On the morning of July 1, 57,470 men on the Allies side were killed, wounded, went missing or were taken prisoner. Figures for the German side are harder to come by, but estimates say that there were between 10,000 – 12,000 German casualties that day.
Until my visit to the Somme, I could look at these as large numbers, but not feel them as individuals. I could grapple with trying to feel the enormity, but I couldn’t relate to these numbers as humans.
But Dave has at least one story from each cemetery. Some stories are of remarkable bravery, like Billy McFadzean from the Ulster Division. Prior to the Ulsterman’s attack on Thiepval Wood, a box of grenades fell on the trench floor, and pins fell out of two of the grenades. They had a 4 second fuse. Billy threw himself onto them to save his comrades. After the war, no one could be sure where the parts of his body ended up so he is named on the huge moment to the missing, the Thiepval Monument.
But each name holds a story. There are over 70,000 names on the Thiepval Monument, all names of British and South African men who died in the Somme between July 1, 1916 and March 20, 1918, men whose remains were never found.
The monument is an impressive and imposing sight, like a statement that seems to shout on the landscape: Never Again. Construction began in 1928, overtop of a warren of German trenches and tunnels. The monument was unveiled in 1932. In seven years, the world would be at war again.
I’m moved by the memorials to the tunnellers.
Strategic mining was used by both sides, with many kilometers of tunnels ranging in depth from 30 feet (9 meters) to 120 feet (36 meters). At the “Glory Hole,” eight kilometers of German, British and French tunnels skirted each other by mere meters. As they got closer to their objective, the men needed to tunnel slowly, in complete silence. They worked barefoot and fitted handles onto their bayonets, jabbing the point into a crack in the rock and twisting. Another man caught the rock piece before it fell. Backbreaking work, where they feared discovery at any moment.
We visit the Lochnagor Crater, one of the 5 craters left from the mine explosions set underneath the German encampments. As with the blast site at Hawthorn Ridge, photos can’t do the size of this hole justice. But 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis (no relation, but I’d like to adopt him) of the Royal Flying Corps was sent in his plane to observe the blast at Lochnagor as it happened:
“The whole earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the air. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air like a scrap of paper in a gale. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris…” 2nd Lieutenant Cecil Lewis
We finish our day in a museum in the town of Albert. The museum is in a tunnel.
Ten meters underground, 250 meters long, the tunnel was originally built in the 13th century. It was used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War, housing 1500 people. Today, it houses artifacts, dioramas and exhibits.
I’m struck by an exhibit on facial reconstruction. Gueules cassées, or “Broken Faces,” became a term that referred to the more than 15,000 men who returned from the war missing eyes, noses, jaws, cheeks. In trench warfare, the heads of the soldiers are particularly vulnerable. The introduction of metal helmets in 1915 saved many lives, but ironically this meant that many men who would have previously died from head wounds now lived with terrible disfiguration. The new field of plastic surgery helped, but for many the reentry into society was far harder than for those missing limbs.
There are so many ways in which war destroys a life. We return to Chavasse Farm and breathe in the peace.
Red lips are not so red
As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.
Kindness of wooed and wooer
Seems shame to their love pure.
O Love, your eyes lose lure
When I behold eyes blinded in my stead!
Wilfred Owen 1918