The story starts during the Baffle of the Somme in July 1916. An intense artillery barrage lasting seven days was laid down, and then the infantry advance was made on 1st July. The small Township of Montauban was captured by the British on the first day, but it had been utterly destroyed. Except, that is, for the statue shown in the photograph from the Daily Mirror, reproduced below.
The cutting containing the picture was found, among my Father, then Lt, F. Gamm's most personal effects. during this period he was serving with the R.A.M.C in the 140th Field Ambulance (41st Division) taking part in the battle. I wondered why it had remained with him for the rest of the war, because he himself had not been involved in the fighting for Montauban.
Whilst working on a completely different project, I sent it, along with other material, to the R.A.M.C. Historian. The following story was sent back to me:-Apparently, after the picture had been taken. the statue of the Madonna was later destroyed, except for her head, this was taken back to England by an enterprising British soldier! Years passed, and it eventually passed to another family, who felt that the head should be returned to Montauban. The R.A.M.C. Historian was consulted and its authenticity was verified. By great good luck, he was about to visit the Somme with a coach load of 1914-18 Veterans. Speedy phone calls were made, firstly to the family Guardian, who was invited along, and secondly to Montauban to ask if the church there could be quietly opened for the party to return the statue's head. The Mayor of Montauban had other ideas....A full Gallic welcome greeted the party of travellers. Flags of both nations flew. Anciens Combattants with banners paraded, Everyone marched to the church which was decorated with flowers, and music played whilst the Madonna's head was restored to a place of honour. Children sang patriotic songs. All proceeded to the British and French cemeteries where national anthems were sung and wreaths laid. A commemorative silence was held in the rain. Tout le Monde then returned to the village where a grand party was held!
I understand that no one in the village could remember the statue in its entirety, and soon enlarged copy of the cutting was sent out to Montauban, where I believe it is still much treasured.
But the question remained - why had my Father so valued this small cutting from a newspaper, and had taken it with him to later battles of the Great War? I believe I now have the answer in a letter which he wrote to his parents. It is the only one I have found in which his containment of his emotions concerning death was ever broken. The letter reveals his feelings on hearing of the death of his lifelong friend, Sgt Harold Cussens, of the 11th Battalion Royal West Kents, (41st Division) in action on the Somme in October 1916.
In fact, Harold had been wounded and treated in a dressing station at Montauban, the same one to which Lt. Raymond Asquith's body was brought by his fellow Guardsmen. He had been sent to hospital in Rouen, but sadly died of his wounds there on October 16th 1916. My Father must have drawn comfort from the knowledge that Harold had perhaps seen the Madonna's statue before he died.
The wheel had turned full circle. Neither Harold nor my Father knew they were in the same Division on the Somme at the same time. Ironically, my Father went on to become Medical Officer to the 11th Battalion Royal West Kents on 15th January, 1917, when the 41st Division had moved on to the Ypres Salient.
Fred Gamm's letter to his parents on hearing of the death of Harold Cussens, his boyhood friend.