Thursday, 22 February 2007

Heilly Station

When I'm in France I try to visit some of the places that were home to Casualty Clearing Stations and hospitals during the Great War. They are now quiet retreats, and off the route normally taken by visitors to the battlefields, giving no hint of what toil and drama took place there. One of my favourites [if that's the right word] is Heilly Station, situated at Mericourt-l'Abbe, just north of the River Somme, and about 6 miles south-west of Albert. In July 1916, during the first days of the Battle of the Somme, the CCSs at Heilly were closest to the battlefield, but the last on the route taken by ambulance trains on their journey taking casualties back to hospital. They admitted thousands of men during those first few days, but the shortage of trains meant that no casualties could be evacuated for more than 72 hours. During that time, the death toll at Heilly was so great, that to save both time and space, men were often buried on top of each other, three to a grave. As there was so little room on each headstone for three names, the regimental badges of the soldiers had to be omitted, and instead the insignia of 117 separate units are incorporated into a cloister and screen wall at one end of the cemetery.

Heilly today seems a hauntingly sad place, in countryside that looks untouched by tragedy. But life goes on, and when I was there last year, the station-master was proud to tell us that his station is on the present day route of the TGV [Train Grand Vitesse] and also sees the Orient Express go through twice a week [once each way], although neither actually stop there. No more casualties in or out of Heilly Station! He also said that field walking constantly turns up mementoes of those wartime days.

So here is Heilly today, the station; the site of the casualty clearing stations, and the military cemetery, the last resting place of 2,890 Commonwealth soldiers, and 83 Germans.
Just click on the photos to enlarge them


Heilly Station today - some of the smaller buildings were there during the Great War






And the view behind the station towards the fields that were home to three casualty clearing stations in 1916







Those vast expanses of land, so peaceful now, and giving no hint of a desperate former life







At the end of the site is the British cemetery






This is one of the many single graves containing three burials, but no room for regimental badges








And the cloister wall, with some of the 117 badges which couldn't be included on the headstones





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18 comments:

  1. Heilly Station is one of my favourite cemeteries, too. It's very hard to imagine what it must have been like in those first few days of July 1916 - it's such a peaceful place now. I noted a couple of nice inscriptions - . Sapper David Simpson Australian Engineers 'In that distant land/will some kind hand/ lay a flower/on his grave for me'. Gunner AAB Mackie Aust. Field Artillery age 21 “My laddie/ ‘tis but the casket buried/ the gem is sparkling yet'. Auberge Fleurie in the village is a good place to stay.

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  2. Jean

    I have a photo of Sapper Simpson's grave, and a little personal story about it - when I'm back home on Sunday I'll post it.

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  3. My great uncle, Samuel Moliver is buried there and we went last month to visit. We left some details in the records box.

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  4. Claire Needham (nee Rawlins)7 July 2010 at 15:57

    My great uncle, William Rawlins is buried there. I've seen many graves but was strangely comforted by the fact that he wasn't on his own - so young, he must have been terrified as he tried to fight for his life.

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  5. Hello all. My great uncle is buried there and I wish to visit the cemetery early in 2011. The trouble is I can find no way of getting there via public transport? and only just now from reading this page have I discovered trains no longer stop at the station. Does anyone know how I can get there without paying a fortune for tours or hiring a car.
    Email asap gregjones1971@gmail.com
    Thanks...

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  6. Greg - the post above mentions that neither the TGV nor the Orient Express stop there any more, but 'normal' trains do stop. In general, public transport on the Somme is very sparse, but you can get to Heilly by train from Paris via Amiens, and possibly other ways as well. I'd check out the Rail Europe web site, and also 'The Man in Seat 61' (Google will find them)

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  7. Thanks for this Jean - My great Uncle Andrew is the AAB Mackie you mention. Have jsut been looking at a photo of him! Liz

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  8. hi my great uncle is buried there , arther william skilton 1 st battalion royal west kent regiment me and my mum and sister plane to go there and visit . wayne sutton surrey uk

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  9. Are there any tours i could book to visit the cemetery or do i have to make my own way.As my great uncle is buried there,i have a photograph of his headstone but would love to visit and see it.

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    1. Forgive me for barging in on this correspondence but I too have a great uncle buried at Heilly Station Cemetery.
      Did you manage to find a tour operator that would visit here?

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  10. Malcolm - There are lots of companies that do tours of the battlefields in France and Flanders and a web search will find many. Maybe they can advise you if they do tours that include Heilly

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  11. My great uncle , Absalom Randle 7th Bn Leicestershire Regiment, is buried there. I am hoping to go and pay my respects this year. My grandma lost 2 brothers in WW1. The other, Thomas Randle, is commemorated at the Loos Memorial.

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  12. I too have a great uncle buried in Heilly Station cemetery.
    Bertram Bowers, he too was in the Leicestershire regiment and killed in 1916 aged 25.
    I am hoping this year to visit this cemetery but as yet have not found a tour company that visits here.
    Only closest is the village of Albert by one company.
    Did you make your own way by train/taxi or drive? just curious as what to do.

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    1. Hello Alan
      We are going on a trip with Rifleman Tours. They are doing a 3 day tour of the Somme battlefields and memorials in July but the organiser has agreed to drive us to the cemetery to pay our respects.

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    2. Hello Michele,
      Thank you for your reply.
      I am sorted out now and go in October.
      Have a good trip.

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  13. Alan - I'm not sure this is the best place to seek advice. Can I suggest that you register and ask the question on the Great War Forum where there are many experienced travellers who might be able to answer your question.

    http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php

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    1. Thank you Sue, I will do that.

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    2. Thank you Sue,
      I will do that.

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