Pause as you view the Crater from the wooden walkway. Beneath your feet, you’ll find small plaques bearing names. Each name was a husband, son, brother, father or uncle, or – in rare cases – a daughter, mother, wife, aunt or sister. And each one reaches across the generations.
For example, if you wander on the walkway from the Cross in an anti-clockwise direction, you’ll soon find three plaques side-by-side.
One is dedicated to:
Gunner Charles Hunt died during the Second Battle of Ypres, where he lies in the Ypres Town Cemetery Extension.
He experienced the first use of gas by the Germans, and was killed by shellfire.
He came from Cheshire, but had married a Norfolk girl and lived in Great Yarmouth. He was 38 when he died.
The neighbouring plaque reads:
Private John Balls also came from Great Yarmouth. In early 1916, according to research by Norfolk military historian, Dick Rayner, he was in the trenches in Sub-Sectors E2 and E3 at La Boisselle.
From there, he sent one of the strangest requests to a newspaper:
“We have the good old Yarmouth Mercury sent out to us every week, and see other chums have luxuries sent out to them… I think a little gift like this would help us along, and also a real Yarmouth kipper would help a dry biscuit go down”.
Private Balls was killed when a dug-out in a reserve line near Regina Trench was shelled. He was struck by a falling piece of timber. He was buried but the grave was lost in subsequent fighting, and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.
He was 28, and left behind a wife, Ada, and daughter, Jennie. His commanding officer told Ada: “He was a good comrade and a soldier who never shirked his duty and we shall miss him very much”.
The third plaque remembers:
Private William Lively came from a small village called Clifford Chambers by the River Stour just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where his father was parish clerk.
He joined up in March, 1915, and had been in France only three weeks before he was killed near High Wood.
He too had a battlefield burial but the grave was lost, and his name is on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. He was 31 when he died.
Three men who did not know each other. Three deaths at different times and in different places.
So why are their names remembered on plaques side-by-side at Lochnagar Crater?
Because, more than a hundred years after they died, they are linked together by their descendants.
John Balls’ grand-daughter, Elizabeth, married Charles Hunt’s grandson, Peter Cook, and the couple live at Framingham Earl near Norwich. And they have a dear friend, David Richardson, who lives in Norwich; David is William Lively’s great nephew.
All three have explored the battlefields together, including Lochnagar Crater – within a few yards of where John Balls sent his plea for Yarmouth kippers.
They have seen two of the names on the Thiepval Memorial, and Peter has visited his grandfather’s headstone in the cemetery at Ypres.
Elizabeth says it’s poignant to see the names together on the walkway:
“For most of my life my grandfather was just a face on an old sepia photograph. My mother never knew her father and I guess the subject was too painful to talk about for my grandmother.
“However, we now have a fuller picture of my grandfather. I’ve been able to share his story with my sons, one of whom has already been to the Thiepval Memorial to find his great-grandfather’s name inscribed there.
“Now on Remembrance Sunday each year I remember the man and not just his photograph, and with the help of these plaques these brave men’s names will live on”.
The plaques are created and installed by two long-standing Friends of Lochnagar, Bob and Joy Podesta. The scheme began in 2014 and so far around 750 have been attached to the walkway, with nearly a hundred in the pipeline.
“Whilst working at the Crater we met many people who wanted a way to remember relatives – not only those who were killed and also the many who served and survived; my grandfather, for example, was killed at Arras, but Joy’s served at Gallipoli and the Somme, yet lived until his 90s. Both deserve to be remembered.
“We thought it would be fitting if the plaques could be in memory of any veteran. We have British, French, German, Australians and others, soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, those who died and those who survived. They’re laid randomly, friend and enemy side by side in the spirit of reconciliation”.
If you want to sponsor a plaque, you can usually pick up a form at the Crater, or if the dispenser is empty go to the Lochnagar Crater website: www.lochnagarcrater.org/SponsorshipForm.pdf
Lochnagar Crater Today will carry stories about the people commemorated by plaques on the walkway in each edition. If you have a story you’d like to share, please contact Rob Kirk, the Editor. His contact details are at the end of this edition.