The large cross from Durham Cathedral. Courtesy Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery
Three wooden crosses erected on the bloody battlefield of the Somme in memory of County Durham soldiers have been brought together for the first time in 80 years.
The inscribed crosses were put on the white chalk top of the Butte de Warlencourt in memory of Durham Light Infantry soldiers who died in a failed attack on the hill in November 1916. They remained there until 1926, when they were brought back to the county and given to three different churches.
Now, as part of a special exhibition to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, they are on display together at Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery. They are joined by archival material that is seldom seen by the public, relating to personal stories of some of the 130 Durham soldiers who died in the attack the crosses commemorate.
“Someone must have gone out and seen the crosses, and that they were beginning to rot, standing as they had been on this hill for nine or ten years,” explained Steve Shannon, Manager of the museum and art gallery. “They came back here in the autumn of 1926 and ended up in three churches in County Durham which represented the areas where the soldiers came from.”
Gallant officers are remembered on this cross, usually sited at St Andrew's Church, Bishop Auckland. Courtesy Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery
One went to St Andrew’s Church, South Church, Bishop Auckland, another to Chester-le-Street Parish Church and the third, and largest, to the Regimental Chapel at Durham Cathedral.
The latter presented an unexpected problem. When removed from its stand in the chapel, it was found to be over 9ft tall – the lower third of its length having been concealed.
“We had planned to put the three together, like a Calvary, but we couldn’t stand the large one vertically!” said Steve. “The others seem to have been cut down, perhaps because parts of them were rotten.”
The tall cross is laid horizontally in the exhibition, entitled The Somme Remembered. Running until July 16 2006, it’s the first exhibition of its kind to be held at the museum, telling as it does not the story of the battle, but of the individuals who fought it, through original letters, diaries, photographs and trench maps loaned from Durham County Record Office.
"Dulce et decorum est pro Patria mori" (it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country) comes from a line of Horace and is the title of a Wilfred Owen poem. Courtesy Durham Light Infantry Museum and Durham Art Gallery
Steve cites a letter from a Gateshead soldier to his brother. Robert Constantine wrote to his brother on September 4, 1916: “The sooner this is over and I’m back home the better. I am getting properly fed up sick of the damn job, but it’s no use grumbling, I’ll have to stick it.”
Constantine was killed in action 11 days later.
Letters and telegrams saved by the family of young soldier Austin Wallace, recounting how he was shot in both legs – one of which had to be amputated to stop the spread of gangrene – serve as another poignant reminder of the traumatic effect of the war on both those fighting and their families at home.
Visitors can also see material relating to the composer George Butterworth, including a rare photo of him in uniform.
Interpretation boards from the exhibition will go on to Durham Cathedral after July 16, where they will remain until September. For details of accompanying talks, see the museum listing below.