I am very fortunate to have been born into the Dickens family, for the connection has allowed me to travel extensively. I have visited many remarkable places and met many remarkable people all thanks to C. Dickens Esq..
Last weekend, however was different. Liz and I joined up with other members of the Dickens clan on a journey to France. To Picardy. To the Somme. We were there to honour the memory of Major Cedric Dickens who had been killed in those fields a hundred years ago in 1916.
Saturday 3 September, 2016
Our day started unfeasibly early, with the alarm set at 3.45am. Within forty-five minutes we were in the car heading towards the port of Dover. As we drove, the early morning mists lingered low in the valleys as the inky blackness slowly subsided, giving way to a beautiful morning.
Thanks to the lack of traffic at that ungodly hour, and to the efficiency of P&O Ferries we were able to board an earlier sailing and soon were tucking into a much-needed breakfast in the Brasserie restaurant.
The crossing from Dover to Calais takes only ninety minutes, which is about time for a good breakfast, a quick freshen up, and a mooch around the shop. In no time we were easing our little Peugeot down the ramp and onto French soil.
There is something about driving in France – it is, well, just so very French. There is something about the countryside, the fields, the avenues of trees which is unmistakable. Along the route large white wind turbines turned languidly, as if France was having a lazy day and didn’t need the extra energy which the warm breezes could provide. Some didn’t turn at all, but almost seemed to shrug Gallicly.
Our first destination was the city of Amiens where we were staying at The Mercure hotel along with the rest of the contingent, some of whom had gathered the night before.
Thanks to our early sailing we had a little time in hand so decided to explore the city, and in particular the magnificent cathedral, which stood in an open square just a few yards from the hotel door.
Amiens Cathedral! Why is it not as famous as Notre Dame, or Sacre Coeur, or Chartres? What a magnificent and imposing structure it is. Work on the great entrance and nave was begun in 1220 and continued over the years, with the most modern addition being completed as recently as 1533.
Inside there are towering arches supporting the roof, and outside gothic flying buttresses do the same job. Every available piece of stone is testament to the masons’ art, each frieze an ancient biblical story.
We had a brief lunch in the cathedral square before returning to the hotel and changing for the afternoon’s events. At exactly 2.30 we made our way into the lobby to meet up with the rest of the family, and what a happy and excited crowd we were.
We are all descendants of Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles’ eighth child, and the cast of characters was as follows:
Ian Dickens (my brother) and his wife Anne
Nicky Flynn (my sister)
Peter Sticklee (My nephew, representing our late and hugely missed sister Liz)
Mark Dickens (our first cousin) and his wife Debby
Joff Dickens (Mark and Debby’s son)
Marion Lloyd (Mark’s sister)
Tom Lloyd (Marion’s son)
All of the above are descended from Henry and his wife Marie’s son Gerald, my grandfather. The line from Henry and Marie’s son Hal was represented by
Mary and Pip Danby (brother and sister).
The Dickens family can become somewhat boisterous when en masse and that Saturday afternoon was no exception, however we were there for a serious reason and Ian was soon marshalling us into shape and going through the schedule for us.
The first logistical challenge was for us all to drive from Amiens to the small village of Ginchy some forty-five minutes away. ‘It will be easy!’ Ian promised, ‘Simply get onto the D20 and keep driving until you pass Ginchy – don’t go into the village, keep on the main road and there will be a sign showing you where to go.’
It sounded simple and we all leapt into our cars and headed off along the banks of the River Somme.
Nothing is as simple as it sounds, however and as we neared our destination, separated by now from most of the other family cars, we discovered a huge roadblock made of straw bales, directing us down a farm track. We duly followed, but it seemed a strange diversion. The track became narrower and dustier and then appeared to come to a dead end with more straw bales, but no, there was a ninety-degree corner, which lead us back towards the road, leaving the car looking as if it had successfully completed a stage in the East African Rally.
Of course now neither Liz or I knew where we were but decided to continue until we found the village of Ginchy itself, then try to find the main road again, and sure enough after a couple of wrong turns we found the small sign which read: ‘Major Cedric Dickens’. And there, on a small track between two ploughed fields, were the rest of our party and a large gathering of locals.
September 9, 1916
Major Cedric Dickens served with the London Regiment – The Kensingtons – and had fought hard and bravely since the start of the war, two years previously. The Battle of the Somme had been raging for a little over a month, and the toll on manpower had been terrible.
Near Leuze Wood, outside the village of Ginchy, a number of skirmishes were taking place. The Kensingtons were ordered to advance on the German lines, but as they emerged from the dugout a single shell exploded killing Cedric instantly.
