Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum volunteer and military history expert Michael Orr has written this guest blog about the adoption of Ovillers-La Boisselle.
A hundred years ago the city of Gloucester adopted the twin villages of Ovillers-La Boisselle in northern France. This was long before modern town-twinning initiatives and was a consequence of the devastation caused along the Western Front in the First World War. A wide stretch of land was covered in trenches and shell-holes, rusting barbed wire and unexploded shells. In the worst areas (the “Red Zone”) hardly a building survived. Some villages were just piles of brick-dust. In the UK The British League of Help for the Devastated Areas in France was launched to help regenerate these areas. British towns were encouraged to adopt French communities where their local regiments had fought. Birmingham, Bristol and Evesham had already selected French communities when Gloucester council began discussing whether to join the project in late 1920. Several villages were considered before the final choice was made. The Gloucester Territorial battalion, 1st/5th Gloucesters, had fought around Ovillers and La Boisselle for several weeks in July and August 1916. Ovillers was a key strongpoint in the German front line at the start of the Battle of the Somme straddling the main road between Albert and Bapaume. It was only captured after several days of bitter fighting in which the 8th Gloucesters played a major role and their commanding officer, Carton de Wiart, won the Victoria Cross for his inspirational leadership. La Boisselle was just a little further up the Bapaume road and once captured was the launching area for a series of attacks supporting the Australian Corps’ attempts to break into the German second defence line. 1st/5th Gloucesters suffered heavy casualties in these attacks and many of their dead lie in the British Military Cemetery at Ovillers.
A delegation led by the Mayor and High Sherrif visited the commune on 10th and 11th April 1921. The delegation fortunately included alderman William Bellows who was the editor of a French dictionary and was able to act as interpreter. They found themselves crossing “the ‘desert’ of the Somme battlefield, shell-holes, waste heaps (villages), cemeteries, mine craters, ruins.” On either side of the La Boisselle were two huge craters caused by mines which were exploded at the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.
Before the war about 260 people had lived in the two villages which had been a prosperous farming area. About half that number had returned and were living in wooden huts, though the land could not be cultivated and they had no livestock. The Gloucester delegation spent most of a day in a meeting with the villagers trying to decide the best way to help them. Finally, it was decided to provide a water supply for the villages, where water from shells holes was often all that was available. Two pre-war wells would be cleaned out and windmill pumps and storage tanks erected so each village would have its own supply point. The Gloucester delegation were then given lunch, though unfortunately they gorged themselves on a first course of bread, butter and radishes believing that was all the villagers had to offer and then struggled to cope with the main course of stewed rabbit and casserole.
On return to Gloucester Thomas & Son of Worcester were contracted to make and install the windmills and pumps and a French company built the storage tanks. The League of Help had arranged that all items sent to France under its programme were exempt from French customs duties and rail and road transport in France was also free. While the pumps were being manufactured other gifts were sent to Ovillers-La Boisselle in this way, including toys at Christmas, prizes for the school sports day and clothing from the Rotary Club. The first pump was installed at La Boisselle in October 1922 in a ceremony attended by the Mayor and Mayoress and the Ovillers pump was operational by June 1923.
The relationship between Gloucester and the two villages continued for some years. The Lord Mayor and High Sheriff led delegations to attend the unveiling of the war memorials in Ovillers in 1925 and La Boisselle in 1927. In 1925 a group from La Boisselle-Ovillers visited Gloucester and were given a civic reception as well as tours of the cathedral, local schools and farms. Today the villages are once again surrounded by green fields and farms with no trace of the devastation seen in the 1920s. However on the edge of La Boisselle there is a field known as the “Glory Hole” where the front lines were only yards apart and which has never been restored because of the old trenches, craters and tunnels which make the ground unstable. Close by the mine crater which impressed the Gloucester delegation in 1922 remains and, as the Lochnagar Crater, is one of the most visited sites on the Somme battlefields.
[To find out more, you can look at the Gloucester Town Clerk’s file about the project, currently referenced GBR/L6/23/B668 – the Town Clerk’s files are being recatalogued at the moment so this reference will change in the fairly near future, but you will still be able to find it on Gloucestershire Archives’ online catalogue – just put the reference into the search box on the front page.]