In 2011 I went to France, with my old schoolfriend Clive, researching some of the First World war battlefield sites for my next book. Though I had been on an excellent tour two years previously, organised by the North Lancashire Branch of the Western Front Association, this one was much more personal. Not least, it allowed me, for the first time, to visit the grave of my grandfather, Charlie Payne, at Terlincthun Cemetery on the northern edge of Boulogne.
Travelling by Eurotunnel, it was only a short run down the coast from Calais, and was an emotional start to a most rewarding visit. We then moved on to Arras which proved to be an ideal centre from which to visit the sites we wanted to see in Picardy, including those relevant to the Battle of Cambrai (November 1917), and the Defence of Bucquoy (during the German Spring Offensive at the end of March 1918). Wherever we travelled, the numerous military cemeteries, beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, provided a constant reminder of the tragic loss of young lives during the conflict. Nonetheless these cemeteries, however large, do not fully prepare you for the scale of losses recorded at the two main memorials to the missing (men with no known grave), at the Menin Gate at Ypres (Ieper), where the names are listed of some 54,800 men from the Commonwealth, and at the Thiepval memorial where the names of about 72,000 British and South African servicemen are recorded as missing during the Battle of the Somme (July to November 1916). Though I had previously been to both locations, Clive had not. We attended the daily 8.00 p.m. Menin Gate ceremony which was crowded with people of all ages. On the night we visited, a Welsh male voice choir added to the experience. Two days later at Thiepval, pouring rain and low cloud added a poignant and depressing reminder of the range of conditions under which our ancestors fought and died.
My grandfather's grave, like all the others, carries few words. His gravestone gives the basic facts "235435 Lance Cpl. Charles Fredrick Payne. Duke of Wellington's Regt. 11th February 1919". To these, my grandmother had asked for a few words to be added. These were "Ever in our thoughts". He still is.