Thoughts from the Somme – 1st July 2016

Day Two – 1st July – began at 4:30 a.m. and with a large number of coaches; we were going to receive a police escort to the memorial, which was frankly quite exciting. But before that, we would have to get past securi-I mean, go through security. I was a tad nervous, and this was only compounded by the security guard addressing me sternly in French, which I didn’t understand at all.

IMG_2338But just before this – as the coach pulled up to the makeshift security centre – the clock reached 7:30 a.m. It was now exactly one hundred years since the men of the first waves went over the top, to be met with a hail of machine gun fire and artillery shells. We all know only too vividly what would happen next. The Somme; the first day; the day; 1st July 1916; the most infamous battle in British history; the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army; the most prominent case for the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ argument that has pervaded British culture for over fifty years, was a hundred years old. The very moment of looking at my watch, coupled with realising the magnitude of what that minute meant, was a strange sensation. It felt surreal on the one hand and coolly simple on the other. Everyone around me seemed ignorant of the significance of 7:30 a.m. – a somewhat ironic state of affairs when one considers where we were all going. It was understandable I guess; we were all concerned with the imminent security checks. Nevertheless I felt prompted to announce the time, and the significance thereof. I don’t know whether it fell on deaf ears or not. It certainly had not for me.

After we returned to our coaches a group of four French Policemen on large, flashing motorbikes chaperoned us to the ceremony at Theipval. It was quite cool to get our own escort from the Gendarmerie. Within ten minutes of leaving we could see the dominating Memorial outside our windows. Being an imposing forty-five metres high, it can be seen from almost anywhere on the old battlefield.

IMG_2356Our whole day would be spent here, even though the ceremony itself would last from just 12 to 1 p.m. Due to the busy schedule we arrived at the site a good two hours beforehand. There were already a few thousand people when we arrived, and huge marquee tents had been set up; there were, more importantly, free goodie bags – I’m sure pretentious folk would have preferred to have them called ‘Informative luggage’ or something to that very boring effect. Free stuff always interests me – none more so than unrestricted access to Muffins and Tea. Although the latter was temporarily unavailable due to a lack of hot water, so I immediately took what I was led to believe was a beverage of a Hot Chocolate variety. It was not. It was Coffee, which was and certainly still is disgusting. My sustenance-related woes would not end there unfortunately.

Off we went to the seating area. Soldiers from all corners of the Commonwealth were here, including a Giraffe from Newfoundland who was about nine miles tall. I’m a reasonably lofty chap but this guy just took the piss; he could catch anti-aircraft missiles from that altitude. The seats were essentially first-come-first-serve and my Dad and I had been too engrossed in our free Muffins and Tea to acknowledge the massive queue. We managed to jump half of it (which I don’t regret!), but still we found ourselves firmly in the back half of the seating complex.

It was difficult to see much from where we were situated. The Memorial looked much cleaner than it had been when I visited it last year; and the British and French flags adorned the two flagpoles at the top, no doubt the work of our Newfoundland friend.

IMG_2371.JPGPrior to the official ceremony starting, we observed a number of clips from the August 1916 film of the battle, which at the time was seen by twenty million people back in Britain. Two bands then entered the park – one from the Welsh Guards and the other from an unknown French regiment. They then proceeded to conduct what I could only think of as a music-off. One band would perform a flawless tune, whereupon the other prepared their instruments and proceeded to do the same. This went on for a good ten minutes or so. It was splendid to listen to, but given the position of our seats one could see bugger-all. Many people grew frustrated and stood up to have a look, despite it all being shown on the large screens nearby.

Afterwards, when the dignitaries and various heads of state had arrived, the ceremony began. There were three key speakers – Charles Dance, Joely Richardson and Jason Isaacs. They appeared on the aforesaid large screens to the side of our seating areas. There is not much point in me going over the minutiae of the rest of the ceremony, since it was broadcast live on the BBC and is as I type still on BBC IPlayer. Besides, my experience will not be that much different from those of you who watched it on Television or online. However, I will comment on the tone of the occasion. In the BBC’s live coverage of the ceremony, Dan Snow said that there was present a rather special atmosphere. I myself didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary with the air around me, but it was without a doubt much more formal than my battlefield tour had so far been. That was to be expected I guess. I

IMG_2440I did however notice a greater degree of patience amongst much of the audience. When some of us started to stand up on occasion in order to see for ourselves what was going on up front, there were no audible complaints from people behind. Then again most attendees were British; and we tend to grumble incoherently and silently when faced with a grievance, which I find to be the best form of discontent. That reminds me; on the initial walk towards the seating area, a middle-aged French couple openly judged me for taking photos. That really irritated me. They were giving me the eye for no apparent reason other than that I was documenting my experience, to them like a common Tourist, nay a Pleb. Near the end of the ceremony, it started to rain heavily. Unfortunately it was during a slideshow of faces of the missing that we were forced to scramble for our Ponchos, and consequently miss it all.

The ceremony itself was very well organised and certainly left a profound mark on many of us in the audience. That being said, it was lunchtime now; and our priorities soon changed. I started to tuck into what I quickly noticed was an oddly-tasting meal. To my father’s great delight, and my deep chagrin, we soon discovered that I had been eating from a Gluten-free meal bag. After giving my stomach something to think about, we walked around the Memorial once again, visiting the cemetery round the back and, in my case at least, getting distracted by the French 75mm guns on display near the BBC Television box. I took countless photos, and at one point looked down the ridge towards the long-gone trenches from which 32nd Division launched their attack up the hill on 1st July. I imagined again what the day must have been like.

I had created for myself a great deal of hype in the lead-up to 1st July 2016. The day was one of the most thought-about of my life; that is without a doubt not an exaggeration. I had been determined to be on the Somme on this day for at least four years, if not longer.

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