The Somme – A Personal Journey

The attack along the Somme was preceded by an eight-day preliminary bombardment of the German lines, beginning on Saturday 24 June 1916.

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1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans.

I had been drawn to the battlefields of the Somme by an unseen hand, a longing to return to a place I have never been before.

The sky was eggshell blue and the emerald grass ebbed and flowed in the sunlight. The earth did not tremble, could not, yet deep inside I felt it move. One hundred years of rain has washed the blood deep into the ground where for now it remains.

Why the Somme and what happened there stirs such emotion in me is unclear but even as I write tears wet my cheeks.

July 1 1916, at precisely 0730, on a blue sky day such as mine, the barrage ceased and the men went over the top.

Three million soldiers would fight over a front of 45 kilometers, Sir Douglas Haig decreed it so.

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By the end of the day, the butcher’s bill listed 58000 casualties, including 19240 killed. Thirty-two battalions had lost more than 500 men (out of an average strength of 800).

At Beaumont-Hamel, I stood where the soldiers of the 1st battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment rose from their trenches and advanced into No-Man’s-Land and the waiting German machine guns.

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Down the gently sloping field and to my right, a petrified tree, known as the Danger Tree, stands in solitude. The Newfoundlanders, unable to cut through the wire, sought cover around this tree, where they were scythed down like wheat and stacked in a shuddering mound of dead and dying flesh by German reapers.

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Memorial to the 29th Division of the Newfoundland Regiment  at Beaumont Hamel. The memorial looks towards the German lines.

The Canadians lost 700 men in thirty minutes.

Only one other battalion suffered heavier casualties – the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment, at Fricourt.

It was the first time I wept that day. It would not be the last.

Such was the accuracy of the German machine guns that the trench where I stood became clogged with the dead and dying. When the men could no longer walk on the torn remains of their comrades, when the trench was overflowing with corpses, they were forced to seek cover elsewhere, exposing themselves to withering fire.

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I walked the cambered field but my eyes kept returning to the Danger Tree.

At the bottom of the field, I came to the German front line trench. It had taken me twenty minutes to walk there from the British front line. The battle for this sacred, bloody piece of ground, lasted five months, and it was never taken by the allies.

There are 410 military cemeteries on the Somme. Many, like at Beaumont-Hamel, are on the battlefields themselves. The men having been buried where they fell.

Later that day, I visited The Thiepval Memorial. The memorial commemorates 72205 allied soldiers who were declared missing on the Somme between July 1916 and March 1918. Either their bodies were never found or the body was found but could not be identified.

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Their names are carved into the stone.

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While I was at Thiepval, a small memorial service took place. They have been happening regularly since July 1, this being the centenary of the battle.

I wept.

Why I am drawn to Picardy and The Somme seems to go beyond my interest in military history. A friend thinks I fell on the battlefield during a past life. That perhaps my name is chiseled in stone. It’s beyond me to even question that. What I do know is that since my visit a weight has been lifted from my shoulders and, like that July morning in 1916, I am free to go forward in sunlight.

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Monument to 38th Welsh Division, at Mametz Wood

If you are interested in visiting the Battlefields of WW1 then here are a couple of links:

https://www.getyourguide.com/paris-l16/from-paris-wwi-somme-battlefields-full-day-tour-t7573/

Our tour guide ‘Reggie’ was amazing. He has prodigious knowledge of the battles and those who fought in them and I can’t recommend this company enough.

For information about the Somme Battlefields:

http://www.somme-battlefields.com  http://www.firstworldwar.com/battles/somme.htm

 

 

 

The Swimming Pool

I have to swim – my doctor says so. I’m told my lungs, which have been punished by industry, need exercise to keep them from rotting and turning to mush.

I am blessed in that we live on a Caribbean island, where the weather is usually nice (although it’s raining while I write this) and our apartment complex boasts a large, beautifully maintained swimming pool. Motivation, however, even when goaded by my doctor, wife, friend and wheezy lungs, is often hard to find, and swimming, when under pressure to do so, can be monotonous. Today during my swim instead of just gasping back and forth absorbing movement like a long swig of nasty medicine, I looked around and got my Zen on.

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The pool is lined with blue tiles so the water is an intense blue under a tropical blue sky. In the summer, the pool is a warm bath, but in winter it holds a chill. People who don’t live in the Caribbean all year round always laugh when I say that.

Winter brings absentee owners back to their apartments and by 11am there can be as many as a dozen people in or around the pool. This makes swimming lengths a problem because there always seems to be someone in front of you. This happens even when the pool has just one other person in it, which always amazes me.

Being a French island, many of the women at the pool swim or sunbathe topless, which is a delight. I love breasts and I’m certainly going to look. Sorry, but I’m a guy and that’s just the way it is. As I’m now older I’m less worried about leaving the water with an obvious bulge in my shorts although a couple of times it’s been a close run thing …

Boobs aside, the pool is much nicer when there is no one around. Calm in the morning, its surface is like burnished glass, an Alpine lake a thousand feet deep. Kicking off from the wall fractures the water like a windshield smashed by a rock.

Backstroking changes everything. Above, palm trees flick shadows across the pool weaving a frame around a sky filled with cotton wool clouds.

During the day, birds swoop and snatch insects from the water. At dusk bats skim and feed.  In spring, bees, their legs heavy with pollen, drown in the pool. If I see a bee on the surface, I cup it in my hands and carry it gently to shore where the sun dries their wings and away they fly. From experience, bees drifting below the surface, even by the thickness of a finger, have left to pollinate another world.

Today, my friend the ginger cat, a regular visitor, skirted the edge of the pool and stopped to drink, head down, front paws spread like a lion at a Serengeti watering hole. I never realized that so much was going on here!

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On the gate leading to the pool is a sign displaying the rules … all 12 of them. They don’t allow you to do much, other than swim.

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One sign is missing! But then you wouldn’t, would you …