Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Somme - then and now: by Sue Purkiss

On the 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. The plan was for the British and their allies to attack the Germans along a 15 mile line, stretching from Serre, north of the Ancre, to Curlu, north of the Somme. In command was General Haig. His master plan was to weaken the enemy by a week of heavy artillery fire before the attack; so confident was he that this would create complete disarray that, on the first day of the attack, he ordered the British troops to walk slowly towards the enemy lines. 

Unfortunately, the plan didn't quite work. The artillery attack simply served to warn the Germans that an attack was imminent. They just moved underground - their trenches were deeper and better-constructed than the allied ones - and waited for the bombardment to stop. Then they popped up again and manned the machine guns. Imagine their astonishment when they saw the British walking slowly towards them, presenting a perfect target! By the end of the first day - one day - there were 60 000 allied casualties, including 20 000 dead.

There are so many of these terrible statistics for the First World War. The figures are so huge that it's difficult to take them in - to grasp the stories behind the statistics. A few weeks ago, we were in the Somme area for a few days. I am only familiar with the history of the war in a general sort of way, but after visiting some of the museums, battlefields, memorials and cemeteries - of which there are so very many - I know a little more. But there were certain triggers that made it all seem much more real. Here are a few of them.

We stayed in a tiny village called Fresnes-Mazancourt. It was very green, very peaceful. In the guest-house there were lots of books to do with the war, and I picked up a little typed pamphlet. It was written a few years after the war by the man who had previously owned the local chateau, and it was a plea to the people of America to help the village get back on its feet. He described, in careful detail, what the village had been like before the war, what had happened to it during the war, and the state of it at the time of writing.

Everything had been destroyed. Everything. Not a single house, not a single tree, was left standing. Some families had crept back and were trying to rebuild their lives, but it was desperately hard. The fields were full of unexploded ammunition - and other things; there no tools left, no means of making a livelihood - nothing. The writer of of the pamphlet, who had also lost everything, was begging for some money to help them get on their feet; bigger towns were being given priority, he said, but for the people of Fresnes, there was no help. 

Their plea was not successful - perhaps the pamphlet didn't get to the right people, perhaps there were simply too many other demands. But somehow, they did get back on their feet again; they built this church from scratch. Now, the village has some attractive houses and is surrounded by well-kept fields and orchards. But every single thing dates from no earlier than 1920. 

I hadn't really thought before about what it was like for the people of northern France who found themselves living in the middle of a battlefield.

This is a memorial at Beaumont-Hamel. It's a caribou, and it's the emblem of the Newfoundland regiment; it faces across the Atlantic towards home. At that time, Newfoundland wasn't part of Canada, it was a British Dominion. When Britain called for help from the dominions, they were generous in their response. The men from Newfoundland were determined to stay together in the same regiment. It was a small community which was mainly supported by fishing, and the fathers, sons, brothers and cousins who signed up made a big hole in it. They went overseas together, they trained together, and their first engagement was in the Battle of the Somme, at Beaumont-Hamel.

They had those orders, the ones I mentioned earlier. They climbed up out of the trenches and they walked - so slowly - towards the Germans. It was a bright, sunny day for once, so they were easy to see. They went down like grass before a scythe. 

On top of this, Allied Command had had another bright idea. They'd ordered the soldiers to wear reflective triangles on their backs, so that reconnaissance aircraft could easily keep track of them.

So when they were forced to retreat, the sun beamed down on those reflective triangles, creating an even easier target. Eighty per cent of the Newfoundlanders became casualties in the first half hour, including every single officer - and a boy of only fourteen, who had lied about his age because he wanted so badly to join up alongside his mates and his relatives. 

This tree has a name of its own - the Last Tree. And that's exactly what it is; the only tree left standing after the Battle of Delville Wood. It's a hornbeam, very finely shaped and very beautiful. There are other trees around it now, but they have all been planted since the war. The ground beneath them is full of the mounds and dips created by artillery fire, and the bodies of hundreds of soldiers which were never recovered still lie beneath the green turf.

The soldiers who fought in this battle were mainly South African, and Delville Wood is the site of the South African Memorial. It's very beautiful, with etched windows which show the battlefields, and well-displayed information about individuals as well as about the regiments which took part. But for me, the Last Tree made the most poignant statement. Just the name conjures an apocalyptic landscape where everything living has been destroyed.

The countryside of the Somme is astonishingly green and peaceful now. It's not heavily populated; the memorials, often on hill-tops, gaze down over rolling green fields which go on for miles. Yet still underneath the woods and fields there is so much live ammunition that the mine-clearing crews of the Somme, which collect 100 000 lbs of live shells etc each year, estimate that it will take 700 years to clear it. (This statistic came from the Historiale de la Grande Guerre in Peronne - a wonderful museum which tells the story of the soldiers from both sides.)

One more picture, which speaks for itself. It was taken on the outskirts of Fresnes.


Joan Lennon said...

So heart-breaking. We're in the process of re-watching MASH which, though of course set in a different war, does such a brilliant job of showing the stupidity in action. Thanks for posting.

Susan Price said...

I can't find words, Sue. Too sad, too infuriating.
But a beautiful post.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Joan and Sue.

Anonymous said...

Heartrending. I had no idea about those reflective triangles. Madness.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. I'd not thought much about the inhabitants of the battlefields before.

Unknown said...

I had no idea they were still cleaning up live ammo from WWI!

Penny Dolan said...

Yes, the big sweep of history can hide these tragic facts and events. The remote community losing its menfolk, the villagers without a village, the single tree - and those stupid triangles.All so sad. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Sue.