.
The silence afterwards spoke volumes; of the costly price paid by good ordinary men for the errors of others, for the gullibility of the well-meaning, for the failures of military preparation and the cynical decisions of those, French and British, with the power to cast precious lives away in pursuit of allegedly bigger issues. What proportion of the men who were able to finally make it to Dunkirk did so as a result of this sacrifice? Tim Lynch – in his recent book “Dunkirk 1940” – has explored this in some depth. The sub-title of the book – “whereabouts unknown” – is fitting indeed.
The men of 70th Brigade died, were wounded and were taken prisoner – to endure a five-year burden in the Polish salt or coal mines, or the forests and sawmills around Lamsdorf and Thorun. A number of the Brigade personnel escaped the disaster, or were in a more fortunate location and were able to join the retreat, or, rather, to join those protecting the narrow corridor down which the retreat was taking place. Some were even drafted in to help their comrades in the 6th, 8th and 9th Battalions over the succeeding days.
The 70th Infantry Brigade and its three Battalions did not die.
Those who were left; manned the Dunkirk perimeter, helped with the organisation of the embarkation on the beaches and the Mole, carried stretcher cases to waiting ships, regrouped in Launceston, Cornwall, mended their wounds, and welcomed hundreds of young replacements from Scotland, Liverpool, Shropshire, Northumberland – right across the United Kingdom.
Within six months, having speedily erected, and manned, complex defences in South Devon against potential invasion, they stood, wearing Tropal Coats and Wellington Boots, guarding a strategic northern isle - the remote fastness of Iceland - against attack, and picking up some skiing and Winter Warfare skills as they did so, taking naturally to the role of unofficial ambassadors rather than unwelcome invaders. Surely, one of the loneliest, and coldest, assignments of any British Army unit throughout the War.
By 1942 they were climbing the mountains of Wales and Scotland, leading Indian Army Service Corps pack mules with their kit and heavy weapons. By 1943 they were training hard for D-Day, jumping from dummy, and then real, landing-craft, and delighting in their new, heavier anti-tank guns and greater numbers of Bren Carriers, and the close support of artillerymen and engineers of a similar stamp, who became members of what was now 70th Brigade Group.
By mid 1944 they were in Normandy, giving as hard as they got and earning a serious reputation as soldiers to be reckoned with – good in a scrap and solidly reliable in defence.
That reputation was hard earned and came at the usual price. The 1944 casualty list is by no means a short one – the names of the Cemeteries are different – the headstones just the same - in Banneville-la-Campagne, Fontenay-le-Pesnel, Manvieu and a dozen others.
A group of Bundeswehr Officers, on a tour studying the Normandy battles - who we encountered at Hill 112 outside Esquay a few days later – spoke with honest respect of the Defence of Rauray June/July 1944 – a Brigade battle honour. They, at least, remembered the 1st Tyneside Scottish and the 10th and 11th Durham Light Infantry.
At the Cemetery of Banneville-la-Campagne, however, I had another duty, aside from paying my respects to the men of the Brigade who rest there. In a short row, lying together, are the graves of my uncle, L/Cpl John Lawrence Quinn, and his Section, from C Company, 2nd Glasgow Highlanders, killed, apparently by a mortar round, on 15th July 1944 at the beginning of the 15th Scottish Division attack on the village of Esquay – which we had visited the previous day, and where I was able to share with a Bundeswehr Colonel his map, which showed the field in which they died, and which we were standing by – a rather surreal moment, as he pointed out the location of the mortar positions.
It was my first visit to the Cemetery and I finally had the opportunity to make good a promise that had been made to my grandmother over fifty years ago – that, should I ever get the chance, I would sound Last Post and Reveille over his grave.
I had last played the bugle in public at the funeral, in Gresford in 1971, of a Royal Welch Fusiliers Veteran, as part of a Bearer Party from 3rd RWF. On that occasion, I remember it rained.
The only option I had, being so out of practice, was to “go for it” and thankfully that worked, with only a small number of “split notes” – which I hope he and his comrades would forgive me, given the occasion. The two CWGC gardeners at the site halted their labours and stood quietly till I had completed my task, as did Col Warman – who assured me that the playing had been reasonable, if not perfect!
We continued on and visited as many of the villages used as concentration points, or billets, or sites for Brigade and unit HQs as we could. Many of them looked just like those first hamlets we saw around Arras – not much changed from 1940, judging by the photographs – with their farm buildings backing on to the main road, so that all that can be seen are brick byre walls – everything takes place inside the farmyard.
We also took time to visit the 49th Divisional Memorial and the various plaques erected in contested Normandy villages, recording the Brigade’s part in their liberation.
So, when you get your 2013 diary, just pencil in “Ficheux 1940” on the 20th of May – with a note to do the same in future years - and take a moment on that morning to bow your head and remember those men from the North East in that hot, sunny village, just South of Arras, all those years ago.
Then turn to July in the diary and mark “Rauray 1944” on the 1st and think of them again, their brothers and successors, as members of 70th Infantry Brigade.
John L Dixon
10 October 2012