The battlefields of the First World War have always been of great interest to me, but it is the Somme, and in particular the events of 1st July 1916, which never fail to arouse in me the strongest emotions.
Having already visited the battlefields on a number of organised tours which usually involved travelling from place to place on a coach, on this occasion I felt the need, rather than visit each site in isolation, to retrace the steps of the 'Tommies' who sacrificed so much. In order to achieve this, my wife and I decided on a 5-day walking tour of the battlefields.
We travelled by coach via the Channel Tunnel to our base at Amiens, staying four nights in a 3 star hotel. Each day's tour consisted of two walks of approximately 3 to 4 hours' duration (in groups of 15 people) separated by a lunch stop at a typical French café.
Strong walking shoes are recommended, but the leisurely pace and frequent stops at points of interest ensure that even those people with a more sedentary lifestyle can keep up - two of our party were in their seventies.
To understand the events that led up to the Battle of the Somme, it is necessary to realise that they were as much political as military. There was great pressure from our French allies to relieve some of the strain on the French army which had been suffering catastrophic losses, especially on the battlefields of Verdun.
The British High Command came up with a plan. Prior to the battle the German trenches would be bombarded mercilessly for weeks until they were completely destroyed. Then at 7.30am on 1st July 1916 along a wide front, British soldiers would climb out of their trenches and walk slowly across No Man's Land towards the German lines. This would be the big breakthrough, the British would pour through the German lines and the war would be over before the end of the year.
One snag! The bombardment didn't work; in fact it did very little damage. As soon as the bombardment had stopped, the German troops came out of their well-protected dugouts, set up their machine guns, and proceeded to mow down the British in their hundreds and thousands.
It was carnage; and a sane person would think "Stop! This isn't working, let's try something else" - but no! The battle went on until November, leaving thousands of dead on both sides for a gain along the front line of a few miles.
A hollow victory indeed!
Our walks traced many events of the battle, usually beginning at positions where we gained some idea of the topography of the battlefield. The most striking image is that, although the Somme area is considered very flat, whenever you looked towards the German front line it was always uphill. The Germans always had the best positions on the high ground.
Each group was led by an experienced guide who not only explained the military significance of each site, but also gave an insight into the human consequences of the battle through a variety of readings from diaries and memoirs, and, more poignantly, the poems of the men who had fought and, in some cases, died there.
The walks, while including the well-visited, well-known sites such as Thiepval Memorial, Mametz Battlefields and Devonshire Cemetery, Death Valley and High Wood, Newfoundland Park, Sunken Lane and Hawthorn Ridge Mine Crater and Delville Wood, also gave opportunities to visit the 'forgotten' places which now lie in the middle of farmers' fields surrounded by crops. There you will find a beautifully-kept cemetery. (The Commonwealth War Graves Commission do a fantastic job in maintaining these cemeteries.) The cemetery will probably be in No Man's Land and will have the graves of men who died in that spot.
As you walk through the rows of gleaming white headstones, reading the inscriptions, it is difficult to control one's emotions. Some inscriptions are very moving - 'An only son' always gets me. There is also a sense of anger when you know that after the war loved ones had to pay extra for those inscriptions. It wasn't enough that their men had given their lives for King and Country.
Many graves simply say 'A soldier of the Great War', because the body could not be identified. Some bodies lay there for months and with the continuous shellfire it just made it impossible to say who it was. Each unknown soldier's gravestone has the apt inscription 'Known Unto God.'
One walk sticks vividly in my mind. We were walking towards High Wood (a German stronghold) across open ground, retracing the route that had to be taken by the British, when suddenly the heavens opened. The rain and hail lashed down and with the high wind and no cover we took a drenching. No-one said a word as we walked briskly towards the relative shelter of the London Cemetery at High Wood. As we stood looking out at the headstones with water dripping from us, one person said, "We only faced a little rain today - they faced a hail of bullets and shells." Silence fell.
Later, when we met the other group for lunch, they told us how lucky they had been to be able to shelter from the rain and miss getting soaked. We just looked at each other and said nothing, because we knew we had been the lucky ones. For just one moment, in a funny sort of way, we could empathise with what those brave men had gone through.
Although this was a walking tour, it was also our holiday, and there is more to the Somme than just battlefields. It is also a lovely area to visit - typical French countryside - full of small villages and crops in the fields. Many of these villages, of course, had to be built from scratch after the war because nothing remained of them apart from dust. No building in them predates 1918.
Amiens is also worth a visit, especially if you want to eat out. It has a wide range of restaurants to satisfy lovers of French cuisine, although, being vegetarian, I found the choice somewhat limited. We managed to find an Indian restaurant that specialised in vegetarian dishes, although we did find humour in the unexpected - our waiter speaking French with a strong Indian accent! I'm still not sure what I ate, but it was delicious!
The 5 days flew by and we felt we had only touched the surface. There is so much more to see and do. The irony of the Somme Battlefields is that, for many years, very few people visited it, and only now, when most of the soldiers who survived that great conflict have themselves passed away, has the country regained its sense of remembrance and many now feel the need to visit the places where so many of 'our boys' still lie in foreign fields.
'We will remember them.'
We will remember him, too. My greatest friend and serial battlefield-visitor Pat Raftery died in 2011 - Tom Morgan.
Copyright © Pat Raftery March, 2000
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