Lochnagar Crater new ownership – 1st July 1978

Richard Dunning and The Lochnagar Crater Foundation

“It is now over 40 years since I have had the great privilege, and the challenge, of owning the Lochnagar Crater and more recently creating the charitable Foundation.”

“In 1978, the Lochnagar Crater was in danger of being filled in, as the smaller sister mine Y Sap had been in 1974. When news of the purchase emerged, many dozens of veterans with personal experiences of the Crater got in touch. That was such a privilege to get to know many of them.

Often I travelled with them to Lochnagar, to stand beside them as they told their stories, and despite it being over six decades before, they would often quietly weep. It soon became clear that the Crater was far more than just an historic, archaeological or military site.”

To read more about Richard and the events leading up to his purchase of Lochnagar, see Tonie and Valmai Holt’s article in this March/April 2017 Western Front Association Bulletin.

Western Front Association Bulletin 107
Richard Dunning MBE © David Bailey

Over the years, the vision of Lochnagar’s true role has slowly evolved and today, with the launch of the Lochnagar Crater Foundation, it is clear.

This massive wound on the battlefield of the Western Front remains a stark testimony to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ yet its now-peaceful atmosphere is the perfect setting to pause and reflect on the horrors of war.

The Lochnagar Crater is an awesome sight. I first saw it in the early 1970s and even today, hundreds of visits later, it never ceases to take my breath away.

I believe Lochnagar plays a unique role in fostering a very special spirit of peace and reconciliation, especially for all those who are drawn to visit the Crater and stand on the lip for the first time. Only then can we begin to understand the trauma of war and the fearsome power and destructive force of modern warfare.

I have always, along with countless visitors, sensed a unique feeling of compassion and connection with those who fought and fell there. There is a special spirit of fellowship that unites all who visit – and all who seek solace at the unimaginable suffering, the sacrifice, and some say the futility of that conflict.

I believe that that war especially was a stain on mankind and Lochnagar, in some small way, whilst remaining a vast, open wound on the battlefield, symbolises the eternal pain, loss and sorrow of millions of grieving people throughout Europe and beyond. A lost generation of good, gifted and innovative young men and women whose loss we still feel today.

I urge you to come and stand at Lochnagar and, in doing so, commemorate those who fell there. But to do so, not simply by remembering them, but by seeking to make the world that they were so cruelly denied a much more peaceful, forgiving and loving place. In their memory and in their honour.

That is the true and on-going legacy of Lochnagar. And possibly, if enough of us do that today and in the years to come, its creation may not have been entirely in vain.

Not everyone will agree with this of course, and that is their right, but whilst Lochnagar is privately owned the integrity of that aim will never be compromised by personal profit or publicity.

Finally, I am forever grateful for the continued understanding, kindness and hospitality of our many French friends, including the ever-helpful local Mayor and Commune and our good friends at the Sous-préfècture.

Below is how The Lochnagar Crater Foundation will unfold in the coming years, with the Foundation and its Trustees ensuring its long-term future. It is, and always has been, a journey and its next chapter is as bold and challenging as the first.
These six aims will be the primary focus of the Foundation in the coming years.

Richard Dunning MBE

The Six Aims of the Lochnagar Crater Foundation

CONSERVATION – Unlike virtually all Western Front battlefield sites, Lochnagar currently receives no official financial support from governments or organisations. The enormous sums needed have to be raised entirely from donations.
Additionally, it takes many hundreds of hours annually by dedicated volunteers of the Friends of Lochnagar to carefully maintain the site so that visitors may fully appreciate its breath-taking size and its unique panoramic views of the July 1st battlefield.

EDUCATION – To encourage research and the gathering and sharing of facts, insights and memories relating to Lochnagar and to the wider aspects of that conflict and to provide schools and colleges with resources during their visit.

COMMEMORATION – We hold annual Remembrance Ceremonies on the anniversary of the creation of the Crater on 1st July, on Armistice Day, 11th November and also on 28th June, the anniversary of the signing of the Peace Treaty in 1919. All are welcome.

INSPIRATION – Countless visitors over the past 40 years have said that the powerful and poignant emotions evoked by their visit have given them an insight, perhaps for the first time, into the impact of the Great War and all wars, especially within generations of their own family. The ‘wound’ that is Lochnagar invariably speaks to the ‘wound’ that is within many of us, the result of events of over a century ago passed down through families. And these insights can help us understand conflicts between individuals, communities and nations.

