Tuesday, 4 June 2013

First day of the Somme

1st July 1916 through field glasses

When he swept the rise given the nickname
Heligoland, did his mind move rather
to Herr Gätke’s letters to his father
plotting bird migration, building their fame?

Did those boyhood memories focus his sight
on the Humber marsh - where he took cover
once and saw ten thousand golden plover
rise as one so he could not see the light?

Did his mind dwell on the skylarks which sang
full throat as the barrage came to a stop
with the quake of the sap’s cratering bang?

Did he jolt back from home in some surprise
as men began to move in lines, to drop
as they were trained to do… but did not rise?

John Cordeaux (1831-1899), a clergyman’s son, came to Great Coates in his 20s, soon inherited the tenancy of the largest farm from his mother’s uncle (Richard Taylor), and became Agent for Sutton Estates, Churchwarden of St Nicolas’, and the national expert on bird migration. His notebooks include an account of the golden plover flock disturbed in the marsh in December 1879 (‘I could not see daylight through them’). His papers at the Brynmor Jones Library in Hull include over a hundred letters from Heinrich Gätke (1814-1897), pioneer in North Sea migration studies, who was Secretary to the Governor of Heligoland.

Colonel Edward Kyme Cordeaux CBE (1866-1946), John’s son, was born in Great Coates, and baptised by his grandfather in St Nicolas’. He served through the Boer War and was recalled to the army in 1914 to help form the locally raised ‘Grimsby Chums’ battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment; he was in command when it saw action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He married a daughter of Sir Henry Bennett; a sixth generation of Bennetts runs the family timber business from Great Coates Industrial Estate today.

The account of that day in Peter Chapman’s Grimsby’s Own - The Story of the Chums includes nicknames of local features, Cordeaux’s observation through field glasses, the unprecedented but fruitless bombardment of the German trenches until a few minutes before the action, the earth trembling at the force of the mine intended to wipe out those trenches, the skylarks singing, and an officer admiring the precision of the men falling in line before he realised they were in fact being mown down.

The first first-hand accounts in the Grimsby Daily Telegraph, published on 6th July, include the following from three of the wounded in hospital in Southampton.    “Never in my life have I seen anything finer than the way successive waves of men marched singing and cheering into the bath of lead.  The more casualties they saw in front of them, the louder they cheered and sang, the harder they pressed forward into it.”     “What I don’t understand is how the devil they could bring all the machine guns into action after the pounding our heavies gave them.”    “I tumbled right on his machine-gun dodge.  The trench was knocked flat, but that made no odds.  Leading forward from his front line lie lines of tunnel going down into a big dug out over 20 ft deep and splendidly shored up and protected.”

This is all part of the material I've written in preparation for an evening on First World War Poetry in St Nicolas' on 3rd July which will mainly led by pupils from Caistor Grammar School.  The picture is of the Gruby family graves in the churchyard, on one of which is commemorated one of the Chums (Reginald Gruby) who never saw the first day of the Somme because he was killed by a sniper four months earlier and who is buried in France.

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