The Horror of the Somme

As I noted in this morning’s Hili Dialogue, today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, a bloody conflict that lasted 141 days—from 1 July to 18 November, 1916. The total casualties of the battle, as you can see below, were over a million, with 146,000 Allied soldiers killed along with 164,000 Germans. In contrast, the number of UK soldiers lost over the entire course of World War II was 373,000, with between 4 and 5 million German soldiers dying from all causes (and on two fronts). On the first day of the Somme, 100 years ago today, nearly 63,000 soldiers of all nationalities were killed, injured or captured; this according to a document sent me by reader Pyers, “The First Day on the Somme,” which he wrote for his job. Over 19,000 British soldiers were killed on that day along with 10,000-12,000 German soldiers. (Note that the ratio of killed to injured was much higher then that it was in World War II or later battles.)

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 11.39.16 AM

Here are Canadian soldiers going “over the top,” many of them never to return.

Going_over_the_top_01

You can learn more about the battle at the BBC’s site, or watch this absorbing video (it looks inoperative, but it’s not; click on the arrow or go to the link just given):

Anything I can add would pale before the horrors of what was described by its participants, or even by some of our readers, one of whom, Jonathan Lewis, wrote me this:

For the last 9 hours there has been an extraordinary “living art” memorial to the event covering the UK, with over 1500 young adults dressed in the uniforms of the various regiments that took part in the battle, appearing in silent groups in town centres, railway stations etc. silently handing out “business cards” stating who they represent (these are all real people) and how old they were when they were killed.

The event has affected huge numbers of people, with a massive response on Twitter and Instagram.

The twitter hash tag is #wearehere
Collated page of images is here.

Brits should add their reactions in the comments below.

Reader pyers, who wrote the long essay on the Somme that I mentioned above (perhaps he’ll let me send it to readers who inquire), told me that his grandfather was in that battle—and others. When I asked if his grandfather told him about the Somme , pyers wrote this:

Yes he did. He joined the army in 1912, was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. Arrived in France in Sept 1914 and served in such horrible battles as 1st Ypres ( Oct-Nov 1914), 2nd Ypres (Apr-May 1915), Loos ( Sept 1915) and he arrived on the  Somme in Aug 1916. He served there until Feb 1917 when he was sent home to become an officer instructor. In Nov. 1918 he was returning to France when the war ended.

He started as a 2nd lieutenant and ended the war as a major, winning a gallantry award (MC) along the way.

Like a lot of soldiers who had been through the war, he didn’t talk about it although he had nightmares that lasted all of his life. On his deathbed, in 1972, under the influence of morphine I guess, he returned to the trenches and he shouted about “whizz bangs“, “Jack Johnsons” (a large, slow moving black artillery shell) and the wire.  You don’t get the experience of that out of your life, even at the end.

The Somme still haunts the British, as today’s commemoration shows.

Finally, pyers sent me a poem I didn’t know about. It’s very poignant, because, as much poetry of the Great War, its writer didn’t survive. The man who wrote the poem below, “Before Action,” was William Noel Hodgson (1893-1916).  He had fought since 1915, and started writing poetry under a pseudonym in 1916. This poem (read it!) was published on June 19, 1916 in the weekly paper The New Witness.

Before Action

by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, MC

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Hodgson was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, within a few hours after action began. That was two days after his poem appeared. He was 23 years old.

Wikipedia described his death:

Having returned to England after the Battle of Loos, he was positioned with his Battalion in the front line trenches at Fricourt in February 1916, before moving a kilometre or so to the trenches opposite the town of Mametz in April. The trench was named Mansell Copse, as it was in a group of trees. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme when attacking German trenches near Mametz. He was bombing officer for his battalion during the attack, and was killed by a machine gun positioned at a shrine whilst taking grenades to the men in the newly captured trenches. The bullet went through his neck, killing him instantly. His servant was found next to him after the offensive had ended. He is buried in Devonshire Cemetery in Mansell Copse.

Hodgson:

noel-hodgson-250

Let Hodgon’s grave stand for the 30,000 men whose lives were cut short a hundred years ago today:

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77 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    sub

  2. Richard Jones
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    In Newfoundland and Labrador this is Memorial Day in honour of the Newfoundland Regt which was virtually wiped out at Beaumont Hamel in the first hour of the battle. Newfoundland was then a British colony with a population of about 330,000. The Globe & Mail has a very good article in today’s edition.

