This special post marks the centenary of the First World War Armistice in November 2018. Pvt. George Benjamin Hawkins, my great grandfather, was killed on 29 September 1916 aged 24. He was buried where he fell during a Border Regiment attack on Stuff Redoubt (a German-held trench), near Thiepval, in the Somme valley, Picardy (now Hauts-de-France). In 1924, he was reburied in Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery as part of a process in which remains from smaller collections of isolated graves were relocated to ‘concentration cemeteries’.
Thiepval and Mouquet Farm
Thiepval lays on a spur of higher ground above the River Ancre in the upper Somme valley, 20 miles northeast of Amiens. In the summer and autumn of 1916 there were long and bloody skirmishes over control of the village’s original features — the wood, the settlement itself and Mouquet Farm, all of which were obliterated.
The village was surrounded by a dense network of deeply constructed German trenches, the major ones being Stuff, Zollern and Schwaben redoubts, which would need to be overpowered if the 25-mile-long front in the Somme was to be breached. Both Thiepval and Mouquet Farm were themselves quasi-fortresses. In this third phase of the First Battle of the Somme, British objectives were typically ambitious and unrealistic. Capture of Thiepval, one of the goals for 1 July 1916, was finally achieved in September (after Mouquet Farm fell in August). However, while Thiepval proper had been overrun, fighting continued over control of the whole of the elevated ground known as the Ancre Heights, including sections of Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts.
On 29 September 1916, George’s regiment joined an attack on Stuff Redoubt, pushing up toward the ridge between Thiepval and Mouquet Farm. The weather on that day was rainy, with a temperature of around 12-16 degrees Celsius (according to research cited in this article).
Thiepval had also finally been overrun on the afternoon of the 26th but, by the end of the battle on 30 September, the Germans still held small sections of the Redoubts and Regina Trench. Between 27th and 30th, the fighting for Schwaben Redoubt had been particularly brutal, with running hand-to-hand combat going backwards and forwards through the tunnels and dugouts.
George was one of almost 13,000 casualties from those five days. His 11th Division had suffered the most with 4,500. We can’t say how he died for sure, but he was buried below the redoubts on the lower part of the Ridge having fallen during his brigade’s attacks on Stuff Redoubt. It was finally captured on 9 October.Military historian, online forum
George’s short life
George Benjamin was the eldest son of George Snr and Catherine, one of six living children. He was a ‘wire weaver’ like his father, an unfamiliar trade in 2019 but perhaps something along the lines of the definition in this account: “those who sold iron and steel wire by retail and cut and worked it into mouse-traps, bird cages, lattice-work for windows, buckles, chains, clasps for garments, fish hooks, pack-needles, knitting needles, rings for curtains etc.” In the early 20th century, the scale and sophistication of this work was expanding to meet demand from industry, including products for the war itself — attacks on Thiepval were supported by the first operational tanks, for example.
George signed up with the Norfolk Regiment on 20 January 1915, just under three months after my grandfather, George Walter Frederick, was born to his wife Agatha. Baby George was one month short of his second birthday when his father was killed.
George and Agatha had bought a two-bedroom terrace in Norwich, which he’d left to her in his will of November 1915.
After training with the Norfolk regiment, George was transferred to the 6th Border Regiment, part of General H. Gough’s reserve army. They arrived in the Somme in June 1916, one month before the beginning of the one of the bloodiest battles in human history, but took no significant part in the fighting until early September. By the end of that month, George had been killed. The battalion was relieved on the following day. However, had he survived the assault on Stuff Redoubt, there would have been another two years of brutal trench warfare to negotiate before he could have returned home, unless he had been ‘lucky’ enough to be seriously injured.
Burial and remembrance
The first time I visited George’s grave was during a French exchange to Rouen, twinned with Norwich. The school had organised an excursion to its Notre Dame cathedral namesake in Amiens. My French teacher, Anne Maw, and her husband, the school librarian at the time, kindly arranged for us to take a taxi to Villers-Bretonneux while my peers toured the church.
