The Flowers in the Field: The Somme Remembered
I’ve posted this at 7.20am on 1st July 2016. Precisely one hundred years ago, following a heavy artillery bombardment that had been going on for a week, an enormous mine was exploded under a fortified position at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel on the River Somme in France. Here is footage of the actual explosion:
Ten minutes later, the first French and British troops went “over the top” on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was to be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
Here is an edited version of a piece I wrote some time ago about this battle and its aftermath.
Twelve summers ago, in 2004, I spent an enjoyable day walking in the beautiful Peak District of Derbyshire followed by an evening at the opera in the pleasant spa town of Buxton, where there is an annual music festival. The opera I saw was A Turn of the Screw, by Benjamin Britten: a little incongruous for Buxton’s fine little Opera House which is decorated with chintzy Edwardiana and which was probably intended for performances of Gilbert & Sullivan light comic operettas rather than stark tales of psychological terror set to unsettling atonal music.
When Buxton’s theatre was built, in 1903, the town was a fashionable resort at which the well-to-do could take the waters and relax in the comfort of one of the many smart hotels.
Arriving over an hour before the opera started, I took a walk around the place and ended up on a small hill overlooking the town centre where I found the local war memorial. This is typical of the sort of thing one can see in small towns the length and breadth of Britain. It lists the names and dates of those killed during the “Great War” (1914-1918). Actually, it lists the names but mostly there is only one date, 1916.
The 1st Battalion of the Nottingham and Derbyshire Regiment (known as the Sherwood Foresters) took part in the Battle of the Somme that started on 1st July 1916. For many of them it ended that day too; some of their names are listed on Buxton’s memorial.
On the first day of this offensive, the British Army suffered 58,000 casualties as, all along the western front, troops walked slowly and defencelessly into concentrated fire from heavy machine guns that were supposed to have been knocked out by the artillery barrage that preceded the attack. The bombardment had been almost entirely ineffective, and it finished well before the British advance started, so the Germans had plenty of time to return to their positions and wait for the advancing British. It had also been believed that the artillery shells would have cut the barbed wire protecting German positions. It didn’t. British and French troops who got entangled were sitting ducks. Carnage ensued.
Rather than calling off the attack in the face of the horrific slaughter, the powers that be carried on sending troops over the top to their doom for months on end. By the end of the battle (in November that year) the British losses were a staggering 420,000, while those on the German side were estimated at half a million. The territory gained at such a heavy price was negligible.
These numbers are beyond comprehension, but their impact on places like Buxton was measurably real. Buxton became a town of widows. The loss of manpower made it impossible for many businesses to continue when peace returned in 1918 and a steep economic decline followed. It never fully recovered from the devastation of 1916 and its pre-war posterity never returned.
And the carnage didn’t end on the Somme. As the “Great War” stumbled on, battle after battle degenerated into bloody fiasco. Just a year later the Third Battle of Ypres saw another 310,000 dead on the British side as another major assault on the German defences faltered in the mud of Passchendaele. By the end of the War on 11th November 1918, losses on both sides were counted in millions.
I decided to end this piece with the following video featuring music by George Butterworth (A Shropshire Lad: Rhapsody for Orchestra, inspired by the poetry of A.E. Housman, and one of the few surviving complete works of this composer). Images of present-day Shropshire are interspersed with photographs taken on the Somme in 1916. I chose this because George Butterworth too lost his life in the Battle of the Somme (on 5th August 1916). Lest we forget.Follow @telescoper