Having just seen the now much transformed location of the 5th Battalion's first action, it was absolutely fitting that our next port of call would be the Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery, a few kilometers from St. Contest and seven kilometers north west of Caen.
It is in this cemetery that many of the men of both the South and North Staffordshire Regiments who fell during the Charnwood fighting of the 8th and 9th July are buried. Impeccably tended (as indeed are all accessible Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries), I found this again to be very moving as this place brought home the human cost of an action such as Charnwood, the impact of which in 2014 is more or less invisible in the villages in which so much blood was shed. Accounts of the battle in print are all well and good, but facts and figures cannot convey the horrors of war in the way that a cemetery can!
In Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery row upon row of the familiar portland headstones bear the knot of Staffordshire. In fact more than half of the 224 burials in this small plot of land are of Staffords of the 59th Division.
On an trip earlier in the week to the Wellington Quarry (La Carriére Wellington) in Arras I picked up a British Legion cross with the express intention of laying it, as a representative of my Grandfather. in one of the cemeteries most closely associated with the 59th (Staffordshire) Division.
Initially, I planned to lay the tribute in the Divisional cemetery further to the south in the Fontenay-le-Pesnel, but after our recent encounter in St. Contest a grave in the Cambes-en-Plaine Cemetery seemed to be the right place.
I originally had the idea to locate the grave of an unknown soldier of the South Staffordshire Regiment upon which to place the poppy. However, in contrast to the cemeteries of The Great War with which I am much more familiar, the war cemeteries in Normandy do not contain the graves of many unknown soldiers. This reflects the differences in the campaigns that were fought. In World War I many of the battlefields on the Western front formed the front line on more than one occasion with the result that established cemeteries from earlier engagements were disrupted as the war once again pased through. The remains of soldiers were disinterred to the extent that at the point of battlefield clearance many remains were unidentifiable. In contrast, the fighting in Normandy was nowhere near as static which meant that those who were killed in action had a far better chance of being positively identified and so named with regiment, rank and number on the headstone.
As the weather started to turn for the worse...... always the most appropriate weather for a garveyard I think, I perused row upon row of headstones in my search for the elusive unknown Staffordshire warrior. In the end I admitted defeat and adopted a different tack. My plan was now to locate a soldier of the South Staffordshire Regiment of the same rank and age as my Grandfather in July 1944 (I go for a bit of symbolism me!). A further fifteen minutes of searching and I had found my man.
The engraving on the headstone reads as follows:
The additional request would have been at the request of a sweetheart or wife of the dead soldier. These words brought to mind the torment of those at home, such as my Grandmother June Heath, who with no news from the front could only get by on hope that a loved one would remain unharmed to return at a later date.
A cross check with the Commonwealth War Graves Commision records reveals that T. Lee (or Thomas as he was known to his friends and family) was a Lancashire man of the 7th Battalion South Staffordshre Regiment. He was the son of Thomas and Margaret Lee and husband of Elizabeth Ellen Lee of Kirkham, Lancashire.
As part of the 176 Infantry Brigade it is likely that Thomas Lee fell in the fighting on the left flank of the 59th Division's line in the area of La Bijude and Epron.