    Lions led by donkeys, indeed.

    • jeffery
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

      One of the most tragic aspect of these losses was that, at that time, many British units were made up exclusively of men from one locality, or even one town- many small towns had most of an entire generation of their young men wiped out in this one battle.
      There’s an excellent book on the utter arrogance and imbecility of the British High Command entitled, “The Donkeys”: the title comes from a German General’s comment that the English soldiers were “Lions led by donkeys.”

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      The British colonies took a beating. You can see that in the numbers above – we were all cannon fodder.

  3. Don McCrady
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    You owe it to yourself to listen to Dan Carlin’s Blueprint for Armageddon podcast (http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-50-blueprint-for-armageddon-i/). I think it’s about 20 hours total but it’s riveting and captures the horror and pointlessness of that entire war.

    • GBJames
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      I’ll second that recommendation. It is an excellent podcast. (So are the others in Carlin’s Hardcore History series.)

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      I was going to mention that too.
      Sam Harris put me onto it.
      It is amazingly good.

    • jeremyp
      Posted July 4, 2016 at 6:35 am | Permalink

      I’ve listened to the whole thing twice. It’s one of the best treatments of WW1 I have come across.

      One of Carlin’s sources is Storm of Steel written by Ernst Jünger. I cannot recommend that book too highly.

      • Posted July 12, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

        +1 on Storm of Steel

        Also: All Quiet on the Western Front

  4. Kevin
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    What was the point? At what stage will simian-like violence never be an answer for our species?

    I am not a resolved pacifist, more like a submissive sociopath who would prefer mechanisms of deterrence rather than action…all feathers and no muscle. But clearly, dialogue and reason and lack of prejudice can achieve a great deal more than any armed conflict.

  5. Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    …or perhaps, on this day when we ought to remember

    Aftermath
    By Siegfried Sassoon

    HAVE you forgotten yet? …
    For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
    Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
    And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
    Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
    Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
    But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game. …

    Have you forgotten yet? …
    Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

    Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
    The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.
    Do you remember the rats; and the stench
    Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
    And dawn coming, dirty-white and chill with a hopeless rain?
    Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

    Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
    And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
    As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
    Do you remember the stretcher cases lurching back
    With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
    Mask of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

    Have you forgotten yet?
    Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

    • Richard Jonesr
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      Powerful stuff. This is why we always need poets.

      • Filippo
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        Yes, in the case of these particular lions, even more so “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      New Zealand has a blasphemy law, which has only ever been used once and that was when a Sassoon poem, ‘Stand to: Good Friday Morning’ was published in a left-wing newspaper in October 1921. The last three lines of the poem were what caused the problem:

      I’d been on duty from two till four.
      I went and stared at the dug-out door.
      Down in the frowst I heard them snore.
      ‘Stand to!’ Somebody grunted and swore.
      Dawn was misty; the skies were still;
      Larks were singing, discordant, shrill;
      They seemed happy; but I felt ill.
      Deep in water I splashed my way
      Up the trench to our bogged front line.
      Rain had fallen the whole damned night.
      O Jesus, send me a wound to-day,
      And I’ll believe in Your bread and wine,
      And get my bloody old sins washed white!

      The prosecution didn’t succeed, but the publisher was issued a warning to be mindful of what he published.

  6. barn owl
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Of course many are familiar with the WWI poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action one week before the Armistice.

    “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 2, 2016 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      Just a few days ago, probably not by coincidence, the Beeb did a programme about the work of Porton Down (Grimbledon Down, to New Scientist readers of a certain vintage), where “our backroom boys” developed our range of chemical, biological and nerve agents. More usefully, they also develop testing tools for identifying and characterising both our own and “enemies” agents (and agents we investigated, decided to not use, but other people might use).
      They didn’t make much of it, but they included some photos of mustard gas injuries – the huge seeping, agonising, incapacitating blisters. I’d seen them before. They were pictures from the third strand of Porton Down’s work – destroying our existing stock of chemical warfare munitions. Sometimes there are accidents in the opening or incinerating plant.
      When the gas alarm goes off at work, it’s normally a drill (or a low alarm). But what we don’t want is the third quatrain of that poem :

      Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
      Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
      But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
      And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …

  7. bonetired
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    More Sassoon

    The General

    “Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
    When we met him last week on our way to the line.
    Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
    And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
    “He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
    As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

    But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

  8. mikeyc
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    If I may….

    The Green Fields of France
    -The Dropkick Murphys

    Oh how do you do, young Willy McBride
    Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside
    And rest for a while in the warm summer sun?
    I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
    And I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
    When you joined the great fallen in 1916.
    Well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean.
    Or Willy McBride, was is it slow and obscene?

    Did they beat the drums slowly?
    Did they play the fife lowly?
    Did they sound the Death March as they lowered you down?
    Did the band play “The Last Post” and chorus?
    Did the pipes play “The Flowers of the Forest”?

    And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
    In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
    And though you died back in 1916
    To that loyal heart you’re forever nineteen
    Or are you a stranger without even a name
    Forever enshrined behind some old glass pane?
    In an old photograph torn, tattered and stained
    And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame

    The sun shining down on these green fields of France
    The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
    The trenches have vanished long under the plow
    No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
    But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
    The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
    To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
    And a whole generation were butchered and damned!

    And I can’t help but wonder oh Willy McBride
    Do all those who lie here know why they died
    Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
    Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
    Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
    The killing and dying it was all done in vain
    Oh Willy McBride it all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again.

    • jay
      Posted July 2, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      incredibly tragic song… worth a listen

  9. Craw
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    My grand-father was a POW in WWI. He served in a Canadian Light Horse unit. Yep, light horse.

    • Posted July 4, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      This reminds me … There was an exhibit, I think at the Canadian War Museum, a while back, about *equine* causalities. A lot of horses died in WWI too.

  10. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Of course for those on this side of the pond, our bloodiest day in war was Antietam, 1862. Est. 22,717 dead, wounded, missing. The count adds up faster when both sides are the same.

    I must say that my best pick on WWI is Guns Of August, Barbara Tuchman (1962) Pulitzer prize

    Five Lieutenants, James Carl Nelson (2012) would likely do well in this crowd.

    The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark (2012) is very long and suppose to explain why WWI, if you can make it through.

    • Filippo
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read that Tuchman’s book had a great impact on JFK.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

        Such a writer. Anyone who can make that topic and all the prelude to the war interesting and wanting more. I thought it was a work of art.

        A great contrast would be to read Guns of August and then attempt The Sleepwalkers. You will be asleep many times with that second book.

        • bonetired
          Posted July 2, 2016 at 2:59 am | Permalink

          A much better book is Margaret MacMillan’s “The War that Ended Peace: How Europe abandoned peace for the First World War”. It is a far easier read and, unlike Clarke, doesn’t absolve Germany of blame.

          • Bethlenfalvy
            Posted July 2, 2016 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

            “It […] doesn’t absolve Germany of blame.”

            Perhaps not so much surprising.

            She’s the great-granddaughter of David Lloyd George.

  11. Frank Bath
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    My grandfather fought in the trenches, British Army, and he would frighten us kids by re-enacting hand to hand fighting to the death until my parents calmed him down. The horror.

  12. Robert Bray
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I find strange the comparative silence between here and Europe regarding WWI. But perhaps next year, the centenary of the U. S.’s entrance into the war, will awaken our remembrance and sense of commemoration. On the campus where I taught for so many years sits a rather imposing neo-classic building that until a decade or so was called ‘Memorial Gymnasium.’ I would bet that not one in a hundred students know what it was a memorial of. Likewise with the towering Liberty Memorial atop a hill just south of downtown Kansas City MO. While many residents probably know why it was originally erected, I doubt they understand that their civic grandparents genuinely believed (at least some of them) that the ‘war to end all wars’ had just been fought.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

      I hate to be cynical about the lack of knowledge in American History by our fellow Yanks but fewer than half could tell you who we fought in the revolutionary war. WWI? Must be the one before two.

    • John B.
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      I’m an American working in an academic library at a large university. Today I was following the #WeAreHere story with enthusiasm. None of my colleagues at work seemed to be aware of the Somme centenary (I can overhear all discussions in my cramped cubicle farm of 15 people – nobody talked about it). However, what did attract a group of coworkers to crowd around a computer were pictures from the latest furry con…

      I haven’t seen a single mention of the Somme on cable news outlets here. Instead, it’s all fluff about fireworks, traveling on July 4th, and tips for barbecuing.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I recently listened to Dan Carlin’s excellent six-part podcast on The Great War, Blueprint for Armageddon. He covers the Somme at length in Part IV.

