There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 1 July 2016

The Somme, One Hundred Years Ago Today

Almost two years ago, on the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, I posted Ypres, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate. I always intended to produce another post for today’s centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, but I had no idea that I would be writing about the saddest day in British military history a week after the saddest day in British democratic history.

Poppies, near Mametz
The First World War, and indeed the second, were the result of nationalism and divisions in Europe. Dormant since 1945 that nationalism is on the rise again and the European Union is our best hope of containing this poison. Senior Brexit campaigners have said openly that they expect Britain to be the first of several countries to quit the EU leading eventually to the collapse of the whole organisation. Why, I wonder in bewilderment, do they think it a good idea to return to the days of warring tribes? How is it wise to reboot a system that laid waste to our continent twice in the last hundred years?

Etaples Cemetery, a reminder and warning from history.
The small fishing port of Etaples was the embarkation and disembarkation point for soldiers arriving in or leaving France. Most of those buried here died of their wounds while waiting to be shipped home.
To return to the Somme; the offensive was conceived in a strategy meeting in 1915 as a French attack with British support. After the French became embroiled in the Battle of Verdun, another bloodbath of epic proportions we often overlook in our insularity, the Somme became a British attack with French support.

The barrage started on 25th of June and went on day and night for a week. It was so devastating that the high command believed that few would be left alive in the German trenches and all the British had to do was mop up and take control. This battle plan had been used before and if madness is repeatedly doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome then this was madness.

The attack started in the early morning of July 1st. It had been meticulously planned and months of tunnelling had set mines beneath strategic points.  One of the biggest, near the small village of La Boiselle, went off at 7.28, two minutes before the scheduled advance. The resulting ‘Lochnagar Crater’ (tunnelling had begun from a trench known as Lochnagar Street) has been preserved. It is a huge hole, and anybody can stop by the roadside walk over and take a look.  Today, a service of commemoration will be held here, as it is every year.

The Lochnagar Crater, La Boiselle, Somme
The barrage was supposed to creep forward as the troops advanced. A special operation required the early halting of the barrage over a small part of the front but a failure in communications led to it stopping everywhere at 7.26. Contrary to the plan there were plenty of Germans still alive in their trenches and when the barrage stopped early they had four minutes to emerge from their bunkers and man their machine guns. As the attackers bunched up at the prepared gaps in their own wire they were mown down in their thousands. On the first day of the battle British casualties were almost 60,000 making it by far the worst day in British military history. To their right a smaller French force did not make the same error with the barrage and lost 1,500 men.

On the 7th of July the 38th (Welsh) Division were tasked with taking Mametz Wood. This involved walking down the open hillside past where their memorial now stands and up the hill on the far side. The wood, then more a collection of tree stumps, sheltered a well dug-in enemy with a superb view of the battlefield. Unsurprisingly the attack failed.
Mametz Wood as it is now with the Welsh Division Memorial in the foreground

Field Marshall Douglas Haig blamed the Welsh Division for their ‘lack of push’. There had been some poor leadership, but the main reason for their failure is that too many of the soldiers were just too dead to reach the wood, never mind take it. He sacked the C.O. and passed the division to Major-General Herbert Watts with the instruction to ‘use it as he saw fit.’ He used them to take the wood 'at any cost' which they did between the 10th and 12th of July. Some battalions had 70% casualty rates and the division lost 4,000 men, effectively destroying it.

The Welsh Division Memorial, the Red Dragon tearing at the barbed wire.
The memorial was only erected in 1987 at the request of survivors, who felt they had been shabbily treated,
 But it did not stop there. By the time the battle ended in November 1916 the French and British had advanced less than 10km and 1.3 million men (800,000 British*, 250,000 French, 250,000 German) had been killed or injured. Douglas Haig liked to think of himself as the ‘Master of the Field’, others called him the ‘Butcher of the Somme.’

In Somme, Lyn Macdonald’s unflinchingly evocative account of the battle, she writes: 'There was hardly a household in the land, there was no trade, occupation, profession or community, which was not represented in the thousands of innocent enthusiasts who made up the ranks of Kitchener's Army before the Battle of the Somme.'