Armed with a note of the plot number — XIIIA. D. 10 — marked onto a cemetery plan, and a small wooden cross, there was only sufficient time to locate his final resting place and take some snaps before returning to rejoin the main group.
Back then, in the days before the internet was a thing, I was not aware that his remains had originally been interred elsewhere. Around the time of the armistice centenary in November 2018, I knew that I’d soon be driving through France in a van en route to collect belongings from Italy. I worked out that it would represent a detour of only around 30 miles to revisit Villers-Bretonneux. I also noted from the cemetery website that the first plots were not completed until 1920, and began to learn about the concentration process that gathered in thousands of battlefield burials to aid administration and long-term maintenance. And, pragmatically, once these killing fields were returned to agriculture, the presence of so many human remains would obviously be problematic.
Examination of reburial records revealed that George’s body was moved to the cemetery in 1923, a distance of 15 miles as the crow flies, from fields east of Thiepval, trench map reference 57d.R.26.b.6.1. These maps were an incredible effort by the Ordnance Survey to record German trenches, battery positions, targets and defences. By mid-1916, five Field Survey Companies operated lithographic presses near the front lines and over 33 million maps of the Western Front alone were printed between 1914-18.
On a cold, damp December morning in 2018, we approached Thiepval from the southeast. In the comfort of a heated van cab it was difficult to imagine George’s advance under heavy fire across No Man’s Land over 102 years previously. However, the grim weather and mud-covered roads seemed more appropriate to the occasion than a warm, sunny blue skies kind of day.
Contributors to an online WW1 forum suggested that George’s original resting place was between Thiepval and the farm, up the ridge from the modern road. The bushes that were said to have marked his grave went under the plough long ago, but superimposing the trench mapping on contemporary features allows an approximation of the spot where he fell.
We parked by the roadside and set off up a track toward the ridge, apologising to the flocks of birds (golden plover?) we sent panicking into aerial circuits, wasting precious winter energy.
At this point I shed some tears. George was no longer just a name on a headstone — through the documents we have, including two letters written from the front, he had become a personality with a life. He was anxious, homesick, probably terrified, and just wanted to return to Norwich to be with his family. I can identify to some extent with being in a hostile environment far from home and even, on a few occasions, wondering if I’ll make it out alive. But I can’t begin to imagine the Hell those men went through.
Dear Wife, just a few lines hoping you and my little boy is in the best of health as it leaves me at present. Dear I got your parcel and was very pleased with it – it came in very nice…I think Norwich is very lucky and trust me to find my way home when I get the chance…I shall have some things to tell you when I do come home which will make you laugh, so cheer up old dear, keep a good heart and don’t worry.
Dear, you ask me in one of your letters if I should like a paper sent me every week. Well old dear, I should like the Norwich Mercury sent me so I can read about Norwich when I come out of the trenches for a rest.Excepts from George’s letter to Agatha, 11 September 1916.
The Thiepval memorial commemorates over 72,000 British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme, most in 1916, who have no known grave. We paid our respects here before moving on to Villers-Bretonneux.
Villers-Bretonneux cemetery had recently gained a visitor centre. I admit to being appalled when I discovered this, although its subterranean design is discreet and unobtrusive. However, I still find the café and gift shop element somewhat distasteful in the historical context.
Dedicated by King George VI in July 1938, less than two years later the cemetery was itself a battlefield. This made a tragic nonsense of the description of WWI as “the war to end all wars” and underlines the stupidity and futility of all such conflicts. I’m sure this point wasn’t lost on those fighting around the graves of their colleagues, who had fallen only 20 years before.
An incredible read, emotional and perceptive. The shock at reading that the graveyard was a battlefield in WW2. Also ‘identified by his boot.’
Thanks Gary. George went from a gravestone I’d visited in my teens to a homesick man with a personality and history, making it quite emotional by the time we got to Thiepval. The cold, damp weather and mud around the village seemed somehow appropriate.