  14. Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Can’t help adding a war poem by a woman, Vera Brittain, whose autobiograpy “Testament of youth” is higly recommended.

    August, 1914 – Poem by Vera Brittain

    God said, “Men have forgotten Me:
    The souls that sleep shall wake again,
    And blinded eyes must learn to see.”

    So since redemption comes through pain
    He smote the earth with chastening rod,
    And brought destruction’s lurid reign;

    But where His desolation trod
    The people in their agony
    Despairing cried, “There is no God.”

  15. ChrisH
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    If you have not visited the WWI cemeteries in northern France and Belgium then I – even though it’s the wrong word – recommend it. It really brings the madness home.

    • Filipo
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      I find myself wondering if WW II battles left their physical marks on the WW I cemeteries.

      • bonetired
        Posted July 2, 2016 at 3:23 am | Permalink

        As I am the “Pyers” of the original article, may I recommend a couple of books that readers might like to read concerning the Somme?

        Firstly, William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century” Prof Philpott is a member of a new breed of historian that looks at the battle in the context of the war (he is especially good dealing with the French) and he concludes, as you can tell from the title, that the Somme was a deeply sanguineous battle but one that changed the course of the war decisively in the Allies favour (there was a direct link between the Somme and the re-introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare which brought the US into the war).

        I am not normally a great fan of eye-witness accounts – they are unreliable and prone to hyperbole (Lynn Macdonald’s “Somme” was lacerated by Richard Holmes for just that reason) – but there is one book that is an exception. No one writing about the Somme can ignore, nor should they do so, Martin Middlebrook’s classic “First Day on the Somme”. Middlebrook’s skill is to blend eyewitness accounts with detailed analysis which confirms the survivor’s stories against the historical record.

        • bonetired
          Posted July 2, 2016 at 3:30 am | Permalink

          Sorry … wrong part of the thread 🙂

  16. Historian
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    For me, in some ways WWI was more tragic than WWII, although many millions more died in the latter. In WWII the Allies fought to stop a genocidal evildoer in Europe and an aggressor nation in Asia. At least regarding the European theater, if there is such a thing as a “good” war, that was it. But, prior to WWI, no European leader of any of the Great Powers was a psychopath like Hitler and his minions. This even applies to the Kaiser. Yes, it was an era of militarism, nationalism, and imperialism. Certainly, Germany wanted to dominate Europe and was willing to risk war to do so. All the Great Powers had highly thought out war plans, all turning out to be worthless. The failure of these nations to understand the nature of modern warfare, such as the power of the machine gun and poison gas, resulted in them destroying the Old Order in ways they could never have conceived. Moreover, the end of the war was really just a truce that set the groundwork for an even more horrible conflict. Terrible diplomacy after the murder of Archduke Ferdinand was the proximate cause of the war. One can only wonder what would have happened if Germany did not give Austria-Hungry the infamous blank check.

    • Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I read once a comment on this blog (don’t remember on which post) that WWI started out of nowhere, and nobody had predicted it. However, I have heard some commentaries about our 1912 Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire: namely, that before it some advisors allegedly told the too-ambitious Bulgarian King, “Let’s not start a war now, there is a great war in the making between the European powers, we can use it to take what we want.”

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted July 1, 2016 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think that was one I read any where. But please give the Guns of August a shot or any number of other historians out there who have written about the cause of WWI. It was lots of things I believe with commitments between many countries being one of the primary causes. France’s commitment to Russia, and Russian commitment to Serbia. Germany to Austria-Hungry and on and on.

        I am pretty sure that WWI was a prelude to WWII. Therefore separating them by thinking one was bad and two was good does not really work. WWI allowed WWII to take place and that makes one all the worse.

        • Posted July 2, 2016 at 11:19 am | Permalink

          Exactly. Making a military alliance may be an effort to preserve peace, but too often is a prelude to war. “If you want war, prepare for war.”

  17. tn
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    To get an appreciation for the Battle of the Somme (as well as Agincourt and Watterloo), I recommend “The Face of Battle,” by John Keegan. Alan Seeger’s “I have a rendezvous with Death” is special.

    As a high school history teacher, I used to read Seeger, Owen and other WWI poets to my classes on 11/11.

