I returned from my tour around the Somme battlefield over a week ago and thus have had some time to reflect upon what I observed during my three days there.
I have been to the Somme before, but the thoughts and feelings that have stuck with me after this latest trip are much more vivid and emotive than they have been before. Whenever I visit the Somme I have always thought about a few things, including the lay of the land; the first day and how men reacted to what they witnessed; and what the corn-covered fields of today must have looked like all those years ago.
Yet this recent journey, with the centenary of 1st July at the forefront of practically everything that I visited and thought about, has touched upon these feelings with much greater precision than before.
For at least four years – if not slightly longer – I have been determined to be present on the Somme battlefield on 1st July 2016. I didn’t care where I would be; at the side of some random road would have done me just fine. It didn’t matter, so long as I was there. Fortunately, not only was I on an official battlefield tour, but my Dad had procured tickets for the Theipval ceremony! (I do very much mean to boast; this had been a life goal of mine for years.) I had been looking forward to this trip for almost six months. Finally, it was imminent.
Before we left home on 29th June I had packed my bags with as many books on the 1916 battle that I possibly could, thereby ensuring that I was fully prepared to engross myself totally in the events of a century ago. I needn’t have worried, however, as our tour guide held a wealth of knowledge about the battle behind his cockney swagger; every nook and cranny of every field, wood, and ridge – he would know intimate details of who did what, when and where they did it, and often why they had to do it. As a result even when we were between designated sites on our journey, driving around the fields and slopes of Picardy in our rather tight coach, we were being asked to look left and right, right and left; to “our three-o’clock” and ”our nine o’clock”. Gary, a veritable encyclopaedia, didn’t let us fall foul to boredom or apathy. I did fall asleep a few times I must admit. But when you wake up at 4:30 a.m. what do you expect is going to happen?
We were very fortunate with the weather for much of the trip, Theipval downpour notwithstanding. Unsurprisingly, the region was brimming with tourism; the tour company that my Dad and I were with had fourteen coaches on this particular trip alone. More often than not, however, we managed to avoid the bulk of this traffic and visit everything that had been scheduled for this tour. Indeed we were often able to take the leisure of stopping off at a few extra sites.
On Day One – 30th June – we visited a number of sites with pertinence both to 1st July and the battle as a whole, the first of which was Lochnagar Crater. Detonated at 7.28 a.m. on 1st July, this man-made depression stuck out like a sore thumb in the landscape – a rather incongruous bowl circled by a rim of shell-holes and baby craters. I had been here before, most recently last July when I took charge of a group of Year 10 students during my old school’s two-day battlefield trip, wherein we visited sites around Ypres and the Somme. Twelve months ago I had the immense joy of teaching others about the battlefields I once again stood upon.
Although I was meant to be a learner rather than the Teacher this time, I spent most of the 45 minutes we had at the site doing my own thing. I don’t mean to appear arrogant, but I knew what happened here, and I was more interested in observing the ongoing preparations for tomorrow’s commemoration. A huge Poppy, for instance, now lay at the bottom of the crater. The grass around the crater had been freshly cut; numerous cars and vans straddled the side of the thin road; a van was selling tea and snacks; a camera crew was setting up; and a camera-equipped helicopter flew overhead. All this, just for tomorrow. I was impressed, nay delighted. I had feared that the Somme’s centenary would be overlooked by the British public, what with it being so controversial and ostensibly irrelevant. Indeed, with recent political events in mind, I had been persuaded that remembrance of the Battle of the Somme of 1916 had been completely forgotten about at home.
Suitably enthralled by what we had seen, the tour group jumped onto the coach and off we went. Well, I use the word ‘jumped’ very loosely; the average age was at least 60. Indeed, we had a D-Day veteran in our company.
Another noteworthy stop on our journey was the Devonshire Trench cemetery. I had visited before and this particular site, I feel, is emblematic of what happened on 1st July. These men had attacked the German lines from the ridge behind this cemetery but had been mown down. Many others had been in the jumping-off trench, which was where these graves now lay, but were killed before they passed their own barbed wire. Enfilading fire from German positions on the ridges to their right and left had cut the men down. Hence the cemetery has outside it a memorial inscribed with the words:
“The Devonshires Held This Trench
The Devonshires Hold It Still.”
The first time I visited this place I wasn’t surprised by the story. It was as I say characteristic of what took place all along the line. But this time I thought about it in much more graphic detail. I thought about the men, many of whom lying in the ground in front of me were my own age. I imagined what they must have been thinking about just before the attack. We know for a fact that many felt confident, but what about the final seconds before the whistles blew? The sudden realisation that for some or indeed many of them this was it. This thought would gradually attain prominence in my mind during the early stages of the trip, as we got closer to the centenary of that fateful morning.
Thereafter we moved on to another place I had never visited before – Delville Wood. Now a South African Memorial Park, this wood was further behind the German lines; fighting didn’t reach here until 14th July. A large cemetery of 5,500 graves is situated outside this park, and 3,500 of the men lying in it remain unidentified. They are also predominantly not South African; the wood is one mass graveyard for the undiscovered thousands of South African troops who died in it long ago. This is a very sobering image to hold in your mind as you walk across the freshly-cut grass.
Since I had never visited Delville Wood before I was taken aback at just how big both the memorial and the wood were. Stones marking the old trench lines littered the grass paths, stretching off into the distance almost as far as the eye could see. I came across the ‘Last Tree’, which as the name suggests is the last surviving original tree in Delville Wood from 1916. Seeing this tree suddenly made the past seem much more tangible and real to me than it had been before. The rows and rows of headstones one sees around the battlefield do not make such a connection. They detail names, ranks, ages and the occasional tribute, but not personalities or anything else to that effect. Our connection with the dead is no longer personal in this regard. Yet the tree did give the impression that the past was still within reach. Many of the men who fought and died over the ground on which I was standing would have seen this tree in 1916. I subsequently began walking through the old trenches, now much smaller and greener than they had used to be.
Upon leaving Delville Wood we ventured up the Albert-Bapaume road and returned to the hotel in St. Quentin – the day was over. Tomorrow was the day – 1st July. The vast majority of us – all bar an unlucky three – would be at Theipval…