Remembered on the Somme. Renovated 100 years on. Including an appeal to raise the remaining funds to complete restoration.
How Brian Smith’s interest in private memorials of the First World War on the Somme became a passion to restore one of them
Ever since I first visited the Somme Battlefield back in 1988, I have had a particular interest in the many private memorials. These can be found in the most obscure locations; many of them off the beaten track and far away from the more popular Western Front destinations. Like those to Lieutenant Braithwaite of the 1st Somersets or Major Dickens of the Kensington Battalion have been renovated and moved from their original positions to more prominent locations where people can visit them more easily. Others, like 2nd Lieutenant Marsden-Smedley of the Rifle Brigade, have remained in their original positions and been lovingly cared for by their respected families to the present day.
Captain Herbert Meakin, 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards
One memorial seems to have been forgotten. It has been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair, yet it is probably one of the most impressive of all of the private memorials on the Western Front. It's to Captain Herbert Meakin, 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. Captain Meakin was born in India in 1881 and educated at Oxford before being commissioned into the Coldstream Guards on the 2nd October 1914.
He was promoted to the rank of substantive Lieutenant on the day he died, although he had already reached the rank of Temporary Captain long before. He probably joined the Trench Mortar Battery on its formation in May 1916 and from then on supported the 1st Guards Brigade, which included his original battalion.
Captain Meakin had supported the first Guards attack at Les Boeufs on the 15th September. He was killed ten days later on the 25th September with General Pereira’s 1st Brigade on the right flank parallel to the main Ginchy to Les Boeufs road.
Missing, killed in action 25 September 1916
Quite where he was killed was never established and his body was never recovered after the war. He is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial along with many of his comrades who died in front of Les Boeufs that autumn.
Land bought for a private memorial
After the war, a small plot of land was bought by the family at the approximate location that he was last seen alive. A small wooden cross had been erected over his body after his death, but this had been lost in later battles.
As his parents had died before the war, it was left to his sister to finalise the arrangements for a lasting memorial on the recently acquired land.
The memorial consisted of a stone obelisk mounted on a stepped plinth and concrete base surrounded by iron railings.
The inscription on the memorial reads:
In ever loving memory of Capt. Herbert Percy Meakin
3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards
attached 1st Guards Machine Gun Company
who fell in action during the attack on Les Boeufs
September 25th, 1916
The inscription is in capital letters and wrongly places him with the Machine Gun Company and not his correct Battalion of the Trench Mortars.
A path from the road to the memorial was also purchased by the family so that they would have uninterrupted access to their memorial at all times.
After Captain Meakin’s sister died, it is believed in the 1950’s, the memorial has been looked after by the L’Office Culturel d’Albert. Regrettably over the years they have allowed it to fall into the dilapidated state that the memorial now finds itself in.
Dilapidated and in need of repair - the path overgrown
The writing is now indecipherable; the railings have been torn down, and the footpath leading to the road has disappeared. This has left a rather forlorn and desolate edifice all alone in the middle of a field where no one can get to it. A sad and melancholy monument to a man who gave his life for his country and one that deserves to be renovated and brought back to life in time for the 100th anniversary of his death next year.
I started to take an interest in the Meakin Memorial one very wet and freezing February just before the turn of the last century. I was walking the battlefield on my own from Bulls Road Cemetery near Fleurs towards the Guards Cemetery at Les Boeufs. I knew about the Meakin Memorial but had never visited it close up.
The ground was wet and heavy but with no crops I was soon able to see the top of it as I climbed out of the shallow ravine between Fleurs and Les Boeufs. Making my way over to the memorial I quickly appreciated how badly it had fallen into disrepair.
The ground around the base of the memorial and broken up quite badly, the damage probably caused by farm machinery, which I suspect had also damaged the long removed iron railings. Many winters of wind and water damage had also taken its toll with several large cracks beginning to appear in the stonework. The writing then was indecipherable, and the sorrowful looking memorial matched the weather in creating a gloomy and miserable existence that was not befitting to such a great man.
The family has died out
I didn't give much more thought to the Meakin Memorial for another ten years. Though I took some of my friends and family out to see it and started a photographic library of the memorial, just in case it got damaged beyond repair or worse still, removed.
Then in 2009 I decided to do some investigation into the memorial to see if any of the Meakin family were still alive today.
Research through the many websites that allow you to trace family trees and a visit to the Coldstream Guards barracks opposite the Home Office in London soon confirmed that the family had died out. Attempts to try and contact anyone alive who had any tangible link to the Meakins was unsuccessful.
I then contacted the Commonwealth Wargraves Office in Beaurains to see if they had any input into the memorial. They said that it was the responsibility of the Culturel d’Albert for the maintenance and upkeep. Contact with this office proved to be a challenge, and I was unable to get anyone to confirm that they were responsible for the memorial.
Another visit to Meakin’s Memorial confirmed my suspicions that the edifice was now crumbling and in danger of falling apart unless someone was prepared to take the lead on this matter and try to get it renovated. I was not prepared to let a memorial to a British Officer be lost and decided to take the lead and to see if I could do something to get it rededicated.