  18. Posted July 1, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    100 years ago today – 1st July 1916 my grandmother’s brother was killed on The Somme.
    I4464 Pte. James Wallace, 16th (Service) (2nd Glasgow) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. (Glesga Pals)This Battalion was formed of mainly members and ex-members of The Boy’s Brigade.
    Our family still has my Granny’s letters: replies from the War Office to her enquiries as to the fate of her brother. Sadly his remains were never found – his name is carved on the memorial at Thiepval.

  19. TnkAgn
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    21 comments and I can only access 16. How do I find the missing 5?

    • Graham Head
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Count the unnumbered replies, they’re the ‘missing’ posts.

  20. Diki
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Owen’s masterpiece from 6:25 onwards. Tragic https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=LnrOcUep1Go

  21. Posted July 1, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  22. Posted July 1, 2016 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    PJ Harvey’s own take on the tragedy of the war – based on her extensive reading of letters, diaries, etc, of soldiers in war – has also produced an extremely poignant work: her ‘Let England Shake’ album:

    I think she managed to approach it in a similar way as for example Erich Maria Remarque did in ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. In my naivety I thought that politicians that would read such book would never be able to engage in war. Her poems/songs have a similar power.

  23. Nick
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    And all for the sake of moving the line about 10km forward. Horrific.

  24. Robin
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    One of the most poignant poems that came out of that horrific and wasteful war is Aftermath by Siegfried Sassoon

    poet Siegfried Sassoon #68 on top 500 poets Poet’s PagePoemsQuotesCommentsStatsE-BooksBiographyShare on FacebookShare on Twitter
    Poems by Siegfried Sassoon : 11 / 166 « prev. poem next poem »
    Aftermath – Poem by Siegfried Sassoon

    Autoplay next video
    Have you forgotten yet?…
    For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
    Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
    And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
    Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
    Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
    But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
    Have you forgotten yet?…
    Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

    Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
    The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
    Do you remember the rats; and the stench
    Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
    And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
    Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

    Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
    And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
    As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
    Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
    With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
    Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

    Have you forgotten yet?…
    Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

  25. M Janello
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Another excellent book is “Good-bye to All That” the autobiography of Robert Graves (best know these days as the author of I Claudius), who was there and almost killed.

    • Posted July 2, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

      I also highly recommend the Robert Graves autobiography. Robert Graves lived and went on to write many important literary works. If Owen, Sassoon, et al, had survived imagine what they also could have written. Look at what we lost. In addition to all the young men whose lives were wasted, think of the many thousands who returned home in terrible physical and/or mental condition, suffering alone because the wartime experiences were too shocking and tragic to share with people you love.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 2, 2016 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

        Don’t forget the 18 million or so who died from the “Spanish Flu,” whose spread was probably helped by troop movements in the late part of the war.
        How many of those victims can be ascribed to the war is unsure, but the answer is likely not to be “zero,” if only because many thousands of soldiers died in transit and in barracks.

        • Posted July 12, 2016 at 9:00 am | Permalink

          I am currently reading The Great Influenza by John Barry. I highly recommend it.

          The lowest estimate for death he gives for the 1918 flu pandemic is 26 million. A more realistic one (worldwide) is set at 50 million (many millions died in, for instance, Greenland, Africa, South America, parts of Asia, where record keeping was poor in 1918). The high end estimate is 100 million worldwide.

          And that with an estimate world population of 1.8 billion. (That is, between 1.4% and 6% of the world’s population died; and far, far more we incapacitated for a time.)

          Even today, flu is the number 1 killer for infectious diseases in the US (and probably Europe as well). Flu kills about 30,000 people per year in the US.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted July 12, 2016 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

            many millions died in, for instance, Greenland

            Hmmm. Pickiness alert!.
            With a present-day population of 55 thousand, then Greenland must be close to the country that came closest to being eliminated by infectious disease.
            I can think of past countries that have been decimated – or even prialed – by disease. But none that have lost every member. Unless someone knows differently.

  26. Tim Harris
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    I think that the two greatest books to come out of WW I were Ernst Junger’s ‘In Stahlgewittern’ or ‘Storm of Steel’ (there’s an excellent translation), and the Anglo-Welsh poet David Jones’s long and formally daring ‘In Parenthesis’. I’d also recommend, as a bit of an antidote to Owen & Sassoon, whose moralising I sometimes find hard to take even as I agree with it, Isaac Rosenberg (also a painter) and Ivor Gurney, who was also a fine composer. Here’s Rosenberg (from ‘Dead Man’s Dump’):

    What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit.
    Earth! Have they gone into you?
    Somewhere they must have gone,
    And flung on your hard back
    Is their souls’ sack,
    Emptied of God-ancestralled essences,
    Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

    None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
    Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
    Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
    When the swift iron burning bee
    Drained the wild honey of their youth.

