Ten years ago, one freezing misty cold February, near to my birthday, we decided to visit The Somme. I was losing my mobility, not only had I been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis but also Felty’s Syndrome. Surgery after surgery and long hospital stays and thought now is the time, because it was a place we both really wanted to visit.
I’m not going to give a running history of the area. Or the battles. There are many unit histories. I’m not an academic. I’m a retired nurse. The Somme has been written about since World War One 1916-1918, during and many times after. There are many different books available and many opinions of the leading generals. Many opinions of every aspect and every battle. ‘Lions Led by Donkeys’ is a popular phrase used and abused by many. The revisionist history has different opinions of each of the generals involved
Politicians as usual had decreed a course of action and others suffered for their grandiose ideas and plans and of course made a profit
During the course of 1914-1918 all across the land telegrams appeared in virtually every home. The faces of those lost or missing appeared in the press.
They all thought it would be over by the Christmas of 1914, instead it was a war of bloody attrition that went on for four long years. The same could be said for the German side and our allies that included the French, Belgian, Canadian and Australians, South Africans, those from Newfoundland, Sons and daughters lost forever, fathers, husbands, brothers and sisters. Gone. The absolute futility and waste of war.
It was however an interesting time in our history. The home front also and how everyone coped back home. The women took over the jobs of men and did them just as well. Everyone rallied around and the home front became mobilised as a force to be reckoned with.
This is just a brief look into our trip and some of books I read before the trip, during the trip and after the trip.
While having a break recently from social media and all it entails, I started revisiting family history files again and lo and behold. All photos of the Somme trip turned up in a Dropbox file. Thought they were lost forever. This post has ended up much longer and more detailed than originally planned!
For our visit to the Somme we stayed in a rustic French farmhouse gite not far from Albert in Picardy.
Albert on the Somme
During World War I, the statue of Mary and the infant Jesus – designed by sculptor Albert Roze and dubbed the Golden Virgin – on top of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières was hit by a shell on 15 January 1915 and slumped to a near-horizontal position, where however it remained until further shelling in 1918 destroyed the tower. The British said that whoever made the statue fall would lose the war, whilst the Germans thought the opposite. A number of legends surrounding the Leaning virgin developed among German, French, and British soldiers. The Leaning Virgin became an especially familiar image to the thousands of British soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme (1916), many of whom passed through Albert, which was situated three miles from the front lines. As The Golden Virgin it provided Henry Williamson with the title of an autobiographical book.￼
I’d been interested in World War One for some time. Obsessed might be a better word for it. An interest was sparked and that lasted approx 10 years. It started when researching my family history and found five great uncles, career soldiers, all Irishmen from Dublin and all in the East Yorkshire Regiment. They were involved and all saw action during the war. Some of them Boer war veterans. All survived, except one who lost an eye to a sniper at Ypres in 1915, he survived that only to die of Spanish flu in 1918.
In 2012 I started a blog using aspects of their history. Not a genealogy site as such but just a tribute to them all. It was a Google blog and wish I’d kept to that format – so much easier to me than WordPress.
Thomas Carney home on leave about 1916
One of the first places we visited was the
The Somme 1916 Museum –
Our base there was the cafe across the road where we loved the coffee. It was cold and frosty but we had big puffa jackets!
Before going to the Somme, I had been reading
Tommy by Richard Holmes – The British Soldier on the Western Front.
‘Groundbreaking and critically-acclaimed, Tommy is the first history of World War I to place the British soldier who fought in the trenches centre-stage.
Tommy tells the story of an epic and terrible war through the letters, diaries and memories of those who fought it. Epitomised by the character of Sgt Tommy Atkins, Richard Holmes portrays the strength and fallibility of the human spirit, the individuals behind the epic conflict, and their legacy’
The late Richard Holmes was one of Britain’s most distinguished and eminent military historians and broadcasters. For many years Professor of Military and Security Studies at Cranfield University and the Royal Military College of Science, he also taught military history at Sandhurst. He was the author of many best-selling and widely acclaimed books including Redcoat, Tommy, Marlborough and Wellington, and famous for his BBC series such as War Walks, In the Footsteps of Churchill and Wellington.
