Remembrance Tour, October 2021: In the Footsteps of Jim Cross and the 276th Brigade RFA on the Western Front from 1915-18
Jim Cross (1891-1963) was a gunner who lived in Bamber Bridge near Preston and joined the artillery in 1915. He fought, with the 55th Division, through to the Armistice without mishap (apart from seeing friends die). His was a war to be remembered, because it is typical of so many. He did not write a book. He left no memoir or even a collection of letters home. He did not talk of his experiences. He was awarded no gallantry medals but received his due of service medals, and army archives show an unblemished record. As a gunner he didn’t ‘go over the top’ but he was in range of enemy shell fire, counter barrages, most of the time he was attending his guns. He was undoubtably a skilful soldier and brave man. His very anonymity speaks of the thousands like him who ‘did their bit’. He was promoted to sergeant in 1918, proof of his ability and competence. He had worked in a local mill before the war but afterwards work was scarce and he made a hard living as a jobbing labourer. We know he was refused a disability allowance but not why. He was discharged in 1919.
That we know of his war is entirely due to his grandson, Mark Dickinson. He unearthed a trove of facts about his career, where he went and with which unit he served. And Cross fought in pretty well every major campaign and battle on the Western Front: the list is a roll call of famous names. Arras, Givenchy, Pilkem Ridge, Menin Road, Hooge, Cambrai, Messines, Railway Wood, Somme, Ypres, the Kaiser’s Offensive…
In September 2021, together with Mark’s son Martin, we toured the places where Jim had fought, places – often the exact spots – which Mark had discovered through extraordinary diligence. Sometimes we stood in the very gun pit where Jim had stood. And looking down we saw the unexploded shells of a 4.5 or an 18 pounder. Which were treated with respect.
We were the first English tourists back in Ypres and the Somme and it was strange to be utterly alone at the preserved battlefield of Beaumont Hamel. We were the only English at the Menin Gate ceremony, where we laid a wreath in honour of Sgt. Cross. And we were the only English at the moving ceremony, an entirely French tribute, at the ‘Plugstreet’ Memorial where the ‘Ode’ is read in French and English and afterwards all repair to the estaminet across the road for cognac. No one was with us at the craters of the Salient, now silent ‘pools of peace’.
Mark Dickinson had also researched his father, Frank, a gunner like his father; he fought at Dunkirk in 1944. We took a light aeroplane over the evacuation beaches and saw the place where Gunner Dickinson fired his 25 pounder into the Dunkirk garrison. Next year we shall be retracing his steps in Normandy.