I’ve focused on the Allied side of the Battle of the Somme. The British led the attack, and young men from all parts of the globe were wounded, went missing or died in this pastoral landscape. 44 of the 45 memorials and cemeteries are dedicated to the Allied dead and missing.
The cemetery at Fricourt is the final resting place for 17, 026 Germans who died in the battle of the Somme. It is quiet and moving, and, I suspect, not often visited by the British or French.
But these crosses have their own stories to tell, stories of young men doing what they were told, following their leaders into battle just as the British and French men did.
I was brought up short by the Jewish gravestones in the German cemetery. Pebbles have been placed on many, telling us of someone’s visit. These seemed to me the saddest markers of all. During the Great War, Jewish soldiers were accepted into the ranks without hesitation. They would see a different fate twenty years later.
The only story that Dave can give us here is that the infamous Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron, used to be buried here until his family came to collect his remains in 1925 to inter them in Germany. Thousands of names, lettered in classic German typography of the early 20th century. Thousands of stories.
Too many to tell. We visit Mamet Wood, Death Valley, Contalmaison, Delville Wood, Caterpillar Cemetery, Poziers. I lose track of specifics and drown in the weight of the numbers and the stories.
We move on for one final Canadian story in the Adanac Cemetery (yes, that is Canada spelled backwards. Not sure whose “cute” idea that was). 1075 Canadians are buried in Adanac.
One more story. An uplifting one. A Canadian story. A story from the fall of 1916, when the battle of Somme was still raging. The battle that was supposed to have ended on one sunny morning in July continued on for five months.
James Richardson was a Scot who emigrated to Canada with his family in 1913. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion. James was a Piper, and as such, his job was to inspire the troops. He wasn’t supposed to go into battle. But on the morning of October 8, 1916, he found himself in a company in disarray, with no senior officers, a line of wire that had not been cut, and troops with no direction. So he picked up his pipes and strode up and down playing, inspiring about 100 men to force their way through the wire into the next trench (the Regina Trench), which the company took successfully.
James then turned his attention to escorting German prisoners out of the trench into the rear of the action, until he realized that he’d left his beloved pipes behind on the front line. He went back to get his pipes and never returned. His body was found by a farmer in 1920.
But his story doesn’t end there.
In 2002, a school in Scotland posted information about a set of mud stained bagpipes that they had had on display for 90 years. The pipes had been brought home from the war by a British Army Chaplain who taught at the Ardvreck School in Crieff, Perthshire, Scotland. They had a distinctive Lennox tartan pattern on them, the pattern of the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion.
Through an investigative search by The Canadian Club and several army sleuths, the pipes were positively identified, in 2007, as James Richardson’s bagpipes. They are now on display in the B.C. Legislature.
The Battle of the Somme represents one small corner of the Great War. Each of these stories and memorials connects us to a single person, to a young man who had the misfortune of living at a time when it was expected that he would go into battle. Over the course of four years, 38.2 million men were killed, wounded or went missing in action.
All we can do now is to sit together, and tell their stories. Dave’s done a phenomenal job of bringing some of these young men back to life, and giving us an insight into a moment in time when Western Civilization was irreparably altered. (If you are ever interested in a tour, he said to feel free to contact him. You can leave a comment on my site and I can connect you up.)
But I think the last word should go to Private Harry Patch. Harry was born in 1898 and died in 2009, living to be 111 years old. It wasn’t until he was 100 that he started to speak openly about the war. His perspective sums it up.
“It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives, let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. T’isn’t worth it.”
Private Harry Patch