Mystery Worshipper: Royal Peculiar
Church: Lochnagar Crater
Location: La Boisselle, Somme, France
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 November 2018, 10:45am
The Lochnagar Crater, which is a short distance south of the village of La Boisselle, was created by an immense explosion in the first minutes of the Battle of the Somme, on 1 July 1916. British sappers had mined 90 feet below the German front line, where they placed 27 tons of explosive. They named their trench Lochnagar Street after a street in London, which name has subsequently been adopted for the crater. At 7.28am on 1 July, the explosive was detonated, hurling earth a mile into the air, destroying 100m of the German front line, which was full of soldiers, and leaving a crater over 20m deep. Altogether, 19 mines were detonated on the first day of the battle, but the Lochnagar explosion was the largest, and was said to have been heard in Britain.
In 1978, the crater was bought by an English advertising man, Richard Dunning, who was made an MBE in 2017 for services to First World War Remembrance. The crater is run by the Lochnagar Crater Foundation, which maintains the site as a place of pilgrimage, peace and reconciliation. They hold two Remembrance events each year: on 1 July to mark the explosion of the mine, and on 11 November, Armistice Day. Each July some 1,500 people attend the ceremony held then, which includes people from around the world as well as the villagers of La Boisselle, who are closely involved in the site.
La Boisselle is a village in France’s Somme department. The area around La Boiselle suffered serious damage during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and in 1914-16 the village lay on the Western Front and so saw intense fighting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The village today is surrounded by gently rolling chalk farmland, and the Lochnagar Crater is in the middle of fields. Several First World War cemeteries and memorials are in the nearby countryside.
The ceremony was led by the Founder and Chairman of the Friends of Lochnagar, who was assisted by the site chaplain. The maire of La Boiselle laid a wreath and also took part in reading a roll call of people who died in the Great War.
What was the name of the service?Armistice Centenary Ceremony at Lochnagar Crater.
How full was the building?
I estimated just over 200 people gathered before the tall wooden cross at the edge of the crater.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I arrived, with rain falling in a cold, blustery wind, a woman armed with little packages came up to my party and asked, ‘Are you OK or would you like a plastic poncho?’ It was a warm and practical welcome.
Was your pew comfortable?
The crater is circled by a well-constructed wooden boardwalk, so I stood on that, near the cross.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Good humoured and chatty under the umbrellas, despite the horrible weather. A fine looking gentleman sporting a long line of medals on his blazer was standing ready with a flag; a bugler stood to one side nursing his bugle in a towel, while two women, one in a World War I khaki uniform, the other in an orange kilt, were looking after their sets of bagpipes.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. We’re going to start with our whistles.’ The whistles had been handed out as we walked up, and we blew them for about a minute to remember the soldiers of 100 years ago, who were called to action out of their trenches at the blast of whistles.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was no book or service sheet. But we were given a leaflet, with the wording of ‘The Lochnagar vow to the fallen’, with a promise to make the world a place of ‘kindness and compassion; understanding and tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation.’ However, we didn’t use the leaflet during the service.
What musical instruments were played?
Two bagpipes, a bugle, a choir of whistles, and a small group of local schoolchildren who shyly sang ‘La Marseillaise.’
Did anything distract you?
Three metal crosses had been set up before us, with a helmet on each: a German Stahlhelm, a British Brodie and a French Casque Adrian. As the children happily scattered thousands of red and blue paper poppies over them and on the wet grass, I spared a thought for the poor soul who was going to pick them all up.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The ceremony was homespun, with an endearing lack of pomposity. The bugler played the ‘Last Post’ to dipped flags, but aside from that, there was no military content. The service included an invitation to collect a lily and bring it up to the cross, which concluded with the whole cross strikingly clothed in white flowers as a message of peace.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 — There wasn’t really a sermon, but the chaplain made a few remarks before leading us in prayer. It was a windy and wet day, and he probably felt the need to project his voice more than normal, but unfortunately this made his tone sound more strident and less pastoral than what was needed for the occasion.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He said, ‘We do not glorify war, but we will not let the stories of these men and women who laid down their lives for us ever be forgotten.’ In his prayer, he said, ‘Grant that we who are here today may pay fitting tribute and honour to their memory and sacrifice, and through remembering them may we bring peace to a world of strife, learning from the sacrifice of an honourable generation.’
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As the ceremony wound down, I could see our two bagpipers warming up, so I went and stood near them. I was wondering if they were going to play the beautiful lament, ‘The Flowers of the Forest,’ but instead they launched into the moving old hymn, ‘Abide With Me.’ I couldn’t help hearing in it the sorrowful voices of the parents of the Great War, calling their lost sons to ‘abide with me.’ I confess it brought me to tears, standing in that field of the Somme.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not hellish, but certainly sobering and poignant, was the roll call as we took lilies up to the cross. The names of those who fell in the conflict included soldiers, nurses, a member of the Chinese labour force, and a Bulgarian officer who died a few days after the armistice. The names were read out in French, German and English.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
To be honest, most people looked lost after the ceremony. Lost in thought, certainly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The maire invited us all back to the mairie in the village for a glass of wine. I was keen to join them, but sadly my party had a train to catch back to Blighty, so we had to skip the Vin d’Honneur.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — Without the rain, make that a 10.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, but it wasn’t intended to. Instead, I felt an aftershock of the Great War, a war that destroyed a whole generation of young people.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Looking out over empty farm fields and seeing the ghosts of the soldiers, trenches and weaponry that once were gathered here.