TRANSFORMATION – This is the key part of the Lochnagar Vision. Is it enough to simply remember for one day a year? We believe there is another way of honouring those men and women of all nations who strove for peace and who fell in that war. And that is by each of us changing the way we live today – by bringing a little more peace into our lives and into the lives of those around us.

RECONCILIATION – Lochnagar has the power to inspire and bring together like-minded people of all nations who wish to honour and remember the fallen in a spirit of peace and goodwill.

Some questions often asked:

“It’s a long story. In the early 1970s, I was in the States travelling on my own and stuck overnight in the Greyhound terminal in downtown Chicago amidst the smoking remains of recent terrible riots. (If all that sounds exotic let me say that until that time I had never travelled anywhere abroad.)

It was 3am, I was sat in the corner on my bag, very anxious, having recently been the victim of an attempted mugging and assault. I took out the only book I had with me which was John Masefield’s superb ‘The Old Front Line’ and, for some reason when I came to a few lines about the Crater the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

I returned to New York that night, next day flew to London and the day after that got in my battered old Hillman Imp and drove to the Somme. I didn’t know anything about it, didn’t have a map but headed for Albert. I got lost, went up a lane to some high ground to get my bearings, climbed a fence to a small ‘hill’ and to my amazement found myself at the Crater.

It had ‘called’ me over 4,000 miles in four days. In the following years I returned time and time again and invariably it was deserted. I found it a magical, poignant place, rich with memories and atmosphere.

Never thinking I would one day own the Crater, I decided to buy a tiny piece of the Somme battlefield, anywhere, simply just to own a ‘corner of a foreign field’.

I wrote over 200 letters to mayors, solicitors, newspapers etc, stating that I wished to buy a small plot of land on the Somme Battlefield. I went to a prestigious firm of solicitors in Westminster and they sent out the letter on their hugely impressive engraved letter heading – the thinking being that if someone thought I was both mad and rich it would cause something to happen, but nothing ever did.

In the meantime, I was regularly visiting Lochnagar, often travelling overnight on the ferry to save money and arriving at the Crater just before dawn. Then one day, to my amazement I got a letter from a notaire saying that he had seen one of my letters written over a year before and had in his office a farmer who wished to sell me a piece of land. It was Lochnagar. The farmer was in the office to get permission to fill it in, a fate that befell its sister mine, Y Sap two years previously.

The sale had to be done in utmost secrecy and took a long time but I consider myself enormously blessed and privileged to be its ‘steward’ for this stage of its life and, along with many dear friends to help preserve it for the next generation.”

“On July 1st 1978 I was handed the ‘deeds’ to the Lochnagar Crater in an informal ceremony at the site. This followed years of searching and negotiations – not just with the vendors, who were most helpful throughout but mainly with the Bank of England who were not helpful as they said the sale of the site ‘created a dangerous precedent’ and added a 50% surcharge to the price!’ This was decades before buying property in France became commonplace.

The day after the sale, the BBC did a small piece on the radio news about it and the result was that I received several hundred letters, many from veterans who had personal memories of Lochnagar. Getting to know them all, via personal visits, letters or telephone calls was one of the greatest privileges of my life. With friends, we managed to bring several over to the battlefields and to hear their evocative experiences first-hand was priceless.”

“I am often asked how much I paid for Lochnagar (especially by the young). I have never told anyone, nor ever will. All the accountants and solicitors involved are no longer with us.”

“In the summer of 1915 the British troops took over the trenches from the French Army on much of the Somme. At La Boisselle there was a battalion – the 7th Gordons, formed mainly from Deeside with many soldiers being former workers on the Balmoral Estate. An officer went round naming all the trenches after familiar landmarks and towns, with Lochnagar being the name of the mountain not far from Balmoral.”

“We will never know for sure although in the 1980s a veteran recalled entering German dugouts close to the south-west corner of the site. Inside were scores of seated German soldiers all apparently unmarked yet killed instantly by concussion from the explosion. The dugouts were sealed and will forever remain so.

The Crater itself was used as a temporary resting place immediately after the battle and often with a Chaplain present, many hundreds of British bodies were placed in it before re-burial elsewhere. Inevitably, with the constant heavy shellfire focused on the Crater some bodies were covered by debris and are there to this day. In 1999 the remains of Private George Nugent of the Tyneside Scottish Northumberland Fusiliers were disinterred and today a small cross commemorates him and the countless others at Lochnagar who have no known grave.

Yet more lives were lost when the Crater was fought over again in the Second Battle of the Somme in 1918.”