On a hill, dominating the Somme River and its lakes, Péronne was a well-fortified place during the early Middle Ages. The ramparts were built in the 9th century. All that remains today of the ancient fortress is the Porte de Bretagne.
Few towns have been as involved in the history of France, few towns so often devastated, as Péronne. Burned and pillaged in the time of the Normans; gravely damaged during the time of the Spanish occupation; devastated by the Germans in 1870; totally destroyed in 1917; bombarded and burned in May 1940 by the German Luftwaffe.
Following the devastation of France during the First World War, in July 1920, the Lord Mayor of London formed the
British League of Help, which encouraged towns to ‘adopt’ devastated French villages. Blackburn agreed to help out, and after reviewing various places, chose Peronne, and the small hamlet of Maricourt.
These two little villages were right at the forefront of the Battles of the Somme in 1916 and 1918 but neither shared any of Blackburn’s main economies of the Cotton trade. They were chosen as a memory to a devastated family.
The Cotton family were famous in Blackburn, with Lawrence Cotton as Mayor, and his two sons working with him, along with his brother Clement and his two sons. By the end of the war, only one son would survive.
John Cotton, the eldest son of Lawrence, joined the Royal Artillery as a ranker as war broke out in 1914, but was quickly given a commission into the 150th County Palatine Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. He had been in France since December 1915, but on the 1st July 1916, as the First Day of the Somme began, he was wounded and taken back to a field hospital, where he died. He is buried at Sailly-le-Sec. John left behind his wife and child, providing more heartbreak for the Cotton family.
It is likely, as a young officer in the Artillery, that he was a Forward Observation Officer. FOO’s were to spot where artillery landed, and send messages back to adjust the aim, change targets etc. It was an extremely dangerous job, usually sat in No-Man’s-Land directing artillery fire. Some reports suggest that over 60% of FOO’s were killed during the war, more than any other job in the Army.
John Cotton was an avid letter writer, sending letters home describing life in the trenches. One of his letters is shown below. There is no date.
We are still in the thick of it, but experiencing the best of good fortune all through the Brigade. I am not absolutely certain, but I believe we have not had a casualty up to the present. Somehow I have a presentiment that I should not have boasted about this. I believe it is four days since I had my clothes off, and see no hope for another two, anyway. From what little I have seen of the papers they make some mention of affairs here, but matters have been hotter than you would imagine from the description they gave. Yesterday was a very busy one for us, and after hours of firing the Bosches must have been pretty badly knocked about. I was in charge of the guns, as the major was in the trenches, and we got it fairly hot. Imagine four guns on land about twice the size of the bowling green. The gunners are all in the gun pits, but I had to stand outside to give orders through a megaphone. Well, firstly the German shells were very short, and then they put three in amongst our aiming posts. Then about 20 shells fell about 60 yards away, and then a couple went over my head about 10 yards. Twice I looked along to see if all the gun pits were still standing. Just as we finished firing I went to look at a gun, and whilst there the Huns put a shell a yard away. Well, I have some of the pieces here now. I should imagine they are 12 lbs. weight, the shells weighing 60 lbs. They repeated it again this afternoon, but had no luck. We must have fired about £5000 worth of ammunition during the last two days, which is a lot for one battery. The men are topping, as I have said before.
By the way, one or two little jokes have happened the last few days. They struck me as very funny, but of course they would only appear humorous here. They anyway are true, as they happened in the battery. One night we were having a very heavy bombardment and were all feeling very serious. We were listening anxiously for the buzz of the telephone, as we thought we might have to make a hurried move. The bell rang. The major said “Now for it!" and jumped to the 'phone. This is what he heard: “Please inform headquarters at once as to the numbers of curry-combs you have!" Another morning we had a gas attack reported, and everybody had to put on his helmet. After remaining in them for over an hour, during which time we hesitated whether it wasn't better to be gassed than keep them on, the major gave orders for them to be removed and the men could go to breakfast. On returning to the gun-pit about an hour later we saw one of the gunners sitting on the gun, still wearing his helmet. He spluttered out: “I'm just getting used to this blighter!" He is a little deaf, and had not heard the order.
John’s brother James never got the chance to face the enemy guns like his brother. A short while after enlisting, he was wounded in a training incident, and invalided out of the army. He never fully recovered from his injuries, and died a short time after John had died, devastating the family further.
By this stage, the Cotton family had been truly devastated by the loss of not only John and now James, but also of Arthur Cotton, Lawrence Cotton’s nephew. Arthur had joined the 1/4th East Lancashire Regiment, the Territorials at the outbreak of war, and went to the Dardanelles to fight the Turks. He would die only 2 days before his 19th Birthday.
Lawrence Cotton, and indeed the rest of the Cotton family, were proud of their boys, and they would do what they could to honour and remember them. With Lawrence now taking up the post of Mayor, and with the British League of Help now established and recommending towns support the French villages ravaged by war, the decision was made to adopt both Peronne and Maricourt as part of Blackburn’s family. Both had been areas of intense fighting, and both had become ‘homes’ to the lads of the 66th East Lancashire Division, filled with men from Blackburn.
With the Cotton family now being remembered by the honour of adopting Peronne and Maricourt, the real work began for Blackburn. The Committee formed for the adoption agreed that Maricourt could be assisted with farming equipment, most of which had been taken during the war. For Peronne, the Committee realised the need to reconnect the town across the river, as the bridges had been destroyed and the town was split.
A fund was opened, and immediately the Mayor gave £250, which encouraged the people of Blackburn to dig deep, even in such tough financial times. A total of £1,700 was raised, which in 21st Century economic terms is roughly £200,000. All from Blackburn people.
Whilst fundraising continued unabated, Maricourt was presented with a threshing and bundling machine, named ‘Blackburn’. The machine would remove grain from the stalks, and then bundle them together, like a modern-day Combine Harvester. Such a machine would have been vital to such a small village.
Over the next two years, the Blackburn committee furiously fundraised whilst the bridge itself was designed and built. The bridge was called ‘Le Pont de Blackburn’, whilst the boulevard beyond the bridge was named ‘Le Boulevard des Anglais’.
On 12th October 1924, the bridge was opened in a large ceremony, including a delegation from Blackburn. The delegation had also visited the very battlefields that had brought them all the way to assisting a devastated town in Northern France.
The Ceremony ended with the Crossing of the Bridge, which is depicted here.
Project Officer- Reveille, Blackburn Library
Also Assistant Curator, Lancashire Infantry Museum
Below is a booklet telling of the adoption by Blackburn of the French villages Peronne and Maricourt 1921-1924.To enlarge the page just click on the image.