His famous War Walks series is on YouTube
Birdsong Sebastian Foulks
It’s so long since I read Birdsong that I might read it again. I remember that I found the book so incredibly interesting and I think it helped to fuel a real interest in the time period.
The Roses Of No Man’s Land by Lyn MacDonald
Lyn Macdonald is one of the most highly regarded historians of the First World War. Her books tell the men’s stories in their own words and cast a unique light on the experiences of the ordinary ‘Tommy’. The Roses of No Man’s Land, Somme and They Called it Passchendaele have been recently reissued by Penguin. She lives near Cambridge.
My favourite of all the books by Lyn MacDonald. The story of the nurses involved in the Great War. Their skill and courage were vital to the medical front. Many of their words and stories are included in this book.
The massive cemetery at Etaples. Many casualties amongst them men transported from the battlefields and also medical personnel including nurses are buried here.
The railway, with its network of connections across the north of France, became of strategic importance during World War I, and it was added to temporarilyduring the period it lasted. Étaples became the principal depôt and transit camp for the British Expeditionary Force in France and also the point to which the wounded were transported.
Among the atrocities of the war, the hospitals there were bombed and machine-gunned from the air several times during May 1918. In one hospital alone, it was reported, ‘One ward received a direct hit and was blown to pieces, six wards were reduced to ruins and three others were severely damaged. Sister Baines, four orderlies and eleven patients were killed outright, whilst two doctors, five sisters and many orderlies and patients were wounded.’[9
Vera Brittain was a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse who worked for the Red cross during WW1. This was a powerful memoir of love and loss during an absolute hellish time of the lives of so much of the youth at the time.
Testament of Youth is the first instalment, covering 1900–1925, in the memoir of Vera Brittain (1893–1970). It was published in 1933. Brittain’s memoir continues with Testament of Experience, published in 1957, and encompassing the years 1925–1950.
A book I read while on the Somme was The Quick and The Dead by Richard Van Emden
Blurb – At the end of the First World War more than 192,000 wives had lost their husbands, and nearly 400,000 children had lost their fathers. A further half a million children had lost one or more siblings. Appallingly, one in eight wives died within a year of receiving news of their husband’s death. Few people remained unscathed and the effects of the conflict are still with us. The Quick and the Dead will pay tribute to the families who were left to suffer at home while their husband, fathers and sons went off to fight, and the generations that followed.
It’s all about the individual stories to me. I found this book incredibly moving. Particularly while visiting the numerous cemeteries. The sheer scale of loss and grief is unimaginable. Vast stretches of countryside with the land broken up by cemetery after cemetery. All the graves and the grounds of each are pristinely kept by the workers of the *CWGC – the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Side by side, man after man (and women). Unit after unit. Nation after nation. Cap badge after cap badge and those of every faith engraved into the white marble of the individual grave stone
The cemeteries were hastily built and initially usually had just a wooden cross for each one soldier fallen. The remains were gathered by the special units who dealt with the horrendous after effects of death and dismemberment and buried near to where they fell. Time after time. It was relentless slaughter.
German soldiers had their own graveyards but there are also those buried in British Commonwealth grave cemeteries.
Soldiers and their units didn’t spend the whole time in trenches, they would have leave and recreation time and this time and how they spent it was always interesting to me. A lot of their time was spent trying to avoid the boredom of inactive periods. When their units were sent to the battlefields and it was their time in the trenches, they were often living in hellish conditions. Mud, mud, mud.
British and German wounded, Bernafay Wood, France, 19 July 1916. Bernafay Wood, located near Montauban village, was captured by the 9th (Scottish) Division on 3-4 July 1916 during the opening days of the Somme offensive. A dressing station was established there soon after its capture. From a collection of 98 official war photographs. Photograph, World War One, Western Front (1914-1918), 1916.National Army Museum
There developed a trench, dark gallows humour of sorts. One manifestation of the humour were copies of The Wiper Times distributed as a trench newspaper.