    *

    Rosenberg was killed – probably the greatest loss to English poetry of the war. Gurney had a mental collapse, with psychotic episodes, after the war, and spent years in an asylum, his language and music deserting him. I find his poem ‘Bach – Under Torment’, written late in his life, almost too painful to read. Here’s the last part of it:

    O, will not Gloucester, nor Aubers, nor Ypres save?
    I paid a price of love there could not be said
    Anyway but huge of any thought of my sternest god.
    Golden firelight or racked frost hurt me to the nerve.
    O Bach, O Father of all make¥rs, look from your hidden
    Hold where you are now and help me, that am so hard hurten.

    And there is Edward Thomas, Robert Frost’s friend, whose poetry all exists in the shadow of the war (he was killed at Arras).

    Finally, the poet Geoffrey Hill, author of an extraordinary poem about the First World War, ‘The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy’, has just died:

    Dear lords of life, stump-toothed, with ragged breath,
    throng after throng cast out upon the earth,
    flesh into dust, who slowly come to use
    dreams of oblivion in lieu of paradise,

    push on, push on! – through struggle, exhaustion,
    indignities of all kinds, the impious Christian
    oratory, ‘vos morituri’, through berserk fear,
    laughing, howling, ‘servitude et grandeur’

    in other words, in nameless gobbets thrown, up by the blast…

    • Tim Harris
      Posted July 1, 2016 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

      Just to say that apart from that ¥ mark that crept in from somewhere, the text of Gurney’s poem is correct,

  27. Erp
    Posted July 1, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    My great grandfather’s cousin and head of the family business was killed on July 3 in the battle (8th battalion, North Staffordshire). He was 53. A cousin on a different branch of the family was killed Sept. 25, age 20 (Cameron Highlanders, 1st battalion).

  28. MorsGotha
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    If you wanted to learn more I am subscribed to an excellent youtube channel, which does a ‘what was happening this week 100 ago in the great war’ every thursday’ as well as various specials and Q&A’s:

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUcyEsEjhPEDf69RRVhRh4A

  29. somer
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    Many had no graves, only a name on a memorial

    Also chapters on World War 1 and its aftermath in William R Keylor, The Twentieth Century World and beyond

  30. Kjf
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    Out of the 780 men of the Newfoundland Regiment who went over the top on July 1st only 68 made roll call the next morning. There’s a beautiful memorial of a caribou on the site today. The landscape still bares the scars of the carnage. It’s quite a haunting experience to trek the old First World War battlefields.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 2, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      I just learned, today, that the Newfoundland Regiment also fought with the ANZACs at Gallipoli, a place where my great-grandfather (I think it’s “great” and not “great-great” — I get these generational things all mixed up), fighting with the ANZACs (I think as an Aussie, we have Aussies in our family in NZ) was so badly wounded that he was sent home.

  31. RPGNo1
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    The battle of Somme and its countless victism are a good reminder, why such war may never ever happen again on European soil. And the EU is one way to counter jingoism and nationalism.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 2, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

      That would explain why jingoists and nationalists were so vocal campaigning to leave the EU.

      • Posted July 3, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

        Do you really believe that there were no reasons except “jingoism and nationalism” that led Britain to Brexit, and that only a union of nations alone will prevent another war? If this is the case, and given that the USA has been involved as a main protagonist in the carnage of both World Wars, it only follows that the USA should also resign its status as a sovereign nation… and allow the US Constitution to be superseded by EU created laws, that US immigration policy be controlled by the EU, and that US commercial practises conform to EU based standards.

        If you accept these points you can pursue this line of argument – otherwise your failure to do so is nothing but “jingoistic”.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted July 4, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

          No, racism and xenophobia were big players too. Me, I’m leaving – Britain.

          • Posted July 4, 2016 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

            The decision to Leave was reached democratically. It’s more than a bit churlish to claim that the 17.4 million who voted to leave must all be racist. The results effectively puts the destiny of Britain back in the hands of the British. If things turn out badly, at least it will be the result of sovereign British action rather than the result of some external power. And given the hash-up Brussels has been making of European finances, security and employment it is hard to imagine that the British could ever do a worse job by themselves.

