Albert was the main town behind the lines for the Allies nearest to the 1916 Somme battlefields. It lies on the main D929 road that runs east to Bapaume across the Somme battlefields, and west to Amiens in the other direction (although the D929 now diverts to the south around Albert, the original road still runs through it).
For a town at the heart of the Briitsh activities in this region, there are surprisingly few Great War sights to see in Albert. Devastated during the war and rebuilt afterwards, it has to be said that it is not as attractive a city as Ypres. As a base for battlefield touring both accommodation and restaraunts are fairly limited. However, it is an important location on the battlefield, and this page describes what there is to be seen. In terms of the history of the war, Albert came to be associated with the British when their troops took over the lines here in the summer of 1915. After the war, Albert was 'adopted' by Birmingham.
In the centre of Albert is one of the most famous icons for the British in the Great War - the Golden Virgin on top of the Basilica. The golden statue of the Madonna holding aloft her child was visible from far away, and of course was an excellent target for enemy artillery. It was damaged fairly early on, in January 1915, and the statue was knocked from its perch but stayed leaning at an angle before being secured by the French in that position.
The Basilica during the War. Photo: Visa Paris
A superstition grew up that the war would end only when the statue finally fell. It remained, somewhat improbably, in the same position all the time that Albert was in French and then British hands. The Germans advanced into Albert during their Spring Offensive in 1918, and well aware that the tower could be used as an excellent observation point by the Germans, it was British artillery that then deliberately targeted it and the statue finally fell. Albert was retaken by the British (the 8th East Surreys) four months later, but it was another three months after this until the Armistice.
Following the war, the Basilica was rebuilt, and the golden statue replaced, where it dominates the town and can be seen glinting in the sun from quite a distance away from high points around.
Right next to the Basilica is the Abris Museum, part of which is contained in tunnels beneath the town (although these were not apparently in use during the Somme battles).
Not far from the Basilica is the Hotel de Ville, and on the wall by the entrance is a plaque commemorating the Machine Gun Corps. It was unveiled just before the Second World War, and commemorates the 13,791 of the Machine Gun Corps who died, and the 48,258 wounded or missing during the Great War.
On the west side of Albert, on the main D929 leading towards Amiens is a Demarcation Stone. This is one of a series erected by the Touring Clubs of France and Belgium after the war, marking the furthest advance of the Germans. This one shows that the Germans did take Albert, briefly, but they did not hold onto it for long.
Not far from the centre of the town, a little to the south is the town communal cemetery, and located here also is the CWGC maintained Albert Communal Cemetery Extension. Trees are trained against the wall by the road in a way similar to that at Birr Cross Roads Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.
The cemetery register can be found in a small unroofed structure with concrete joists (see above right). The cemetery was started in August 1915 shortly after the British became involved in the fighting in this area. From September 1916, Field Ambulances and the 5th Casualty Clearing Station were based at Albert and used the Cemetery extensively. After the front lines moved following the German withdrawal to the Hindenberg line in early 1917, the cemetery was then hardly used for the rest of the War, although in August 1918 following the change of hands of Albert to the Germans and then back to the British, it was used again. These later graves form Plot 2, which is at the front of the cemetery near the road (seen to the right of the left hand picture above).
There are Second World War graves here as well, bodies recovered from the surrounding area by the French and reburied here. However, the vast majority of graves are First World War, with over 860 from the Great War and 25 from the Second World War. Very few are unidentified, although the register does record 'one man whose unit in our forces is not known'. This may be Captain Hurd-Wood, described in the CWGC records as 'General List, attached 68th Infantry Brigade'.
There are at least two Brigadier-Generals buried here, one being Brigadier-General Henry Clifford, DSO, who died on the 11th of September 1916 when commanding the 149th (Northumberland) Brigade, which was part of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. He was killed by a German sniper when inspecting trenches near Mametz Wood. He was the son of Major-General Sir Henry Clifford who had won the Victoria Cross when serving as a Lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade in the Crimean War in 1854. Brigadier-General Henry Clifford's nephew, Lieutenant Hugh Clifford was killed on the first day of the Somme, and is buried at Ovillers Military Cemetery.
There are interesting stories behind many of the burials here. For instance, there are a couple of mass graves in Plot 1, which can be discerned by the fact that there are several names on each headstone and the headstones are set very close together. One instance is five headstones together set at 90 degrees between Rows D and E. There are three or four names on each headstone, all men from the Essex Regiment who died in late 1915. A central stone has a cross and the regimental insignia on it. There is scant space beneath the names for personal inscriptions, but under the name of Private James Fryer (who died on the 3rd of November 1915, aged just 19) are the words 'God bless our dear boy, rest in peace dear, always in our thoughts for ever'. Can anyone stop and read these words without a lump coming to the throat?
In Row J there is another mass grave, this time containing eleven men from the Royal Garrison Artillery and one from the Royal Army Service Corps. All but one died on the 14th of July 1916, when they were unloading ammunition at Albert and were hit by a German shell. This short run of headstones, this time with the central stone showing both insignia is shown below.
The last headstone in Plot 1 Row S is that of Bernard Wellum who died on the 11th of July 1921, and who is listed in the register as a 'civilian'. Wellum was an Imperial War Graves Commission Employee, who when he died was buried in this cemetery (IWGC staff graves can also be seen at Ypres Town Cemetery Extension). Like many other early IWGC employees, Bernard Wellum fought in the War, serving as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was only 25 when he died. To the left of the CWGC Cemetery in the Communal Cemetery itself are 'blank' CWGC headstones which have been used to mark the burials of local people.
