In World War One, the Accrington Pals Division charged the enemy from their trenches in the Somme. Famously, almost a whole generation of men from that Lancashire town were killed or wounded in a single morning.
Robert ‘Bilko’ Shaw from Northern Ireland uses his Lambretta to retrace the ride of one of the surviving ‘Pals’ and makes a few new ones of his own in the process.
This is the first part of his report.
Before I tell you what I did, it’s important to tell you why I did it.
After an invitation from my brother to the battlefields of France and Belgium in 2016, I was keen to get a taste of a subject I thought I knew something about. My brother has been researching World War One since the late 1970s, visiting the battlefields countless times and has interviewed veterans as well as my grandfather who fought on the Western Front.
By the end of my trip I was humbled. My knowledge of World War One was merely fragments of information and I was to learn some of it was wrong.
I was compelled to delve further into the events of The Great War of 1914-1918 and a book recommended to me by my brother was Martin Middlebrooks First Day of The Somme. In this book there’s interviews taken from veterans of the battle. One such survivor was Private Harry Bloor of The Accrington Pals. He went “over the top” at 7.30 on the 1st of July 1916 and was injured, but he survived the war. You can read about him here. In 1935 he went back to the Somme on his motorbike to the spot where he went over the top and to visit the graves of his friends who died.
So, inspired by his story, I wanted to follow in the footsteps/tyre tracks of Harry Bloor to the Somme.
Planning the trip, I decided to get the Belfast to Birkenhead Ferry and ride to Accrington to visit Harry Bloors grave and then ride south to France and The Somme. Arrangements were also in place to meet up with my brother at Cambrai who was visiting the battlefields. I was also to meet up with one of my sisters and friends from The Genesta Battlefield Club.
Monday 3rd July
This trip was to test my (lack of) navigational skills to the limit. A friend of mine, Alan Terry of Diablo Moto once called me Directionally Dysfunctional. So in an attempt to combat this, I had a Sat Nav, maps of Great Britain, map of France, maps of The Battlefields, Google maps on my phone and printed routes for my aid to reaching The Somme.
After packing as many spares and tools as I possibly could, the total weight of my gear was 112lb (50kg). I set off on Monday 3rd July for the Belfast to Birkenhead boat. This is only 20 minutes from my house and I’ve used this ferry countless times, but I still managed to get lost before I left Northern Ireland.
Tuesday 4th July
After an uneventful night sailing to Birkenhead, my first stop was to PSL Scooters to put the Lambretta on the Dyno. I’d recently rebuilt the engine (TS1230), but found a lean spot around mid range that I couldn’t get rid of. So I thought getting a Dyno would help find the issue. Although the Dyno didn’t manage to sort the issue it did seem to improve the Air Fuel Ratio a bit. My old friend Martin Hyland of Just Lambretta called down from Blackpool to say hello which was more than welcome as I hadn’t seen Martin for a number of years.
Now it was time to move on and head for Accrington. This was where I came across my first problem. A (user error) issue with the Sat Nav. For all my journeys I prefer not to use motorway. I find them monotonous and tend to miss parts of the country you’d otherwise see using A or B roads. So all was well until the Sat Nav was sending me up single track lanes that were clearly a long way from being A or B roads. My TomTom Sat Nav has a “plan a thrill” option. I was using this to avoid motorways, but I’d failed to remember that I had already ticked the “avoid motorways” box in the options.
So after a number of miles riding up single lanes with grass growing down the middle, I reached Accrington Town Hall. By this time the rain that had been a constant threat, came and so problem number two made a very wet afternoon. My waterproofs were not waterproof. First stop at the Town Hall in Accrington where they have a room dedicated to The Accrington Pals.
I found him. Paused for thought and paid my respects. I left Accrington wondering how many locals remembered Harry Bloor and any of The Accrington Pals who gave so much to their town and country. Even those who survived the war had suffered greatly.
My next stop was Mike Phoenix Scooters to drop off a barrel and piston, but the traffic was grim in Manchester and I was never going to make it before he closed, so after a quick phone call Mike arranged for someone to take the barrel and piston from me when I got there.
After viewing the artifacts and mementoes at The Town Hall my last stop in Accrington was the grave of Harry Bloor. It wasn’t far up to The Burnley Road Cemetery and when I got there I asked a gardener if he knew the whereabouts of the grave of Harry Bloor.
He didn’t know and I was surprised. I thought everyone would know of Harry Bloor, but why should they? He was just one of millions of men who fought in World War One. He pointed me to the office where they had all the info on grave locations and the secretary pointed me in the right direction of Harry Bloor’s grave.
Once I left Manchester I was going to head south. With no stop-over sorted I just planned to ride on and stop at a camp site or B&B of my convenience. So now for problem number three. I noticed my headlight was flickering on and off and after failing to ascertain the problem, I decided to find somewhere to stay as soon as possible. By this time I was only as far as Chelford, just south of Manchester. Google maps and a search of camp sites brought up a few in the immediate area, but each campsite call was unanswered. So I phoned a B&B a mile up the road and they had a room. Once I checked in I found problem number 4. My waterproof bag was not waterproof, but luckily I had packed all my things in dry bags.
Wednesday 5th July
I left the B&B around 9.30 for a run of 230 miles south to Portsmouth, giving plenty of time for any mishaps or breakdowns. After a grey start the weather got brighter and warmer as I headed south. Passing through Leamington & Oxford. The journey was pretty much uneventful and I was pleased to get to Portsmouth docks, although a bit early at around half six with the only issue being the sluggishness of the Lambretta and the high temperatures mid range.
I decided to use some of the time to give the Lambretta a check over. Still couldn’t get the headlight sorted, but everything else seemed fine.
Shortly after my arrival a French biker pulled up and we got talking, helped more by his excellent command of the English language rather than my extremely bad French. We got talking to a number of people around us, including someone who collects small cars and was over picking up a little car known as a Bond. A lovely couple who were heading over to France made me a cup of tea and more bikers from France and Germany pulled up and we were all soon chatting, or rather trying to.
My brother was to raise a point regarding my travel. He flies a lot and misses the communication people have when travelling by bike or car, waiting at crossing points like ferries. He was right, although, the Lambretta does sometimes raise an eyebrow and conversation when people ask where you’re going. Although I did find myself reiterating that my mileage pales in significance compared to my fellow Ulster Lambretta Club members and their European trips.
By 11pm, it was soon time to board and the ferry set off to Le Havre…
Words and images: Bilko
We will rejoin Bilko for the next episode in France as he visits the memorials to the fallen…
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