Friday 4 July 2014

This day in 1916 - by Katherine Langrish

Photo courtesy of New Zealand History online

On this day in 1916, the battle of the Somme was four days old. I'd like to commemorate that terrible slaughter quite simply by transcribing a passage from the classic WW1 memoir 'Sagittarius Rising' by Cecil Lewis, first published in 1936.

All you need to know is that Lewis was twenty years old in 1916, having joined the Royal Flying Corps in February 1914, while still only seventeen and just out of school. He was sent to France with 13 hours of flying experience. At that time, the average lifespan of an RFC pilot was about three weeks.

This is his account of what happened to him and his observer, Pip, that fine summer morning exactly 98 years ago.

Wikimedia commons. The Somme battlefield from the air: British gas attack 1916

Dawn over the trenches, everything misty and still above, with the prospect of heat to come; even the war seemed to pause, taking a deep, cool morning breath before plunging into action. We were out to find the exact position at Boiselle, for even now, on the fourth day of the offensive, the Corps Intelligence did not seem clear on the point. We sailed over the mines and called for flares with our Klaxon. After a minute, one solitary flare spurted up, crimson, from the lip of a crater. It looked forlorn, that solitary little beacon, in the immense pitted miles around. We came down to 500 feet and sailed over it, trying to distinguish the crouching khaki figures huddled in their improvised trenches ... when suddenly there was a crash, and the whole machine shook, as if at the next moment it would wrench itself to pieces.

[With his engine hit by shellfire, Lewis got the plane down:]

Where to land?  Five hundred feet over the front line, the earth an expanse of contiguous shell-holes! ... By now we were down to 100 feet, and the contours of the earth below took on detailed shape. I saw – God be praised! – that the green patch that had caught my eye was the side of a steep hill. There was no wind. I swung the machine sideways and pulled her round to head up the slope.  She zoomed grandly up the hillside.  The speed lessened. Now we were just over the ground, swooping uphill, like a seagull on a steep Devon plough. ... The hill rose up before me, and at last she stalled, perched like a bird on the only patch of hill free of shell-craters, hopped three yards – and stopped! 

With a gasp of amazement and relief – for no one could have hoped to have got down in such a place undamaged – we jumped out of the machine.  It was Pip’s twenty-first birthday.  Suddenly I remembered it. ‘Many happy returns!’ I said

We stood looking at the machine - for nothing, perhaps is quite so awkward and useless as an aeroplane that can't fly.  It would have to be dismantled... at that moment came the 'Wheeeeee... wheeee....whee-ow... whow...whow...whow... zonk!' of a German shell.  They were evidently going to dismantle it for us.  We dived for a trench... It was five o'clock.

From the air we could have found out way home from any part of the line; but the earth was a strange country. We set off along the duckboarding at the bottom of a deep communications trench, unable to see over the top. We turned left at a junction, right at another, They were all deserted. We were lost. So we climbed out of the trench and walked down to a neighbouring copse where ... a battalion of infantry was waiting to go up into the line. ... They sat about on the fallen tree trunks, on overturned wagons, on dud shells, silent and resigned in that blasted wood under the glory of the summer morning.  Then the thunder of the guns began, south at the Somme, and rose and rose as the nearer batteries took it up. It was like jungle drums beating the rhythm of tremendous news, rising, falling, echoing, repeating, till the whole air was shaking with it. The officer looked at his watch. The men rose, and shook themselves into order.
‘Good luck!’
‘Good luck! We’ll keep a watch out for you on patrol!’  We turned away up the hill towards Albert, he through the gully of the wood up towards the line.  

We trudged along in our heavy sheepskin thigh-boots, long leather coats, mufflers and helmets. ... How different it all looked from the ground! It was a desolation, unimaginable from the air. The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, flanking the road... like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five square yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face.  It was diseased, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun.

Yet (Oh, the catch at the heart!), among the devastated cottages, the tumbled, twisted trees, the desecrated cemeteries, opening, candid, to the blue heaven, the poppies were growing! Clumps of crimson poppies, thrusting out from the lips of the craters, straggling in drifts between the hummocks, undaunted by the desolation, heedless of human fury and stupidity, Flanders poppies, basking in the sun! As we stood gazing, a lark rose up from among them and mounted, shrilling over the diapason of the guns. 

We listened, watching, and then, I remember, trudged slowly on down the road without a word.  That morning seems stranger than most to me now, for Pip is dead, twenty years dead, and I can still hear the lark over the guns, the flop and shuffle of our rubber-soled flying boots on the dusty road; I can remember, set it down, that here on this page it may remain a moment longer than his brief mortality. For what? To make an epitaph, a little literary tombstone, for a young forgotten man. 

For months we worked together daily on patrol. His life was in my hands daily and once, at least, mine was in his. He was the darling of the Flight, for he had a sort of gentle, smiling warmth about him that we loved. Besides, from the old rattling piano he would coax sweet music – songs of the day, scraps of old tunes, Chopin studies, the Liebestraum, Marche Militaire.  I believe he had talent. Well, that does not matter now and it did not matter then. He had enough for us, to make us sit quietly in the evening, there in the dingy room where the oil lamp hung on a string thick with flies, and listen.

In September I went on leave; Pip carried on with another pilot. One morning on the dawn patrol they, flying low in the arc of our own gun fire, intercepted a passing shell. The machine and both the boys were blown to bits.

You can see original film of 'The Somme from air and land' , and an interview with Cecil Lewis at this BBC link:

 Cecil Lewis


Carol Drinkwater said...

God bless the bravery of all those far-too-young men sent into that appalling war zone. Katherine, thank you for this marvellous piece of Lewis.

Sue Purkiss said...

A beautiful piece of writing. Have just been to the Somme, staying near Albert, so this has a particular resonance.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I set my latest book for teenagers The Only Girl in the World near Albert. It is so beautiful there on the water and all the way up to the coast, isn't it, Sue?

Carol Drinkwater said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adele said...

The battle of the Somme was 1916! This time 100 years ago, the Great War had not yet started....
But a wonderful post and most interesting...a good commemoration!

Clare Mulley said...

Gosh, what writing, and what a moment caught.

Unknown said...

It is a few days over 100 years since the Battle of the Somme ended. It is some 40 years since I first 'met' Lewis in print and, as a pilot myself, this has a particular resonance for me.
Katherine, I don't wish to seem 'picky'but I'm going to be; Lewis was born in March 1898 so on the first day of the Somme battle he was 18years and 3 months old and had joined the RFC in the spring of 1915.