Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Somme battlefield

The Somme battlefield makes a notable contrast with the Ypres area. Instead of the flat muddy fields of Belgium we find rolling chalk downlands, where still to this day the ghosts of trenches and redoubts criss-cross the landscape as white scars on the green fields. The land is mostly bare and open, with few trees and excellent visibility. A bloody battle raged here throughout the summer and autumn of 1916, but it is best known for that famous first day of July, when “Kitchener’s Army”, volunteers to a man, advanced across these slopes to be mown down by the Germans, who were dug as deep as 40 feet down into the chalk, immune to the British bombardment. Almost 20,000 British soldiers died that day, and twice as many were wounded. The junior officers in particular suffered a casualty rate of no less than 75%. The entire battle front extends 16 miles north to south, but I hadn’t realised how close together the famous battle-names of 1916 would be: often just a few hundred yards apart. The River Ancre, which marked much of the British front line, turned out to be a stream no more than six feet wide.

The most impressive place on the Somme is “Newfoundland Park” at Beaumont Hamel, where a huge bronze caribou watches over the remains of the trenches where the Newfoundlanders’ battalion stood on July 1st.

They were the only Empire battalion in action that day, and so keen had they been to join in the fun that some of them had paid their own boat fare across the Atlantic. They charged the German lines and were wiped out, suffering one of the highest casualty rates of all. South of here stands the enormous Thiepval memorial, designed by Lutyens, inscribed with thousands of names of the dead.

Nearby the Ulster Tower, built in pseudo-mediaeval style, commemorates one of the day’s great epics, when the 36th (Ulster) division, Protestants all, and nicknamed “Carson’s Army” after Sir Edward Carson, the leader of Ulster in bitter opposition to Home Rule for Ireland, fought their way into the German trenches only to be driven back with dreadful losses.
Behind the British lines is the small town of Albert, atop whose church tower the famous statue of the “Golden Virgin” hung at a precarious angle throughout most of the war.

This has now been restored, but I did not find the result particularly aesthetically appealing. Compared with the Ypres region, there were practically no concessions to tourists outside Newfoundland Park: I couldn’t find even a postcard stall.

We saw many odd bits of the “iron harvest”, bits of wire and shrapnel, shells and bones, ploughed up every year by the local farmers and left lying around on the roadside for the bomb-disposal squads to come round every so often and collect anything dangerous. Only gas shells are treated with any degree of urgency, in case they are leaking. Most alarming for me was a huge shell, over 2 feet high, which had been left standing upright on the rim of the gigantic Lochnagar mine crater at La Boiselle.

(You can get an idea of the scale of this crater when you notice the coach in the lower right-hand corner of the picture). While I was photographing the scene, a school party came along, from Yorkshire to judge by their accents, and the teacher in charge did one of the stupidest things I have ever encountered: namely, he walked up to the shell and kicked it. I would not be here today if it had been as active as the trench mortar that another school party found in a field and tried to smuggle back home on their coach. Fortunately it was intercepted at Dover Customs, and the bomb disposal squad were called. They reported that it was extremely volatile, and if the coach had bumped over a big pot-hole, the jolt could have been sufficient to spark it off.

I once made out a list of famous people who took part in the Somme battles. It was a most extensive list. All the best-known war poets were there, with Siegfried Sassoon capturing a German trench single-handed near Mametz on the first day, and winning a Military Cross. From 1940 to 1963 every single British Prime Minister had been at the Somme: Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. Macmillan was shot in the stomach and lay wounded in no man’s land until he was rescued. Others were there too: J. R. R. Tolkien, A. A. Milne, the socialist historian R. H. Tawney (also wounded) ….. It made me wonder how many men who might have achieved equal renown were killed there.

I conclude with one of my favourite war poems, by Philip Johnstone, a poet about whom I know nothing. It was written in 1918; and Johnstone imagines a party of tourists being taken round the battlefield some time in the future:-

“High Wood”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois de Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife
By reason of its high commanding site.
Observe the effect of shellfire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being ……
Madam, please!
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way ……
The path, sir please!
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dugout (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.”

As a veteran of many conducted tours to the battlefields, I can assert that the only thing wrong here is that High Wood is not open to the public. Otherwise it’s all true!

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