Saturday, July 01, 2006

Lest We Forget.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme.
It began on the 1st of July 1916.
There are a handful of survivors through whom this battle still lives and breathes. Soon their words will be consigned to the pages of history too.

'As the 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit their gains and were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.'

Can you imagine 20,000 people, men and boys. If not then the next time you are in town, at a shopping mall, or walking through the city, take a look around you. Imagine everyone of those people that you see just disappearing, it still won't be 20,000! Now imagine them lying on the ground, dead, bloodied from the machine gun rounds that have shattered their bodies and torn them apart, imagine you are clambering over them to get to where you need to be, some of them you have known all of your life, your brothers, cousins, uncles, father, sons, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.
Can you imagine it now?
Then read on.
'It was a baptism of fire for Britain's new volunteer armies. Many 'Pals' Battalions, comprising men from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses: whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers would be filled with lists of dead, wounded and missing.'

When Kitchener's recruiters arrived then the 'volunteers' poured in. They were sold on the idea of a jolly jaunt to a foreign land, heroic and patriotic endeavours. They were sold the idea that they would be home for Christmas. They were sold down the river, without a paddle, a prayer or a care. As their Mothers, Wives, and Sweethearts bid them farewell it was with a sense of pride in their menfolk, pride that they were going to fight for their country, defend the honour of a nation and a way of life. They would roust the Hun and be victorious. Too soon that pride turned to grief, as those same menfolk they had cheered on their way were cut down in a matter of hours.

Whole villages and communities found themselves without men, the men who had supported them. There was no state assistance in those days. The women had to fend for themselves. It wasn't just the women who suffered. When I lived in Kent, I lived near a small wood that had for centuries been coppiced and worked. Then the men of the village joined up to their local pals battalion. They never returned. The wood fell into disuse and became overgrown. Not only were there not the people to work the wood, but in their passing they took with them the knowledge of how to manage the woodland. It was only after decades of research that the generations that followed discovered some of that knowledge and again, in their honour' began to work the wood again. I spent many hours there, wandering among the trees that they had planted and cared for, walking the ditches they had dug to soak the young branches. As I walked I felt their prescence and thought of them often.

Before Action

By all the glories of the day and the cool evening’s benison.
By that last sunset touch that lay upon the hills when day was done.
By beauty lavishly outpoured and blessings carelessly received.
By all the days that I have lived make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears, and all the wonders poets sing.
The laughter of unclouded years, and every sad and lovely thing.
By the romantic ages stored with high endeavour that was his.
By all his mad catastrophes make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill saw with uncomprehending eyes.
A hundred of thy sunsets spill their fresh and sanguine sacrifice.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword must say good-bye to all of this.
By all delights that I shall miss, help me to die, O Lord.

Noel Hodgson

(A member of the Leeds Pals who died just two days after this poem was published in July 1916)

Just take a moment from your day, and think of them and the families they left behind.

10 at confession:

Kate said...

Jude, what a wonderful post. I think it's hard for us to imagine just how much impact WW1 had on the lives of everyone involved. The sheer scale of death and injury is beyond anything we have seen in our lifetimes. (Thank goodness.) When you do sit down and think about it, it is overwhelming, so horrible.

To think of whole communities being lost either directly in the war, or indirectly because of the gap those lost lives left in the areas they came from.

Kate said...

PS: Nice to see you back :-)

St Jude said...

Thank you Kate.

Pete said...

nice post,

we can't imagine their suffering. Nowadays its a tradgedy when we lose a football match - sigh

WBS said...

Welcome back.

About 20 years ago, based in Germany, we had to look after some of the veterans from both World Wars. Most of us were dreading it, thinking doddery old buggers with their war stories.

We, who might have served in Northern Ireland or the Falklands, soon had our minds changed. Unlike us, boastful and a bit prone to exagerate our experiences, these guys were quiet but composed. Their's weren't stories but just sentences that quietly and without any embelishment managed to convey some of what they went through.

Most of us looked forward to welcoming the diminishing numbers back each year. I still manage to have a quiet private moment on the 1st of Jul and the 1st of Sep (Another, hardly documented, inglorious waste of life).

St Jude said...

Pete: you are so right, although I would rather the tragedy was the loss of a football game rather than life.

WSB: I am glad you got to meet those 'gentle' men. They have so much to teach us. Sadly as their numbers are diminishing we are failing to hear their 'voices'. Yes 1st Sept another waste, there are so many dates. I may be wrong but I see it as our responsibility to carry the torch for those who have gone before.

kim said...

You are so right, we need to remind people what our past generations lived and died for. Our generation has become so self indulgent and unfortunately self involved. Im not sure there would be a whole town or even neighborhood that would enlist on their own now days :(

ps... its nice to see you :)

Nikki said...

What a truely wonderful post.

charlie said...

Thank you, Jude, for such a terrible, but necessary remembrance.

WBS's comment, and KATE's post about her grandfather, remind us that the survivors of war, as well as those who died, were human beings and not just statistics or names on a memorial.

And thank you for remembering, because too few people have the time—or really care.

doris said...

I may be rather late to comment on your post of the Somme but I think one can never be too late. It is something we should think about and try to really comprehend (and you did well with your post) but even then we'd still not really know the full horror.

I also wrote about those time on 1 July as its impact still lives on in our family.

We have trouble dealing with major disasters in this day and age that I don't know how on earth they managed to deal with that number of dead or injured back then. Such that they couldn't and battles later they'd still be clambering over bodies in the mud.

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