  32. Mike
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Ther are two Poems that illustrate for me the futility of that War and the class ridden attitudes that pervaded it.

    “Base Details” by Seigfried Sassoon which excoriates the Officer Class, of which he was a junior member

    “If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
    I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base.
    And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
    You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
    Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel.
    Reading the Roll of Honor. “Poor young chap,”
    I’d say—“I used to know his father well;
    Yes we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap”
    And when the war is done and youth stone dead; I’ll todlle safely home, and die in bed.”

    The other one is one of the greatest Anti- War Poems ever written , by Wilfred Owen another junior Officer ,he was killed one week before the Ceasefire.
    “Dulce et Decorum Est”

    “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
    Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
    Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
    To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.(15)”

    The Title was taken from the Roman Poet Horace and the translation is “It is sweet and honorable to die for your Country” which as the Poem illustrates, it is anything but, incidentally the phrase is engraved over the main entrance to Sandhurst the main OTC of the British Army

    And if you aren’t depressed enough by now,here are The Furys singing the greatest anti-war song, “The Green Fields of France” written by Eric Bogle ,the man who wrote “Waltzing Matilda”

  33. Mike
    Posted July 2, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    There are two Poems that illustrate for me the futility of that War and the class ridden attitudes that pervaded it.

    “Base Details” by Seigfried Sassoon which excoriates the Officer Class, of which he was a junior member

    “If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
    I’d live with scarlet majors at the Base.
    And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
    You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
    Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel.
    Reading the Roll of Honor. “Poor young chap,”
    I’d say—“I used to know his father well;
    Yes we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap”
    And when the war is done and youth stone dead; I’ll todlle safely home, and die in bed.”

    The other one is one of the greatest Anti- War Poems ever written , by Wilfred Owen another junior Officer ,he was killed one week before the Ceasefire.
    “Dulce et Decorum Est”

    “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
    Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
    Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
    To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.(15)”

    The Title was taken from the Roman Poet Horace and the translation is “It is sweet and honorable to die for your Country” which as the Poem illustrates, it is anything but, incidentally the phrase is engraved over the main entrance to Sandhurst the main OTC of the British Army

    And if you aren’t depressed enough by now,here are The Furys singing the greatest anti-war song, “The Green Fields of France” written by Eric Bogle ,the man who wrote “Waltzing Matilda”

  34. Dominic
    Posted July 4, 2016 at 4:06 am | Permalink

    Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the death of the American Alan Seeger who fought with the French –
    I have a rendezvous with death…

  35. Glandu
    Posted July 4, 2016 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    Being french, my grand-grandfather fought more to the south, in similar battles. He came back without any physical problems.

    But inside, he was no more the same, and he suicided himself by excess of alcohol.

    • jeremyp
      Posted July 4, 2016 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      There is a tendency amongst us British to play down or ignore France’s part in the First World War. In fact, the Battle of the Somme was the first major battle in which the British took the lead role on the side of the Allies.

      JAC’s table at the top lists 200,000 French casualties. These were in addition to the “meat grinding” that was going on in the Battle of Verdun to the South. Verdun officially started in February and lasted to December.

  36. Ken Mann
    Posted July 4, 2016 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Just because an American audience might not have been exposed to it here is a later remembrance not specific to the Somme.
    http://www.jakethackray.com/archive/songs/the-lyrics-and-guitar-tabs/item/the-remembrance.html

  37. Posted July 4, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    What a horrifying, bloody disaster. I’ve on and off tried to figure out why WWI happened, and I still can’t get it. A Serbian kills an Austro-Hungarian, and Germany and France go at it? Madness.

  38. William Bill Fish
    Posted July 4, 2016 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Even though they are going to move Haig’s statue inside Edinburgh Castle, can I still piss on it? Newfoundland Regiment on July 5, 1916 had 68 answer roll call out of the 1,000 members who answered roll call on July 4, 1916!

  39. Posted July 12, 2016 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    I highly recommend a couple of recordings by the (wonderful) UK folk duo, Show of Hands (to which I was introduced on one of these comment threads!):

    Centenary: Words & Music of the Great War (2014) Some of this I could not listen too (too moving for me).

    The Long Way Home (2016), their latest.


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