Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Day in France

Thiepval Arch.

Here's a piece I wrote for Maxim Magazine about four years ago, that never got published. And people say I chuck any old bollocks on this blog.

A Day To Remember...

I can't help it. I'm dying. We've been schlepping round the battlefields and cemeteries of the Somme all morning and I had a few too many cafes au lait for breakfast and now I'm desperate for a leak. Nipping round the back of Connaught Cemetery into Thiepval wood I take the old man out and exhale my relief and when I open my eyes I see I am desecrating a poppystrewn shellcrater, last resting place of someone's great uncle. Jesus.

But what am I to do? The British lost over 500,000 men killed or wounded on this one-mile-deep, twenty-mile-wide section of frontline between July and November 1916, and of that vast number fully 54,000 are said still to be missing. Fifty four thousand. Thus, given the comparative tininess of the area, chances are wherever you step in this drizzly, nondescript region of northern France you're stepping on someone's 'corpse', someone's 'remains'. As we saunter about this chalk-and-flint country I keep double-taking chunks of knobbly flint for bits of British skull, for kneecaps and skullbones and shoulderblades.

The best place to get a handle on this immensity of loss is Thiepval Arch: a colossal memorial erected on a notorious ridge held by the Germans at the start of the battle. The pillars of the arch are inscribed with 73,000 names of missing soldiers: stand in front of this arch and examine the endless lists and it hits: you keep seeing the surnames of friends, your mother's maiden name, the Home Secretary's name, your girlfriend's brother's milkman's name: every name you can think of. All England is buried here, out here, out in the fields of Picardy. This was the Altar on which England was sacrificed, the cross on which she was crucified, the time and place after which we were never the same again. 'Thus Ended the Golden Age', as one battalion history puts it.

It's weird, visiting the Somme. Kind of moving, depressing, and inspiring, all at once. The futility of it all is perversely noble. Stand in front of Thiepval arch and turn around and look down the hill: this was the perfect field of fire the German machine gunners had on that fateful hot summer's day, the 1st July 1916. Up that hill came charging the cheering platoons of the 16th Northumberland Fusiliers and the Ulstermen of the Royal Irish Rifles.

They didn't even get halfway. The uncut wire caught them, their own artillery decimated them, the German machine gunners massacred them: playing ceaselessly across their advancing ranks. Those few Brits who did survive the initial slaughter and dived into the relative safety of shellcraters fared little better: the Germans taunted the Geordies stuck in No Man's Land for days, shooting dead any that moved. Eventually even the enemy grew sick and tired of the butchery, and allowed the British to collect their wounded.

The final tally of British casualties for the 1st July 1916 was 21,000 killed with another 36,000 wounded or captured. For comparison 60,000 Americans died in the entire Vietnam War. July 1st 1916 was and is the single worst day in the British Army's history.

Not that it was just the Brits who suffered, of course. About ten miles down the Somme frontline is Delville Wood. Now a tranquil beauty spot, as I walk the sunny rides I have to strive to remember that this peaceful, bluebelled oasis was once the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

It was mid-July 1916 and the South African Brigade had been ordered to take and hold the strategically vital wood 'at all costs'. This they did. For three crucial days they held Delville despite an artillery barrage of such intensity it has been rarely equalled in the history of warfare.

From sunset on the 17th July, 116 German field guns plus 70 German heavy guns plus innumerable howitzers bombarded the South Africans lodged in the little wood. This barrage reached a peak during the 18th July when for seven and a half hours shells were reported to be landing at the rate of 400 a minute on a front just 500 yards long. The sky became dark with the smoke of burning branches, the earth trembled and shook, the crash of falling trees mingled with the scream of shells and wounded men and the heavy concussion of high explosive. Many of those South Africans who 'survived' - about 700 out of over 3000 - were left stone deaf. As one put it later, writing to his mother: 'What I prayed for, and I think what we all prayed for, was an instantaneous death'.

And now I am standing here, listening to skylarks, thinking of lunch, wondering if my girlfriend will have sex with me in the car. How can I be so shallow? Slowly I go back to the hired Peugeot, look across at my bored girlfriend. 'Shall we park somewhere else?' I say.

1 comment:

miseryandsuffering said...

That's a very good blog, even if you wrote it before blogs existed... I've had similar experiences myself, deeply moved one second and then thinking about lunch and breasts minutes later... human nature I guess.