'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.
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.
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.
(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.