At 7.30 on a sunny morning one hundred years ago today more than sixty thousand British soldiers, each with a bayonet rifle in his hand, began climbing out of their trenches along a 13-mile front and walked towards the German line. By nightfall 20,000 British soldiers were dead. In just a few minutes whole communities in Britain had been devastated.  This was the start of the Battle of the Somme. It went on, with little gain, for nearly half a year. By then, more than a million men were dead or wounded, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

Lt Edward Liveing of the London Regiment recalled:

The wind blew east, and a few fleecy clouds raced along the blue sky overhead. The sun was infusing more warmth into the air. There was a freshness and splendour of a summer morning over everything. In fact, as one man said, it felt more as if were were going to start off for a picnic than for a battle.

Two summers ago I visited sites of the First World War on the Somme and in Flanders. That summer, like this one no doubt, the road was full of those seeking meaning or consolation in the places where battles were fought, and in the hundreds of wayside cemeteries spread across Flanders and northern France in which are buried the young men who fell in those battles.

Storm approaching over the Somme
Storm approaching over the Somme near Thiepval

Where to start my journey two years ago?  I began at a place I have wanted to see ever since reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. From many miles away I saw it, a mountain of red brick and white stone that rises above a copse of trees on a ridge. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme battlefields bears the names of 72,194 officers and men who died in the Somme battle sector and have no known grave. Over 90 percent of those commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial died just in the 141 days of the Battle of the Somme between July and November 1916. They are the Missing.

The names of a few of the Missing on the Thiepval memorial
The names of a few of the Missing on the Thiepval memorial
Thiepval Memorial and graves
Thiepval Memorial and graves

These are some of the posts I wrote at the time concerning the Somme:

More posts about the First World War can be found here.

An image from the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme
An image from the 1916 documentary The Battle of the Somme

‘Aftermath’ was written by Siegfried Sassoon in 1919:

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

 Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz –
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench –
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack –
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads -those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

See also


3 thoughts on “The Somme: they went over the top one hundred years ago this morning

  1. When we all end the war within ourselves, then the battle of ending the wars in others could begin and peace could be in the right here and the right now.

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