“…I remember the lads laid in rows, just as if they’d gone to sleep there, and the sun flashing on them bits of tin on their backs all down the lines. The machine guns just laid them out. Some were hanging on the wire, hanging like rags. Machine guns bullets were knocking them round as if it was washing on the line.” Private Frank Lindsay, 16 years old, Pals Battalion, Barnsley
There are some pertinent facts to keep in mind for this cursory view of the first day of The Battle of the Somme. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of the battle. I can only speak from a personal perspective about what I saw, 101 years later, on a landscape that still shows the scars of the war. But a bit of background information might help.
- The battle began at 7:30 a.m on July 1, 1916.
- 13 divisions were deployed under British command. They came from Britain, Ireland, Newfoundland, Bermuda and the colonies of Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Australia. For the most part the men were new recruits, young men who joined up together and took basic training for six months.
- The French had asked for British assistance to pull German troops from Verdun. There were 11 divisions under French command, but they, too, operated under British command in the Somme.
- There were 6 German divisions, a professional army of young men who had trained for a minimum of two years.
- The front was 45 kilometers long
- The chain of command was like a game of ‘broken telephone’ going horribly awry. A hierarchical structure of twelve layers of information connected the toffs in the War Command office to the working class Privates in the trenches. Each layer had its own vested interest. The Privates had no choice but to the information they were given.
- In 2 hours approximately 72,000 men (from both sides) were killed, wounded or went missing.
France is a vast country of rolling farmland. Europe’s garden. It is still farmed by local farmers and families in much the same way it has always been farmed. Cattle graze, tractors harrow, and in the gentle rolls of land it is easy to let the 21st century drift away.
Nowhere is this more true than in the Somme. The area of the Somme is a thriving farming community, but it is also a community that guards the memories of hundreds of thousands of people. The farms are planted around well-tended cemeteries and memorials, sites that are in the middle of the farmed fields.
The cemeteries and memorials are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who hire local people to maintain them. There are, every day, hundreds of people who come from all over the world to visit and to find graves of family members who they’ve only heard about in stories.
It was in the Luke Copse Cemetery that I began to feel the enormity of our pilgrimage.
We walked up a tractor path, past fields of sunflowers to a small “battlefield” graveyard, where bodies were placed in pairs a trench, the trench that they had just left minutes before. Dave showed us where two brothers, Lance Corporal Frank Gunstone (25 years old) and Private William Gunstone (24 years old), were buried side by side.
Further along the path we came to the Light Railway Cemetery. Part of battle planning involved building a railway so that wounded men could be carried back to hospitals in Rouen. Trenches and craters from bombardment still mark the site of the battle.
We visited the grave of Private Alfred Goodlad who wrote in his last letter home, “The French are a good nation worth fighting for.” I think about today’s troops, dying in foreign countries far from home. I think about the generosity of Private Goodlad’s family, who decided to put this statement on his tombstone.
Across the tractor path, cornfields frame the Queens Cemetery in former no man’s land.
Many of the Accrington Pals are buried here. Pals battalions came from all over Britain, young men who went to school together, or maybe were volunteer firefighters, or on the same football team. Friends who signed up together to fight together, and for the most part, die together. The 700 Accrington Pals were a battalion from the town of Accrington in East Lancashire. They were tasked with taking the town of Serre. Within half an hour, 585 of them were casualties (385 dead, 200 wounded). Serre was left in German hands.
“… it was slaughter. Men fell like ninepins. There was rifle fire, machine-gun fire, it was terrible.” Stanley Brewsher, Accrington Pals
A few kilometers down the road, British sappers had spent months digging carefully under German encampments to lay mines set to explode at the appointed hour and initiate the battle.
Remarkably, there is footage of the explosion at the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, just west of the town of Beaumont-Hamel, the first of five land mines were exploded (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8YfJmwY5Uo) It is remarkable to see the size of the explosion, the earth shooting high into the sky.
There is also footage by the official cinematographer, Geoffrey Malins of the young soldiers of the first battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers waiting in the “Sunken Lane” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Sb7urnjEaE) across from the mine site, ready to attack and liberate Beaumont as soon as the mine was exploded.
For reasons beyond my ability to grasp, let alone explain, the mine at Hawthorn Ridge was exploded 10 minutes early on July, at 7:20 a.m., not at 7:30 as scheduled. The explosion effectively warned the Germans that the attack was about to begin. The German troops moved quickly forward into their trenches before the attack officially started at 7:30. They were therefore very ready when the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers from the Sunken Lane came out into the open. The young men whose faces you see in the film clip were easily picked off.
We walk from the Sunken Lane to the top of the Hawthorn Redoubt to look into the crater left by the mine.
Overgrown, it is no more than a hideout for teenagers now. I go down to the bottom and stare up, remembering the young German men who lost their lives suddenly, unexpectedly, as the bomb went off underneath them.
We drive a short distance down the road to Newfoundland Park. Although Newfoundland was not a part of Canada in 1916, it is hard not to feel compassionately patriotic at the sight of a Canadian flag and a huge caribou memorial.
This site has been maintained so that the original trenches are still in evidence, markers to another horror of this war. 801 young men from Newfoundland were pushed forward as part of a second wave of attack after the Hawthorn Ridge explosion. They couldn’t go through the trenches, because they were blocked with the dead and wounded. They had to move across open fields, with little artillery support. They tried to push through the barbed wire of No Man’s Land, wire they had thought destroyed.
In 30 minutes it was over. Only 68 men of the Newfoundland Regiment survived uninjured. Newfoundland lost a generation of young men. To this day, they are mourned and remembered in Newfoundland on July 1st.
And on and on. Each cemetery tells the story of a regiment, each gravestone tells the story of a man.
Day one of our tour of the Somme is over. We head back to Chavasse Farm and wine that reminds us to enjoy life. Over dinner we sing snatches of songs about peace.