Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Somme - in photos and film

The Somme is a river of Picardy in Northern France flowing into the North Sea and an area of farmland about 20 miles square east of Amiens. It is also, effectively, another word for 'hell' in the English language, equivalent to 'Verdun' for the French. If you visit it, you see that The Somme, along with The Ypres Salient is a sacred graveyard, special in that one cannot understand European history and the cost of our liberty, without experiencing its sacrifices. Some of my parents' generation say that the loss of "the finest" on the Somme seriously depleted British genes. Those who fell were the willing and crosses are left everyday, at the Thiepval Memorial, like the one below.

The Somme area is like the rest of north-eastern France, except that its underlying geology is chalk, which had implications for the battle, as it was hard below the surface and saved the deep dug Germans, in July 1916 from a massive bombardment. There are wide views of treeless, hedge-less fields but it is rather more rolling, than the normal landscape. 

There are only a few remaining signs of the moonscape/quagmire in early autumn 1916, and again in 1918. First, there are numerous British and Commonwealth cemeteries, signalled in green and white: they are simply everywhere, for 20 square miles. Second, there are war memorials on the skyline. Then there are hidden WW1 tunnels underground. There is still one enormous WW1 crater, the Lochnagar Crater, not filled in, caused by efforts to blow up the opposing front line from below. 

I am reading Max Hastings  book “Catastrophe” about the causes of World War One.  He explains that the Chief of the German Army, Hermuth von Moltke and his wife, were heavily engaged in the spiritualism and they held seances in his house. These were attended by her spiritualist guru Rudolf Steiner who wrote papers about Friedrich Nietsche, whose “Also Sprach Zarathrustra”, possibly doctored by his fascist sister, Elizabeth, who manipulated his other works. This work on "Superman" was in every WW1 German soldier’s backpack.  One reason may be that it had been wrongly assumed in the German High Command, and in Vienna before August 1914 that brute human force was sufficient to conquer modern weapons of war. But one senses that in WW1, the fight was not merely against flesh and blood, but against “principalities and powers”.

We visited Thiepval, the monument to 75,000 missing British and South African soldiers on the Somme, whose bodies were too damaged to identify and either buried as “Known only to God” in military graveyards, or their remains were never found.  Thiepval’s new visitor centre has films, posters, coffee machines and facilities. I had a fascinating conversation with a Belgian about the likelihood of another such war.  He thought no nation could really afford a war these days: "you need money for wars". He also said his grandfather fought in both World Wars. The First World War was by far the worse, due to trenches and “cruelty”.  His father was a PoW in Germany in WW2 and never spoke about it again.  

We learned there that over a million Germans fought on the Somme in 1916 and 1918. Only one in four of has any grave, so there are over 750,000 missing Germans on the Somme. Though the Somme was and still is often regarded as a monumental waste of life, Churchill said that before The Somme the German Armed Forces were invincible. After The Somme, it was possible to counter them.  The Germans themselves knew that they could never fight another battle like the "Somme".

Visiting the Somme leaves an indelible mark on one's mind. My view is that it is a duty for 21st century British to get over the 'stigma' of the Somme - and go and see it.  The French largely buried their military dead in their own local graveyards.  The Commonwealth buried them in rather remote fields in rural France, which makes it hard to understand the numbers, their sacrifice, or the full cost of war. It was hard too for those relatives coming from Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand - though they still make the pilgrimage.  

Films of the Somme tell another story - jolly British soldiers, obedient, in good humour, smoking, taking death lightly, with spirit, resilience and deep care for one another. They also treat their prisoners of war very kindly, both sides showing friendship, without rancour or bitterness. They all realised that ordinary men were not to blame for this huge catastrophe. Perhaps, too they had greater faith in God than we do, today?

Films about The Somme

A useful modern view of The Battle of the Somme

The Somme Then and Now - showing the locations of events in the films above.

No comments:

Post a Comment