After the war Ceddy’s mother, Marie Dickens, travelled to Ginchy to find the ground where her youngest son had been buried. The fields were devastated, and unexploded ammunition was everywhere.
Marie found the spot where she had been informed that Ceddy had fallen, and immediately made arrangements to buy the plot of land, and have a memorial garden built. A cross made out of English oak was placed there, as was a simple wooden bench.
Marie, a proud Frenchwoman, was so upset at the devastation (Ginchy itself had been completely destroyed and was slowly being re-built), that she paid for a new well to be dug in the village and bought clothes for the locals.
Every year Marie returned to Ginchy and sat on the bench, to remember her son.
Time moved on and the lessons learned in 1914-18 were ignored, Europe once again descended into war and Marie could visit the grave no longer. After she died in 1940 the garden fell into neglect. The farmer who owned the field asked that, as nobody ever visited, the cross and the bench could be moved. The Dickens family were contacted and agreed with the proposal. The grave was dug up, but no body was discovered. The name of Major Cedric Dickens was added to the memorial at Thiepval, honouring the fallen with no known grave.
In the early 1990s Ceddy’s cross was beginning to rot, and a new, identical one, was made to replace it. The wooden bench similarly was in a poor state of repair and was removed from the site.
And now, one hundred years after the battle the family had returned. Our connection with the village had been maintained over the last few years, and we were here to unveil a new bench and an information board telling the story of Cedric, Marie and Ginchy.
The ceremony was attended by the mayor of Ginchy, mayors of neighbouring communes, representatives of the Kensington regiment and of course us. What astounded us though was the amount of public who turned up to be part of the event; a crowd of around sixty had gathered as things got underway.
The cross took centre stage, while the dignitaries stood to one side. Behind was an arc of French veterans holding flags. These men, many aged and frail, carried out their duty with pomp and pride.
The mayor, Jean-Marc, welcomed us all and gave a brief account of the events leading up to 9 September, 1916. The address was translated paragraph by paragraph by Fiona, (an English lady who works with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and lives locally). My brother Ian then replied in a beautifully crafted speech using the brilliant metaphor of gardens and re-growth. His words were translated by Tom, who did a superb job under great scrutiny from a largely French audience.
After the applause for the Ian and Tom show had died away it was my turn.
I had been asked to read a poem written by the Irish writer Thomas Kettle; it is seen as one of the great forgotten war poems, but what made it so poignant on this occasion was the fact that Kettle had been killed at Ginchy on the same day as Ceddy. He wrote the words a few days before he was killed, for his 3-year-old daughter, Elisabeth:
To my Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
In wiser days, oh darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
To dice with death. And oh! They’ll give you
Rhyme and reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, –
But for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.
To stand in those peaceful fields, with the warm sun shining down on us, it was difficult to imagine the fear and agony that Thomas and Ceddy must have endured just yards away from where we stood: difficult and intensely moving.
The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of the new bench and information board. We also laid 100 flowers, picked from our own English gardens, at the foot of the cross, cementing the strong bond between our family and this little patch of French soil.
Following the formalities, we all drove back into the village for a further ceremony at the war memorial, where Mary and Pip laid a wreath with the Mayor.
As the ceremonies continued we discovered that we had been joined by a regimental party on their own pilgrimage. Around the memorial members of the group individually read names of ten soldiers who had been killed but were never found. Each name was spoken in a soft Irish accent, and each of the remembered souls hailed from Dublin, Donegal or Wicklow, for remarkably the regiment in question was the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, with whom Thomas Kettle, the author of my poem, had been serving in 1916.
We struck up conversation and discovered that earlier that afternoon, at much the same time we had gathered to commemorate Ceddy (as I was reading the poem), the Royal Dublin party had been at the very spot where Kettle had died, and a few days earlier they’d visited the location where he had penned ‘The Gift of God’ for his daughter, a remarkable coincidence.
My sister Nicky, who lives in Kilkenny, had one day noticed a memorial bust of Kettle in Dublin, but knew nothing about him. She noticed however that the day of his death corresponded with Ceddy’s and thought that it would appropriate for his poem to be read at our service. And so here we all were on the same spot, in the same tiny village, remembering two men who were linked only by the geography of their ultimate fate. It seemed right, somehow, that we should shake hands and informally unite their stories.
The time in the village following the ceremonies was fun, as we admired Cedric’s original cross, which is now in the church, and the original bench which has been repaired and sits on the grass outside. Jean-Marc had arranged a drinks reception in the village hall and presented Ian and Marion with gifts, as a mark of continued friendship between Ginchy and the Dickens family.