The battle, indeed the war, was an equal opportunity slaughter. It killed factory workers and farm hands and with the same zeal harvested the sons of the professional classes and elites. Edward Asquith, son of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, was killed on the Somme in September 1916 while W.N. Hodgson perished in the debacle of the first day. In 1914, Hodgson, an Oxford scholar and the son of a bishop, wrote the jingoistic England to her Children which I quoted in Ypres, Tyne Cot and the Menin Gate . Before Action, written two days before his death at Mametz, suggests he might have become a sadder and a wiser man (if still too much of a traditionalist for my taste) in the intervening two years.

 Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening's benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
William Noel Hodgson in 1915
Langfier Studio, borrowed from Wikipedia
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, O Lord.

By all of all man's hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Commonwealth War Graves lie thick on the ground from the Belgian coast to beyond the Somme battlefields. Stump Road is one of the smaller cemeteries and not the easiest to find. From the little D151 south towards Thiepval, about 1km beyond the village of Grandcourt, a single track sunken road heads left up the hillside. Some 500m along this, shortly before it peters out in a field, is the last resting place of 263 soldiers, 24 of them Canadian, the rest British. It is a peaceful place, at least it is now, though it was less so in 1916. Beyond the cemetery fields of wheat and brassicas cover the low, rolling hills and the summer air is filled with birdsong.

Stump Road Cemetery, near Grandcourt, Somme
Among the graves is that of Private W.E. (Will) Collard of the South Lancashire Regiment. A twenty-year- old Cardiff bus conductor, he had joined the Welsh Regiment in March 1916 and only arrived in France in July. He was wounded almost immediately but recovered and returned to the front in September, though now in the the South Lancashires; perhaps he had been in the Welsh Division, all but destroyed at Mametz Wood. On the 21st of October, in a trench near Stump Road, an exploding shell removed his head, an event witnessed by his brother-in-law, Sidney Leader. Sid and Annie Leader (Wills’s sister) were Lynne's great grandparents.

Lynne by the grave of her great-great-uncle, Stump Road, Grandcourt
Thiepval ridge to the south of Stump Road was a major feature of the battle, but looking at it in peaceful times it hardly stands out enough to be thought of as a ridge.

Thiepval Ridge from the tank memorial at Pozières
The Somme was the first battle in which tanks were used. They struggled on the muddy, shell cratered ground and were not the game changers that had been hoped.

Thiepval was chosen as the site of the Anglo-French memorial to the fallen. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (also responsible for the Cenotaph and New Delhi) it was unveiled in 1932. Around it cluster the graves of men who are, in the British phrase 'soldiers of the Great War, known unto God' or in the more uncompromising (and, perhaps, honest) French phrase 'Inconnu'.

French graves marked 'Inconnu', Thiepval Memorial
On the walls are the names of the 72,000 men who make up the Inconnus. My family was lucky in WWI. My maternal grandfather was a miner in the Rhondda, and coal was so important to the war effort he was not called up. It was one of the few times in history when coal mining has been the safer option. He did eventually put on khaki and although it is unclear if he arrived in France before the shooting stopped he was certainly in Germany in the army of occupation in 1919. My paternal grandfather joined up earlier, but as far as I have been able to ascertain he was never sent anywhere more dangerous than Shrewsbury. Somewhere on the right hand side of the monument, almost, but not quite too high to read from the ground is the name of Private Edgar Morgan King, a cousin of my paternal grandmother.

Lynne at the Thiepval Memorial, Somme
The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago today, was an unmitigated disaster. After that it improved to merely awful. The performance of the British army in WWI had often been described as that of lions led by donkeys (an observation first made during the Crimean War). As Siegfried Sassoon, who served so valiantly in a war that so disillusioned him, put it

'Good morning; good morning!' the general said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
'He's a cheery old card,' grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack

One century ago they were lions led by donkeys. One week ago half of my compatriots chose to be donkeys led by liars.

* 'British' in this context refers to the 'British Empire'. The casualty list included Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Newfoundlanders (Newfoundland had not then joined Canada), Bermudans, Indians, South Africans and Rhodesians. (and Wikipedia's list may not be exhaustive).

WW1 Centenary Posts

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this. If we aren't going to continue to make these mistakes, we need to continue to remember and reflect. This is very eloquent and moving. I hope it is widely read.