In early 1916, the 12th Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, was stationed in the front line at Ypres, Belgium, and came across a printing pressabandoned by a Belgian who had, in the words of the editor, “stood not on the order of his going, but gone.” A sergeant who had been a printer in peacetime salvaged it and printed a sample page. The paper itself was named after Tommy slang pronunciation of Ypres.
I have an old facsimile copy of the BEF Times which incorporated The Wipers Times. The humour is so poignantly funny.
A massive volume of Wipers Times was published in its entirety and republished.
Available Here or any good bookshop
Rats were their companions and lice their bedmates. Most of the men became infested with lice and a popular occupation became trying to rid themselves of lice that lived in seams of clothing. One method was to run a lighted match along seams to kill the parasites. Trench fever was thought to have been due to lice. The men survived on nicotine, rations and items sent from home.
One of my great uncles was hospitalised there from tachycardia, thought to have been caused by too much nicotine! He also had Trench foot and one of his brothers rheumatism.
The British Army was like a well oiled machine. Rations arrived on time and the men were well looked after on the whole. Mail and parcels arrived from home and the troops had much to keep them occupied. The weather though was something that couldn’t be helped. The men suffered from various damp related illness or became ill through living in waterlogged conditions. The old career soldiers of the British Army ‘The Old Contemptibles’ as they were known were the ones who had to whip the new conscripts into place. The conscripts had joined up in a fervour of patriotism. To whichever unit appealed to them. Either from family loyalty to that unit or area or just taken along in the spirit of things. They thought they were going on an adventure. The ages of those on the gravestones are so often tragically, pathetically young. Some lied about their age to recruiting sergeants. Their mothers weren’t able to stop them joining.
The German army too was a well oiled machine. Neither army was going anywhere. They entrenched on opposite sides of whatever they fought over and stayed put. They fought over almost every field, every wood and hill. The cost was the lives of soldiers on each side.
All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Remarque
This was a complete eye opener for me. The German side of things. The universal suffering from all sides of the battlefield. No goodies or baddies as depicted in popular fiction and film. No ‘terrible hun’. They were all just men who had been taught and brainwashed into hating those from the other side. It was often a battle they had no heart for. Most of them on all sides eventually just wanted to go home.
Erich Maria Remarque was a 20th-century German novelist. His landmark novel All Quiet on the Western Front, about the German military experience of World War I, was an international best-seller which created a new literary genre, and was subsequently made into the cinema film All Quiet on the Western Front
Storm Of Steel by Ernst Junger
This book from the German side of things is not for the faint hearted. Vivid depicted scenes of hand to hand fighting and the suffering of many. A very powerful read
Visiting the Somme was an absolute eye opener to me. Never able to judge distance or length of journeys what surprised me about the Somme battle area was just how close everything was.
One important area and a must see, integral part of any visit to The Somme was just down the road from the other.
Places and locations I’d only read about, all so close. The armies were so very close for years in this particular part of the war.
There are notorious and much written about battle areas, virtually the whole length of France. The French suffered badly at Verdun- other units were there too, including British.
The Battle of The Somme was perhaps the best known if all bloody battles. The first day of the Battle, July 1 1916 the bloodiest, and remains Of Britain’s first-day casualties, 19,240 died. Second lieutenants had the highest casualty rate. Often sons of the wealthy. They were ones who led the soldiers into battle and paid for their bravery with their lives
The wounded from all started off in CSS – Casualty Clearing Stations, after triage were sent via trains, barges and other methods to the various hospitals around France. The largest military hospital was up in Etaples. Nurses, the Red Cross and other agencies played a vital role and saved the lives of many.
More in Part 2
*The work of the commission is ongoing up to today.
Thiepval in the distance. The monument to the missing. The sight of this made me shiver and not from the cold.
The most common items requested by the troops from their relatives.
Next part, Thiepval, Poziers, Australian divisions – New Zealand – Australian books – The Anzacs. The Butte De Warlencourt and the massive crater, Beaumont Hamel – Canadians, Newfoundland. Etaples
Unless otherwise stated all my own words. Military historians may find fault.
© Caryl Williams