When it was time to leave, Liz and I needed to find a petrol station and drove towards the nearby town of Bapaume. The evening sun was beginning to cast long shadows over the fields, and the gentle slopes of the landscape looked welcoming and oh, so peaceful. But in every village, at every intersection, in every wooded glade there was a cross, or a cemetery, or a memorial. How can such a beautiful valley be forever tainted by the madness and hatred of mankind?
The family regrouped that evening in Amiens, and we had a wonderful alfresco dinner on the banks of the river Somme itself. As we walked back to the hotel in good spirits, fireworks soared into the night sky and burst into rainbow showers. Crowds of young people stood on the river bank, eyes turned to the skies as the explosions lit their faces. On that Saturday they laughed and cheered and clapped, but a hundred years before the reactions would have been very different.
Sunday 4 September, 2016
Whilst our Saturday had been very much a family day, Sunday would see us at a much more public ceremony for we would be honouring Cedric and all of his fallen comrades at the Thiepval Memorial.
The Memorial was inaugurated in 1932 and is dedicated to the 73,000 men who died in the Battles of the Somme but had no known grave. It is a huge and impressive structure standing proudly on a remote hillside, built of Accrington brick and Portland stone. The twin flags of Great Britain and France fly from the highest tower.
On the 1st July this year there was a huge ceremony at Thiepval to commemorate the battle, and the Royal British Legion, in association with Commonwealth War Graves Commission decided to hold a service on each of the next 141 days – the duration of the conflict. An individual soldier would be honoured on each day, and the family were asked if Major Cedric could be included. It was a great honour, and the date was arranged to coincide with our visit to Ginchy.
If the Somme valley had shown itself to us in its late-summer splendour the evening before, it provided stereotypically torrential rain as we drove that Sunday morning from Amiens. The clouds clung to the earth and the rain battered the road, reducing our visibility to a matter of feet. Cars crawled along, hugging the edge of the road, with plumes of spray cascading into the muddy fields. This was the Somme of the history books – a reminder of why we were there. And yet, as we drove towards the great memorial modern life carried on. People hurried out of the boulangeries with bread tucked under their arms, and farmers drove tractors through the mud. Life had been this way before the wars, and will be the same for hundreds of years to come.
We met up with Mary and Pip in the car park, and then with the rest of the family in the visitor centre. Outside the weather began to relent and as the time approached for the service itself the rain had passed, although a strong wind continued to whip across the hill.
Proceedings were conducted by a splendid gentleman in a bowler hat, who must have been a colour sergeant in his military days. His delivery was to the point and without fuss, but he commanded respect. There was a goodly crowd present, and many had come to honour their own family members including a lady who sung La Chanson de Craonne. She had not planned, or been invited to sing, but was so moved by the experience of being at Thiepval that she felt she needed to do something. Her performance, unaccompanied, was haunting in its simplicity and sincerity:
Adieu la Vie
Adieu toutes les femmes
C’est bien fini
C’est pour toujours
De cette guerre infâme
C’est à Craonne sur la plateau
Qu’on doit laisser sa peau
Car nous sommes tous condamnés
C’est nous les sacrifiés
After the song, we bowed our heads briefly in prayer and then Marion gave an address about Cedric. It was a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully read. Suddenly I felt as if I knew Cedric as a person. Throughout my childhood I have seen him only as a tired, mournful, scared soldier looking at me from a sepia photograph, but now I knew that he was a brilliant scholar who read law at Cambridge and played the cello, as well as coxing his college eight, before joining up to do his duty for King and Country.
As Marion made her way down the steps, so Mark took her place, resplendent in his Naval uniform complete with medals.
He stood at the microphone and boldly intoned the Ode to Remembrance:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
As the words drifted away, a bugler played The Last Post and never has it sounded more poignant. In the two minutes’ silence that followed a rope, attached to an unused flagpole, was tugged by the strong wind, and created a rhythmic clang almost as if a single bell was tolling for the dead. In that setting it seemed as if everything held significance; everything was a metaphor.
The silence was brought to an end by the bugler and the sergeant called for the younger generation of our party to lay a wreath of poppies and cornflowers. After Tom, Joff and Peter returned to the group, so others were invited to lay their tributes to their own relatives.
The colour sergeant brought the formal proceedings to a close and the crowd slowly dispersed, almost not wanting to leave this beautiful and moving place. As we returned to our cars and made our various ways home, I am sure that each of us felt privileged and proud to have been there.
For me I now feel much more connected to a relative who hitherto has existed in relative obscurity. I also feel as if I understand a little more about the Battle of the Somme and the terrain upon which it was fought. I think of the world of terror in which we live today, and realise that our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations lived through much darker times. Yet we are still here: still laughing, still crying, still loving, still working. There are so many lessons to be learned from history: let’s just make sure that we learn the right ones.