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The Somme Soldier heads to France ahead of bloody battle

Albert, in France, where Pte Robert Bailey would have spent lots of time. Credit: ITV News Anglia.

Blog by ITV News Anglia's Malcolm Robertson

I'd always wanted to visit the Somme. I've driven through this part of France in the past, but never stopped there.

So the opportunity to follow our Somme soldier to the first World War battlefields was too good an opportunity to miss.

Earlier this year, ITV Anglia presenter Jonathan Wills came up with the idea of a series of features leading up to the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916.

ITV News Anglia reporter Sarah Cooper filming in France for our Somme series. Credit: ITV News Anglia.

My colleague Sarah Cooper was given the task of tracing Raymond Percival of the Northamptonshire Regiment. Mine was Private Robert Bailey of the 8th Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment.

Pte Robert Bailey.

Through discussions with their respective descendants, we were able to build up a picture of their backgrounds; their lives in England before Lord Kitchener got them to sign up for Britain's war effort.

I was particularly indebted to Dick Rayner from Spixworth near Norwich. Dick describes himself as an amateur enthusiast but what he doesn't know about the Norfolk Regiment you could write on the back of a postage stamp. Valuable information that's also been gratefully received by Robert Bailey's family.

Thanks to Dick, I had a list of all the locations he was billeted in after his arrival in France in July 1915. He was one of 13 children. Six of the nine boys fought in the Great War. Two of Robert's brothers - George and Ernest - were also in the 8th battalion.

Private Robert Bailey was in the machine gun section of the Norfolk Regiment. In the months leading up to July 1st, his training would've become much more intense. In his excellent book 'The First Day of the Somme,' Martin Middlebrook refers to British soldiers marching past huge trenches being dug in readiness for mass burials. One can only imagine their thoughts.

What immediately strikes you on the drive through the small villages around Albert is the sheer number of military cemeteries, large and small.

A war cemetery in France. Credit: ITV News Anglia.

They're kept immaculately by the Commonweath War Graves Commission. Rows and rows of white headstones where thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers fell. In the Somme area alone, they lie in no fewer than 400 cemeteries.

In one of them, at Pozieres, is the grave of Claud Castleton.

The grave of Claud Castleton. Credit: ITV News Anglia.

The headstone tells you he was a sergeant in the Australian Machine Gun Corps and was awarded the Victoria Cross, but thanks to Dr John Greenacre, a military historian who lectures at University Campus Suffolk, we discovered his East Anglian roots.

John accompanied us in France. He was able to tell us Claud Castleton was born near Lowestoft, educated in the town and moved to Australia when he was 19.

Military historian Dr John Greenacre. Credit: ITV News Anglia.

John provided a fascinating insight into the planning that took place, detailing the exact location where Robert Bailey and soldiers from the 10th Essex and 8th Suffolks were in the minutes leading up to 7.30 am and the start of the Battle of the Somme.

It should have begun two days earlier but was delated by heavy rain.

In my final blog, I'll reveal what happened to Private Robert Bailey as the 18th Eastern Division attacked a German line on that fateful July day - when the British army suffered its heaviest losses in a single day's battle.

Watch ITV News Anglia tonight at 6pm for Malcolm Robertson's latest report, or check back here later.

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