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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Ypres And The Somme

My visit to the battlefields of France and Belgium was really good, so affecting and memorable in so many ways. The picture above is a reconstructed trench at the museum at Passchendaele. During the Third Battle of Ypres British troops attacked uphill, through mud, for several months. The combined casualty figures for both sides totalled over half a million. The village is now home to Tyne Cot, the largest British and Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the world, containing the remains of nearly twelve thousand men and the names of thirty four thousand whose bodies were never found or never identified. 8367 of the graves bear the inscription 'A soldier of the Great War'. Siegfried Sassoon wrote 'I died in hell- they called it Passchendaele'.

While walking up a track by a farmer's field on The Somme we were warned to look out for battlefield debris. These three unexploded shells were lying by the side of the path, uncovered by the farmer and awaiting removal by the French army. The one on the left was a very recent discovery, it had wet mud on it. They look quite small in the picture but the middle one was as long as my foot. Not that I was putting my foot anywhere near it.

This place left me quite shaken- Beaumont Hamel, the Somme. On July 1st 1916 British troops advanced on the German front line, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. I took this picture from the German position. The British front line was where the trees are. You can walk it in about five minutes today. As the British advanced they were mown down by German machine guns. A petrified tree about 50 yards in front of the British front line was the furthest anyone got. After two hours volunteers from Newfoundland were sent in. They were wiped out. I've read about the Battle of the Somme, this particular part of it, and seen pictures but walking this small part of the battlefield, understanding the topography of the land and how it affected the battle, and standing where such slaughter took place was humbling. It really struck me.

This is a field near Serre. Behind me was a copse and a natural dip in the ground where on July 1st 1916 the Accrington Pals assembled, waiting to go in. At the crest of the rise in the picture, just in front of the tree line were six German machine guns. As the Pals, all Kitchener volunteers, walked out of the copse and advanced into this field the machine guns opened up, firing at waist height. You can see how much cover the Accrington Pals got in this field. None. Of the 700 men who started the day, 235 were killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour. Many of them are buried in a cemetery down in the dip. To stand there, walk across the land, be where they were, on a lovely day 98 years later- difficult to put into words really.

No music.


Walter said...

You did right Adam. There's no music to add on the post. I just remembered what happened 100 years ago - and I hope we don't have to stand times like these.

Mr McA said...

Lovely. War, for all its horrors is very affecting.

Last year my class researched the local war memorial after we discovered some of the streets in the town were named after dead soldiers. We uncovered loads of interesting stuff and put it all into a presentation for the local community. We even had a sound engineer come in and record the kids playing an original song they'd written (around some chords I played on the guitar, which he subsequently mixed out! - "It's the children's song", he said, quite rightly). Anyway, this became a huge deal around the town and the local British Legion got in touch to say they'd be leaving little crosses on the graves when the visited Tyne Cot during the summer. Our presentation now plays on a loop in the local museum and in its own little way, the town is a richer place for it.

Scott said...

No music required Adam, in a few paragraphs you have put into words why this must never be allowed to happen again.

Erik Bartlam said...

Thanks to you I've had a slender book of WWI poets out since last week.

It's a touching post...well expressed.

The First World War has a special significance for The South(U.S.)that's nearly been forgotten. I've been trying to get the nut up for writing a post...maybe this will do it.

Dirk said...

Horrible. And, as so often, it's even harder for me to understand why so many folk WANTED to join the army back then! I mean, patriotism is a fine thing at times, but you have to draw the line somewhere, don't you? I mean, obviously back in 1916 the news didn't spread as easily as today, but Jesus Christ, they MUST have been aware of the slaughter that might possibly be done to them BEFORE they went to the recruiting office!

C said...

Very moving. I can't begin to imagine the reality of what happened in those places.

Swiss Adam said...

Brill comments everyone- nice to touch a chord.

Mr McA- that sounds great. Local community stuff can really touch people, nice work.

Dirk- I think it was duty as much as patriotism. People had a much higher sense of duty and obligation. Peer pressure too I guess. That was one of the main reasons for Pals battalions.

Erik- I'm looking forward to your post. A Southern US angle is something I'd be interested in.