Continuing south-east away from the town centre, on the same road (the D938) is Albert French National Cemetery. There is a faint air of neglect on first impressions: the paint on the gateposts is peeling and the gates creak as they are opened, suggesting that visitors are few. However, once inside the cemetery is well-maintained, with well tended lawns and flower beds, although the plants that line the graves are perhaps not as imaginative as in CWGC cemeteries. There is a register box just inside the gates, and the graves are mainly crosses with a few headstones set back to back. The massive Airbus factory at Meaulte can be seen clearly from here. Right at the back are four walled beds, mass graves containing around 3,000 men, and there is a list of names on a series of tablets.
In the cemetery are the graves of 3,175 French soldiers. There is also one burial which comes under the Commonwealth War Graves Commission - that of Wing Yuk Shan of the Chinese Labour Corps, who died in December 1918.
Right on the eastern outskirts of Albert is Bapaume Post Military Cemetery. This can be found beside the main D929 road just after a roundabout as you head out of the town. The cemetery was started early in July 1916, after the village of La Boiselle was taken. Just over 150 men were buried here between then and the end of January 1917, when the cemetery was closed for wartime burials. The location of the cemetery is on the west side of Tara Hill, and another 250 or so graves were brought in after the Armistice, many being men of the 34th Tyneside Division who attacked further along the Bapaume road from here on the 1st of July 1916. It was the 101st and 102nd Brigade which attacked near here, and Lieutenant-Colonels Lyell and Sillery commanding battalions in the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade died along with their men that day and like many of their men are buried here. There are also three special memorials to men known to be buried here to the left just inside the trestle gate to the cemetery.
An early photograph of this cemetery perhaps helps explain why, in some cases, there are odd grave layouts in original war cemeteries. The register states that memorials were erected within the cemetery by the 14th Canadian Battalion and the 7th Field Company, Australian Engineers. These memorials are long gone, but the spaces they occupied between graves remain. The original photo below shows both these memorials; the large wooden cross in the centre commemorates the Australian Engineers, whilst the white cross on the right of the picture (larger than the others around it) commemorates the 'Officers, N.C.O.s and men of the 14th Canadian Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) who fell near this spot'.
Bapaume Post Military Cemetery just after the War. Photo: R. Lelong
The same view today
After this webpage was originally published I was contacted by Michel Gravel, who made me aware of the existence of a war time photograph of the Royal Montreal Regiment memorial at Bapaume Post, held by the Library and Archives Canada. This shows the memorial in clear detail, and Michel also told me that the brass plaque from the memorial (which the soldier is looking at) can still be seen today: it now hangs over the bar in the Royal Montreal Regimental Mess in Westmount, Quebec.
The Royal Montreal Regiment memorial in Bapaume Post Military Cemetery during the War. Photo from the Library & Archives, Canada
This part of the cemetery was where the original war time burials were made, and as the memorials are no longer there (but presumably were when the additional graves were concentrated here after the Armistice), there are now gaps between the graves in the row (Plot 1 row I) where they used to stand, as can be seen in the picture below.
Two names on the crosses in the old postcard shown above can be read with the help of a magnifying glass. Both are from the Canadian Field Artillery: Lieutenant Kitto and Bombadier Major. Lieutenant Alec Kitto (originally from England) was serving with the 12th Canadian Field Artillery when he was killed in action on the 16th of September 1916. On that day, the 12th Canadian Field Artillery were based at La Boiselle. They were firing on German positions north-west of Courcelette supporting an attack by the 3rd Canadian Division. At 3 pm, a Gunner who had been sent with Lieutenant Kitto to liaise with the 25th Battalion reported that Lieutenant Kitto had been killed by a sniper on his way there.
Arthur Major held the rank of Acting Bombadier with the 7th Canadian Field Artillery when he died just over two months after Kitto. The 7th Canadian Field Artillery had spent the month of November 1916 near Courcelette, some three miles along the D929 towards Bapaume. This unit's War Diary is unusual in that it lists Other Rank casualties by name. On the 19th of November, the diary entry reads 'Hostile artillery shelled our back country fairly vigorously during day. Battery positions received some attention', and goes on to record that Bombadier A.C. Major of 25th Battery was killed by an 'air burst' over their guns. Bapaume Post was obviously used by the Canadian unit, as an officer, Lieutenant Allen Oliver had been killed at Courcelette the day before and is also buried here.
There is an anomaly in the CWGC records of these two burials. The register (and the online records) list Major as buried in grave J8, and Kitto in grave I9. But their graves are next to each other, just before the space where the two memorials used to stand (see above). Perhaps at one point there was a row J, but now both graves are in row I, the last row in Plot 1. It may simply have been a transcription error.
It is not far from here (along the D929 towards Bapaume) to the position of the front lines on the 1st of July 1916 at la Boiselle.
Sources & Acknowledgements
Commonwealth War Graves Commission website
Michel Gravel for information on the Royal Montreal Regiment memorial
Gerald Gliddon: Somme 1916
Library and Archives Canada
Major & Mrs. Holt: Battlefield Guide to the Somme
Chris McCarthy: The Somme - the day by day account
Martin & Mary Middlebrook: Somme Battlefields
The Times online archives