The Somme - (untitled)
Fifty years ago on Monday the First World War ended. Today we present the second of a graphic new Express series in which some of the eminent people who fought through it look back on those four terrible years of fighting . . . by Henry Williamson, the distinguished author, who served as an infantryman on the Western Front.
When I lived in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1930 I once spent an evening with young American writer Scott Fitzgerald.
Both of us were haunted by the Western Front. I had served there as an infantry soldier. Fitzgerald missed it, but had visited the battlefields after the war.
He had been struck by the derelict Somme battlefield where I had served in the autumn of 1916. Now it was a quiet place of charred poplars, broken cannon, and scarred white lines of old trenches.
Many years later I was deeply moved by a passage in Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night:–
It took the British Army a month to walk to that little stream – a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walking very slowly backwards a few inches every day, leaving the dead like a lot of bloody rugs . . .
This war took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes . . . You had to have a whole-souled equipment going back further than you remembered. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafes in Valence and beer-gardens in the Unter den Linden, and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers . . .
Why, this was a love-battle – there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle. All my beautiful, lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high-explosive love!
The great push on the Somme was fought by the new and inexperienced divisions of Kitchener’s Army, those enthusiastic volunteers of 1914 who had been training at home for nearly two impatient years. From all parts of Britain they poured into the ports of Dover and Folkestone and the main embarkation quays at Southampton.
Behind the front line batteries were dug in to register on targets 20 miles behind the German trenches in that chalk downland which had been selected as the battle area by the French High Command.
The plan of attack was to annihilate by bombardment the German trench positions and supply routes.
Then lines of British infantry were to advance at 100-yard intervals, carrying water in 2-gallon petrol cans, bombs, rifle grenades and ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, iron screw-pickets, shovels, picks, rations – everything to be carried over miles of totally destroyed country.
The plan was minutely detailed. And day after day Kitchener’s new men practised in the back areas, every man believing that this was the great push to break through the enemy positions, to extend the gap, and roll up Jerry to the Rhine.
We have fat ham for breakfast and no jam for tea,
Skilly for dinner, and cold Maconochie!
Now take away those dixies, and wash them well out,
For soon we’ll all be eating sauerkraut, no doubt.
The great bombardments of the German lines began in the middle of June. The leafy woods were lit up by the lightning flashes of howitzers. Miles behind the front, columns of young soldiers marched towards the great flickering light. The noise of the guns was heard in Kent and sometimes in London, day after day, night upon night.
At German Army Group headquarters at Bapaume there was perplexity. Every British battery position was known. This was no feint attack to draw German troops from other parts of the line. The assault was coming.
Yet it could not succeed. What were the Englanders doing? The Germans had electric listening gear in no-man’s-land and heard most of the messages by buzzer and telephone in the British lines.
The attack was coming without doubt, so they laid their plans:–
Since the attack of the British Fourth Army shows signs of materialising, the British forces should be let through to create a large salient, and there be encircled by attacks driven into both flanks of the Fourth Army, exhausted after their advance with guns and transport over the barren crater-zone made by their own bombardment.
But another idea was put forward. Could it be that none of the British raids on the German front-line trenches, to capture prisoners for interrogation, had reported that the new German dugouts were 30ft underground in the chalk, where the garrisons remained untouched by the 9.2-inch British howitzers’ shells?
So zero hour approached. At 7.30 a.m. on a radiant summer morning, after an hour’s hurricane bombardment, the New Army rose from its trenches and was met at once by withering cross-fire. Within a few minutes nearly 60,000 British troops fell dead or wounded.
It came ‘as a complete surprise to the Staff’ that the German dugouts were so deep. No battalion Intelligence officer had reported this depth.
It was taken for granted that what the front line knew the Staff behind knew.
The battle of the Somme was still raging in mid-November of that year.
Over a million Europeans fell, most of them to be saved and nursed back to physical health of a sort, but with what inner and secret desolation? But most of them went back ‘to be with the boys’ – drawn by the soul’s desire to be tested to destruction if it was fated that his name was on shell or bullet.
This article was published in the Daily Express on Saturday, 9 November 1968, and subsequently collected and reprinted in Days of Wonder (1987; e-book 2013, Henry Williamson Society).