The 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme fast approaches
As the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme was fast approaching, and many of the official and private memorials were being freshened up, I knew that there would be an appetite for this sort of thing. I just had to get the wheels turning. So to begin with I went and spoke with the Regimental Adjutant of the Coldstream Guards, Captain Billy Matthews. He confirmed that the regiment were aware of the memorial and that there had been attempts to get the structure moved or rededicated in the past. He advised that if I was able to get the stone refurbished then he would do what he could to involve the Coldstream Guards in whatever way that was possible.
The Marie of Les Boeuf becomes involved
I then contacted the one person who seemed to have any authority over the memorial, and that was M Etienne Dubruque, the Marie of the small commune de Les Boeufs. He showed me the legal deeds to the memorial and the plot of land where it currently stood. Both of us agreed that it would be fantastic if we could get the Memorial rededicated in time for the 100th anniversary of his death on the 25th September in 2016. Therefore, he would arrange a meeting with the landowner to see if he could help in any way.
After that meeting, I went to the site of the memorial and again due to heavy rain I could not get access to see it in person. It was then that I wondered that if we were going to do all this work then why not move the memorial a short distance to the road. In this way, more people would be able to visit it and in any weather. It would not be the first time that a private memorial on the Somme had been moved to a more prominent position close to a road: the Braithwaite and Dickens’ memorials are both good examples of where this has been done in the past. Like Captain Meakin’s Memorial, the original Braithwaite Memorial was in the middle of a field, some distance from the road making it quite impossible to visit most of the year. This was something worth exploring.
I returned to France a few days later to speak in person with the landowner. We visited the site, and I discussed with him the possibility of moving the memorial from its current location to a more dominant site closer to the road. He was very enthusiastic and stated that he would be more than willing to give up a piece of his land next to the road so that we could move the memorial. He would speak with the M Dubruque and see what the legal position would be. I returned home very excited indeed.
A few days later I got an e-mail from M Dubruque. He confirmed that he had spoken with the landowner and was currently drawing up the necessary legal paperwork to have the area where the Meakin Memorial currently stood to a new location, about 50 metres south- west of its current location right next to the road.
Permission to move the memorial secured
I now have this paperwork and can confirm that we now have the legal permission to move the memorial to the south-west corner of its current position next to the junction of the main road and the farm track heading. The amount of land we have acquired is the same square meterage as the current plot of land and the now lost footpath from the road to the memorial.
All I need to do now was find a company who could do the lift and get the Memorial rededicated.
What I did not know was just how difficult this was going to be. After more telephone calls in my broken French than I can remember, even more e-mails and countless photograph sending to various companies I was just about to give up. All the quotes I was getting were in the tens of thousands of pounds and not a sum of money that I could realistically raise. However, a chance conversation with my good friend and respected war historian Johnathan Nicholls led me up a new path. This was a company I had not been in touch with but who had done a great deal of work on the Western front memorials and showed great willing to get involved.
This lead to yet another trip out to see the Memorial with a new pair of eyes. This time, I was with a man who certainly knew what he was talking about and understood the importance of restoring the memorial in time for the big celebrations next year.
I had much greater success this time.
Shortly after I was given a quote that was much more realistic. This was something that I knew I could raise in the time span agreed. If I could arrange for some volunteers to do quite a bit of digging then he would set a new concrete base, move the memorial in its current condition and get the inscription re-engraved (correctly this time) . He'd do this for a total of £8000.00. This was great news indeed.
Everything is in place.
I have the volunteers, I have the workforce, I have the legal documents and the man with the knowledge and machinery to do the project. All I have to do is find the £8,000.
I hope that I have conveyed in this article, that the restoration of this fine memorial to a true British hero is something I am passionate about. So far I have spent a considerable amount of my money travelling to and from France and London getting the project to its current stage. I have spoken with companies such as P&O Ferries, Nat West bank, the BBC and the Lottery Commission about raising the funds necessary to complete the move within the next 12 months.
So far this has proved very elusive and at this time I do not have very much money in the Meakin account which I have set up. I am more than willing to put more of my money into the fund, but I cannot afford the full amount to get the project completed.
I plan to speak with the Coldstream Guards, his old college at Oxford and his school in Kent to see if they are willing to help in contributing towards the cost of the project.
If anyone else would like to make a small contribution towards the project, then I would be very grateful indeed.
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If everyone who is reading this was to donate £2.00 then I would soon have enough funds to complete the project and respectfully restore one of the last and most impressive private war memorials anywhere on the Western Front. If I am successful, then the Marie of Les Boeufs has promised to make the 25th September next year a holiday for the village and will set up a fete for the grand re-dedication.
We will list the name of every contributor who donates more than £10.00. in the programme we are planning to publish for the re-dedication ceremony
The Coldstream Guards will send a senior Officer and possibly a colour party to conduct the ceremony. While the BBC have promised to make sure that the day is covered so that it can be transmitted in the day’s news or possibly as part of a special programme later in the year.
Whatever happens I will keep you all up to date and hopefully get you to join me on the Somme next September for what I hope is a truly memorable rededication to Captain Herbert Percy Meakin.
”Many thanks indeed for reading.”