Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Somme

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

Mostly I just liked the way these trees looked against the horizon, but we are also looking across no man's land to the approximate position of the German line - I think it gives an idea of the distance and emptiness

Ulster Tower

The Newfoundland caribou dominates the landscape at Beaumont Hamel

The land at Newfoundland park still bears the scars of war

Today I got to go to the Somme, surely one of the most evocative names in military history. Part of this is due, no doubt, to the action on July 1st at Beaumont Hamel, the first stop on our trip. The fighting on this day was the bloodiest battle in British military history, when about 20,000 soldiers lost their lives.

Today Beaumont Hamel is the Newfoundland memorial - run by the Canadians today, obviously enough, although at the time Newfoundland was in fact a separate British colony, not part of Canada. The tour we went on was really interesting and informative, you could really see what went wrong and why so many people lost their lives (for the Newfie battalion, an 85% casualty rate). The problems began in the morning when the troops set off a mine behind the German lines - a good idea in itself, it was meant to provide shelter for troops to get into and fire on the Germans from both sides. The issue was that they blew up the crater and then waited some 10 minutes before launching the attack, which gave the Germans advance notice that something was up, leading them to prepare their troops and machine gunners etc. They had been in the area for about 18 months, so they had the high ground, the best cover, and the deepest trenches, all of which made life difficult for the Allies. So those that went into battle first were mown down, and the dead and the wounded choked the 'communication trenches', which were basically single-file trenches leading out from the living trenches to the front line. This meant that the Newfoundland troops couldn't go through these trenches, but had to go straight over the top, obviously increasing the casualty rate. It also meant that the Essex battalion which were meant to attack with them (this was in the 3rd wave of attacks in the morning) weren't able to join the battle for about an hour after the Newfies, because their communication trenches were likewise unusable and they didn't have the option of going over the top because their position was so vulnerable to machine gun fire. The next problem was in getting through their own barbed wire fences. The barbed wire had been cut to allow the troops through and in to no-man's-land, in a zig-zag pattern to prevent the Germans from seeing what was up. By the time the 3rd wave of attacks went through, however, the snipers knew where the holes in the barbed wire were and were able to pick off most of the soldiers. The last major problem was that the communications systems were poor - there were telephone lines, but it was all a bit chaotic as you can imagine. The commander at Beaumont Hamel saw white flares going up on the horizon, where the Ulster division were attacking. This was code for 'objectives achieved', so they thought all was going well on their flank. Pity that the flares had actually been sent up by the Germans for some other purpose, so they didn't realise that they had no protection on that side either. Being at the site really brought all this to life - you could see exactly how far apart the trenches were, how featureless the landscape would have been, and see how today it's all crenellated by the after-effetcs of so many trenches and shell holes.

After this, we went 5 minutes up the road to Ulster Tower, as the name suggests, a tower commemorating the actions of the aforementioned Ulster division. We picked up another guided tour of Thiepval wood, where archaeologists have excavated several trenches. It was interesting to see a different type of battlefield - a slightly more relaxing one I would think with the tree cover, although the guide informed us that it would basically take a direct shell hit to knock down a single tree, and by 1919 or so the wood was no more (it has since grown back). This area was fought over in 1916 and again in 1918 when the Germans came back, having previously beat a tactical retreat out of the Somme.

This region is, incidentally, the Ancre valley, which some might remember as the setting for Sebastian Faulks' novel 'Birdsong', which I have read but would quite like to read again now that I've been to some of the places he talks about. It's interesting because it begins in the tranquil Ancre valley before the war and then goes through during the fighting. There's nothing like 'on the spot reading' as anyone who's also read 'Ex Libris' might reflect, but I went and bought 'All Quiet on the Western Front' today instead.

Anyway, our last stop of the day was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, a huge British memorial which records something crazy like 75,000 names of British missing in the Somme alone. It was designed by Luytens, who did the Cenotaph in London, and is pretty impressive. It's the biggest British war memorial in the world. Apparently, if a body is found and identified amongst those listed on the memorial, it's erased from it, so you can see gaps in the lists of names although I must say I didn't see 'em.

So again, highly interesting although at times I thought I'd die if I had to stand in a field or a wood for any longer. It was hot and sunny at least, which was nice and certainly makes a change! I've never been wildly enthusiastic about military history, but it definitely is different if you're there seeing the places and hearing the stories rather than just reading about it half a world away. Does make you wonder how the Allies ever won though, since all I seem to hear about is the massive Allied casualties and how the Germans had all the best spots!


  1. Remarque is really good. Much better than Birdsong which I found to have a ridiculous ending. Robert Graves' "Goodbye to all that" is also good. Both Graves and Remarque fought and experienced things first hand unlike the other cretin FFFFffaoulkes or whatever he's called.

  2. Yeah I didn't love Birdsong, but upon picking it up in the bookshop the first page I opened had a reference to Béthune and I was all "ooh Béthune I've... um... driven past there on the motorway" whereas so far I'm enjoying Remarque but there haven't been any specific place names mentioned in the first 20 pages or so. Can't remember for the life of me how Birdsong ended either

  3. Down the tunnel under no man's land. I never forget a tunnel,(or s silly ending when I've forced myself through 400 pages).


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