30 June 2016
One of the bloodiest battles in human history began on 1 July 1916. It raged, in mud and trenches on the banks of the River Somme, for one hundred and forty one days. To most people this is ancient history, too far in the past to connect with. The image of all those young soldiers resonates with me though. Pappy was one of them. It seemed fitting that my walk today should take me to a First World War memorial and I knew just the place to go. In fact I’d been meaning to visit Hollybrook Cemetery for some time and the eve of the hundredth anniversary of Battle of the Somme seemed like a good day. Of course CJ wanted to come along.
The overcast sky didn’t deter us as we walked down to the river and crossed Cobden Bridge. The possibility of getting a bit wet and a round trip approaching ten miles seemed nothing compared to the sacrifices made by the young men we were walking to remember. Looking down over the river at the boatyard and the mass of little boats it struck me that, apart from a few modern houses and flats, the view had probably not changed much in the last hundred years.
By the time we reached Highfield the sun had come out. CJ found a bee sitting dazed on the pavement so we stopped to rescue it. He managed to pick it up on a leaf and place it in a garden filled with lavender. Our good deed for the day done, we carried on up the leafy lane, past the church and the Herbert Collins houses, towards the Common.
Before long we’d reached the Highfield side of the Common. Saluting the two magpies we saw on the grass, because you can never have too much good luck especially on a long walk, we made for the Boyond Graffiti tunnel.
There’s always something new to see here and today was no exception. My favourite was a very smug looking Garfield. Further on something abstract caught my eye. What it meant is a mystery but I liked the bright colours and swirling shapes.
Tempting as it was to veer off and visit the cygnets on the boating lake we carried on over the crossroads heading for Hill Lane. There was a stop to look along the stream that bubbles under the path. CJ edged his way along the outside of the railings to take a picture while I, sensibly, stayed on the path and snapped mine.
By the time we reached Bellmore Road the sun was trying to come out and it was beginning to feel a little muggy. My rain jacket came off and was tied around my waist. A coffee shop would have been a welcome sight about then. Near the top of the road we heard the clock on the church of St James by the Park strike the half hour. When we got there squirrels were dashing about the churchyard. CJ is very fond of squirrels so we stopped to watch for a moment. I seemed a good test for the new camera
“Alan Shearer got married in this church,” I told CJ, thinking I might impress him with my football knowledge.
“Well he did start out as a Southampton player,” he said, not sounding impressed in the least.
We crossed the road and turned for a moment to look back at the church tower. This was when things began to go a little wrong. Distracted by the squirrels and the church tower, I lost my bearings a little and turned the wrong way. We’d been walking for a good five minutes before I realised my mistake. CJ was distinctly unimpressed, especially as we had to turn back and retrace our steps. You’d think he’d be used to getting lost with me by now.
Despite our accidental detour it wasn’t long before we reached Winchester Road and I began to recognise landmarks. Unfortunately, so did CJ.
“We’re right up by the hospital,” he said, sounding a little annoyed at having been duped into such a long walk.
When we set out I’d been purposely vague about the exact location of the cemetery, thinking the distance might have put him off. Now I had to come clean. Hollybrook Cemetery is right opposite Southampton General Hospital. The first burial took place in 1913, just thirteen years after Southampton Union Infirmary, as it was then, was founded. Of course, with just 289 beds, it was nothing like the huge, sprawling General Hospital building we rely on today.
At the bottom of the steep hill of Dale Road we must have crossed Holly Brook, although we couldn’t see it because it runs under the road. We were too busy puffing our way up the even steeper hill out of the valley to really give it much thought at the time. It wasn’t long before we could see the gates of the cemetery. Built in 1910 of coursed rubble with ashlar dressings, they’re an impressive sight. The stepped parapet of the central archway bears the city shield and the piers on either side are topped with angel statues.
Inside the gate we found a sweet little stone building with a strange kind of porch affair. Perhaps it was a gatehouse of some kind, somewhere for mourners to gather in wet weather? Behind it we found what we’d walked so far to see.
During World War One Southampton was the primary port of departure for soldiers heading for France. It was also the primary port for wounded soldiers arriving back in England. Pappy, whose home was in Oxfordshire at the time, was amongst them. Most went to Netley Hospital, now Victoria Country Park, but some of the wounded ended up in the new Shirley Warren Union Infirmary, which was used as a military hospital throughout the war. Many of those who died there were buried in Hollybrook Cemetery. In fact there are 113 Commonwealth war graves from the First World War close the the gate we’d just entered.
Beside this plot and right behind the funny little house, is the Hollybrook Memorial. It was built to commemorate 1897 servicemen whose graves are unknown, many of them lost or buried at sea. The momument, designed by T Newman, was unveiled in December 1930 and is inscribed with every single one of their names. It seemed the perfect place to remember all those lost in the Battle of the Somme.
The first thing we noticed was the lavender. The whole memorial was surrounded by it and it was in full flower. During World War One, antiseptics were in short supply and lavender oil was used to dress wounds and disinfect the wards. The scent of lavender would have been familiar to the wounded and it seemed appropriate to find it here.
In front of the memorial were ranks of white headstones, much like those we saw in France although far fewer in number. We walked down the steps and slowly paced along the rows, stopping to read the name of each of those long dead servicemen. Two things struck me. The first was the ages of many of the dead, I’d felt the same in the French cemetery, so many were so very young. The second were the dates on the graves. Most of these men died after the war had ended. I couldn’t decide if it was good that they knew the war had been won or bad because they suffered so long.
The small plot was surrounded by a low wall and a pretty little garden. Flowers grew between the stones, roses, penstemon, campanula, geraniums and much more besides. Amongst the white stones we found two small crosses with metal plaques. These were French graves, a sailor and a soldier mort pour La France. They were a long way from home and how they’d ended up in this quiet little corner of Southampton was a mystery.
More than a million men were wounded and killed during the Battle of the Somme. The battle was one of many, part of a combined offensive by the French, Italian, Russian and British armies. Originally the plan was for the French to be the principle army on the banks of the River Somme with the British in a supporting role. All this changed when the German army began the Battle of Verdun in February 1916. Many French troops were diverted and the British troops became the main players.
On the first day of battle the Germans suffered a serious defeat but 57,470 British soldiers were killed or wounded. It was the worst day in the history of the British army and few British troops reached the German front line. In the end just six miles of German occupied territory was gained in the whole battle. It seems very little for so many young lives.
With all the names read we turned back to the memorial. There were too many names there to stop and read each one but we walked along the wall, looking at them as we passed. The bees were frolicking on the lavender flowers, along with a ladybird.
This is a large cemetery and we planned to wander for a while among the other graves before we turned for home. In the end it wasn’t to be though. As we started towards them we noticed a hearse and people standing around an open grave. There was a funeral going on. Not wishing to intrude, we walked down a leafy path away from the mourners, and looped around to head back for the gate.
Our final stop was the chapel, built at the same time as the gate and the cemetery wall. The door was open and we probably could have gone inside but, just then, the hearse and the funeral party appeared behind it so we gave it a miss. There will always be other days.
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