The Battle of the Somme - its origins and remembrance


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29 June 2010
imports_MIL_thiepvalthememorialto_53061.gif Thiepval, the memorial to the missing on the Somme

Martin Middlebrook reflects on a battle ‘engraved on the soul of the nation’

The First World War took place nearly a hundred years ago. There was a second ‘world war’ which lasted half as long again as the first, and Britain has been drawn into numerous smaller conflicts since then. It is probable that within a day or so of reading this article, you will hear that another young British soldier has been blown to pieces in some dusty corner of Afghanistan. Why should we so often be drawn as far back as 1914-18 and why should the ‘Somme’ be the one word that seems to epitomise the worst of that dreadful conflict?

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My journey to the Somme

My involvement in the Somme goes back to 1967.

I have a very good friend whose parents, like one of my parents, had their lives shaped by the First World War. My mother’s eldest sister was present at the Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914, as the governess to a girl in a château there. She was left behind when the British retreated and remained under German supervision for the next four years – a period during which an English lady, Nurse Edith Cavell, was executed by the Germans. Mother’s eldest brother, a Platoon Sergeant in the local Territorial Company, took three days to die of a serious stomach wound caused by a ‘whizz-bang’ in 1915 and is buried near Poperinge. Another brother was gassed and taken prisoner in 1918.

My friend’s mother lost her fiancée, a Manchester ‘Pal’, buried in an unknown grave at Arras in 1917. She became a nurse and later married another soldier who was wounded later in the war.

We decided to ‘do’ the Western Front and visited Verdun, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. Verdun made a great impression and it was easy to appreciate why the French viewed that battle as the embodiment of their great sacrifice. We visited the possible ‘Unknown Soldier’ grave of my friend’s lost fiancée at Arras and the grave of my uncle at Poperinge. We had no particular grave to see on the Somme but it was the Somme that made the deepest impression for both of us.

The Gordon Cemetery on the Somme

I can pinpoint exactly where I first realised that something special had happened there. One of the first stops coming into the Somme area from Péronne was at the small Gordon Cemetery where men from a Scots battalion had been buried – 99 ‘other ranks’ in an old trench and six second-lieutenants separately in a corner of the cemetery. I had been a second-lieutenant during my National Service and tried to imagine what it was like to lose six friends in one day, because every man in that cemetery had died on 1st July 1916, the first day of the battle. It was the same half a mile up the road where 161 men of two Devonshire battalions had also been buried in a trench as a result of that day’s fighting.

And so it continued, all the way up to Gommecourt, at the northern edge of the battlefield 18 miles away, where nearly 7,000 Territorials from London and the North Midlands had been killed or wounded that day providing no more than a diversion to the main attack. There are places on the main battlefield where you can see four or five cemeteries from one viewpoint.


The First Day on the Somme

I will not delay you much longer on my personal voyage. I came home deeply impressed. I found 500 British and 20 German survivors. I wrote a book – The First Day on the Somme - that was published in 1971 by the first publisher who saw the manuscript. It was cold shouldered by the established historians of the time who wrote of strategy and generalship, but I have been told many times that my book was taken to the hearts of those who had not been offered the reminiscences of the ordinary soldiers of the lower ranks. 

The rest of this article appears in the July/August edition of the Armourer

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