Ahead of a service to be held at Westminster Abbey this evening commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme on July 1st 1916 and that will be attended by Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh, I have decided to leave the other disturbing events aside and devote this short commentary piece to what was surely one of the most awful and tragic battles to have taken place in history of warfare.
The commemoration service this evening will be followed by an all-night vigil at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Abbey, the first such since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The commemorations that begin this evening recall the 141 days during which 419,654 British soldiers lost their lives along with 200,000 French and 500,000 German soldiers as well. Gaining just seven miles of territory during the four and a half months that fighting continued this was undoubtedly the costliest and most awful of all the battles ever fought during the Great War.
History provides us with so many guides and lessons as to what has gone before and yet why is it I wonder that we can too easily forget the lessons of the past and of what has gone before. We take so much of what we have for granted today and we too easily believe that despite the lessons that it could never happen again. But we will surely never will forget this one.
Actual film and personal accounts aside Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Thomas Hardy and other great poets from the period have thankfully left us with a permanent legacy and reminder of the Great War in verse. I thank them for that – what a hell-hole this must have been, what an awful place and for what little that was achieved.
For the record and in short summary, the Battle of the Somme began on July 1st 2016 with a predominantly British force clambering out of their trenches and crossing what was known as ‘No Man’s land’ under German machine gun and artillery fire. The attack soon stalled and deteriorated into disaster. On that first day the British suffered 60,000 casualties making it the bloodiest day in British military history. Undeterred, the British command ordered that the assault should continue the next day with the hope that German lines could be broken. This attempt, together with all others that followed through the remaining summer and autumn produced very little gain and with the approach of winter the decision was made in November to abandon and withdraw.
Marking the actual day one hundred years ago that the Battle of the Somme started there will also be an international commemorative event held tomorrow at the Thiepval Memorial to the missing in France. There are a great many memorials and cemeteries across France and Belgium honouring those that died in that terrible war. They and others – 23,000 cemeteries and war memorials in 154 countries worldwide in fact – are looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We commend them for what they do along with the host nations that give them support.
The Royal British Legion will also be hosting a daily service at Thiepval to commemorate each day that the battle lasted and there will be other national commemorative events held right up until 18th November, the day that the Battle of the Somme finally ended.
It is hard to know what else to say and we are fortunate that Europe has to all intents and purposes lived in peace and harmony since May 1945. But we must never take peace for granted and for those who have in the past served to protect us or continue to so do today it is perhaps understandable that as they watch events unfolding in Europe today that feeling might exist that suggests it has been so cheaply lost that we served for all of Britain with a vision of common European purpose and that with common purpose, comes the burden of responsibility.
I will leave you a short yet very prophetic poem written by an American, Alan Seeger and that is entitled ‘Rendezvous with Death’. Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion early in the war in order to defend the country that he then lived in. He wrote prolifically and died at the age of just 28 on the very first day of the Battle of the Somme:
‘I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air –
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair’.
CHW (London – 30th June 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS