One thing I really enjoy doing is walking around battlefields, believe it or not. This may sound nerdy and peculiar but it is a genuinely worthwhile thing to do, for everyone. That’s right, regardless of whether you have an interest in Military history or not you can learn so much about the experiences of our ancestors by just walking around a few fields. Battlefield tours, whether with tour groups or your own friends and family, have something for all. Enthusiasts will develop a greater understanding of the topography of the battlefield, thereby improving their perspective of the battle; those with no special interest will get a better idea of what they were/are taught in school. I most definitely fall in with the former.
One battlefield which I have visited the most, and which I find most intriguing and emotive, is the Somme. I have visited this battlefield more times than any other, and in July (2015) I accompanied my old schools’ Year 10 trip to the battlefields of Ypres and the Somme. I had the privilege of leading my own group, which meant I was able to talk about battles to people who had to listen, whilst walking around the battlefields themselves. I was not used to this, as hitherto my audience had often just walked away. I was nervous at first. But as the first day went on I managed to relax and many, teachers and students alike, were impressed with my pin-board battlefield map, which I used to illustrate the bigger picture, as well as highlight our specific positions on the battlefields.
Of all battles Britain has fought in the past century, indeed the past millennium, the Battle of the Somme of 1916 is perhaps the most infamous. The staggering loss of life on the first day – the worst in the history of the British Army – has become the focal point for many for the whole First World War. Just as a reminder: on 1st July 1916, the opening day of the offensive, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were killed. To put this into perspective: as of 24th July 2015, the number of British military personnel killed during the 13-year-long war in Afghanistan (2001 – 2014) numbers 454. Of course, this comparison is tenuous; warfare has come along away since 1916. But in recent years the British press’ reactions to ‘yet another death’ overseas has rather frustrated me. Such an out-roar regarding British causalities that are nowhere near as bad as those of the First World War is simply over the top (if you’ll pardon the pun).
During the school trip in July, I was rather pleased with how I managed to get across to the students exactly how the various factors they had been taught in the classroom contributed to such an awful loss of life. Simply from looking at their expressions I knew not only that they had grasped the facts, but that they now had a much better picture of 1st July 1916, and indeed of the whole of that battle, than they had before. They truly understood why the battle turned out in the way it did.
Such an important lesson cannot, I believe, be successfully taught in a classroom. Walking around the battlefield, and seeing the topography of the area, helped bring home to the students exactly why the British suffered such awful casualties. Furthermore, teaching them about the Germans’ hold of the high ground – for example – will in a classroom not disseminate information as effectively as a battlefield tour. Going outside, and visiting such places of interest, makes a great difference. To a great extent, this applies to all forms of history, and many other subjects too.
But the Somme battlefield, and many others like it, holds much more than that which meets the eye – literally and figuratively. One can learn a lot as one travels around the old front line, now blanketed with the freshly-coloured fields on which a myriad farms and villages have managed to prosper again; visiting cemeteries, of various sizes and national make-up, often hidden amongst the undergrowth that has for nearly a century now returned these killing fields to mother nature; visiting the memorials, all of which recognise the efforts and sacrifice of men long dead. It paints a romantic, yet equally tragic picture.
I do not wish to glorify war, far from it. But battlefields are moving and haunting places, especially if one is aware of the significance of the ground on which they stand. When you realise that hundreds of thousands of men fought and died in pretty countryside, in an area dotted with hamlets and valleys, you get a sense of the magnitude of the place and the tragedy of it all. You feel small and insignificant, and you feel sad: sad, for the death that once roamed these fields; sad, for the rows upon rows of gravestones that litter this terrain; sad, that so many died for such insignificant gains. You wish to learn more about every individual soldier, and every single action.
Such feelings are similar for many battlefields, of both wars. But the Somme, for me, and I’m sure for many others, is quite different. It symbolises the death of a generation, and the savage slaughter of youthful innocence. Many Pals battalions were decimated in these fields; many cities, towns and villages around Britain were forever scarred within a matter of hours.
So, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. I guarantee that you will get a lot out of it.