Thursday, 21 July 2016

In tribute to the Frenchmen who died for their country

My great-uncle Fred Wood
- 'Known unto God'
I've just returned from a wonderful two-week holiday in France, during which we spent a fascinating day in Picardy taking in the sights of the Somme, and strolling around the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries where the graves of British and Commonwealth soldiers are so beautifully kept.

Somewhere among those graves is one belonging to my great-uncle Fred Wood, a private in the Somerset Light Infantry who died  on the first day of the Battle of the Somme just after his 19th birthday. His body was never identified, but his remains are probably buried beneath one of the many headstones so movingly inscribed with the words of Rudyard Kipling: 'A soldier of the Great War...Known unto God'.

Like the vast majority of British and Commonwealth soldiers, Fred was buried where he fell. But this wasn't necessarily the case for French soldiers, whose bodies could more easily be returned to their homes. In just about every little town we visited there was a scattering of First World War graves in the neat, edge-of-town cemeteries that are so common in France, silently paying tribute to local sons, husbands and fathers who had died defending their country. Here are some of the photographs I took at a cemetery on the outskirts of Beaumont-le-Roger, in Normandy.

Francois Gombert, below, lost his life at the very outset of the war on 26 August 1914, aged 37.

Maurice Barbey, below, died three months later in October 1914, aged just 22. His gravestone is inscribed simply with the word 'Regrets'.

In 1916, Sergeant Paul Tirant, below, was also just 22 when he was killed...

... the image on his gravestone recalls a handsome young man.

And in July 1918,  Eugene Chardine, below, died of wounds aged 40. His gravestone suggests he was a man of some bravery, recording the fact that he was awarded the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

All four are among those listed on a memorial inside the church at Beaumont-le-Roger, below, which is dedicated to 'Nos fils morts pour la patrie 1914 - 1918'.

The church at Beaumont-le-Roger