A few words written about a trip to the Somme about 15 years ago
On Saturday afternoons during the mid 1970’s my Granddad used to tell me war stories. He spoke of V2 rockets crashing into the back garden, of Lancaster Bombers droning overhead, of his own adventures from Baghdad to Berlin, and also of those of my great grandfathers, who’d fought with the Royal West Kent Regiment on the killing fields of France in 1916. I grew up learning about places I yearned to visit. Cairo. Sicily. Rome. The Somme.
By last winter I’d seen them all except The Somme. So, with time on my hands I packed a guidebook, a sleeping bag, and a few tins of corned beef and set off for a long weekend, planning to shelter in the trenches that my great grandfathers had dug, eat the type of food they’d eaten, and walk the fields that thousands of their friends, men of Kent, are buried under.
In Paris I asked for a ticket to Albert, a large town at the heart of the Somme region. Two clerks didn’t know where it was. A quarter of a million French had died at the Somme.
I left Albert, four hours later, bathed in sun and battling a ferocious wind that whipped unchecked across the undulating hills. My first stop were the trenches of the Bois Francais, a patch of woodland where Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who was born just a few miles from me in Kent, fought and won a military cross. In places snow still covered the ground. Unexploded shells lay all around.
I retraced the route which the Royal West Kents had followed as they’d attacked Montauban village. With a 15 kilo pack, firm ground and a clear sky the steady uphill slog took me about half an hour. For those of the soldiers who’d lasted the whole distance in 1916, with 30 kilos each on their backs, a field full of thick mud and barbed wire at their feet and the air around them clogged with bullets and shrapnel, it must have taken considerably longer.
Everywhere there were cemeteries. Row upon row of gleaming white tombstones. Many read ‘Unknown’. I imagined what ‘unknown’ meant…no head, no uniform, just a few bloody limbs that may, or may not, have once belonged to the same person.
Late afternoon and Delville Wood was riddled with trenches and the scars of the 90 year-old battle. I selected a deep shell hole to spend the night in and began to read about what happened there. On 17th July, 1916, so my guidebook told me, a South African Brigade had been exposed to intense German artillery bombardment in that very spot. 400 shells had fallen every minute for seven hours.
‘The wood was a wasteland of shattered trees,’ a German Officer wrote, ‘craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep.’ Out of the 3,153 South Africans who’d entered the wood, only 143 walked out. Most were still lying, unburied, under my feet. I couldn’t sleep there.
I trudged up Wood Lane in the twilight and lay my sleeping bag in a chalk crater near High Wood. As dark descended the temperature dropped to minus eight. At times during the day my head had been so full of tears I thought I might drown, but now I was too cold to think of others. It was self pity all the way through until dawn.
At seven, my sleeping bag was frozen solid. I counted seven unexploded shells within twenty metres of my camp as I jogged around to warm up. Four hundred and twenty one men from the West Kents had died on the field which stretched between myself and the rising sun. Before I set off I poured an offering, a bottle of Kentish Ale, over the ground. I wanted the lads to know they weren’t forgotten.
I squinted as the sun rose higher and bounced off the chalk crater. So thats why great grandads eyes weren't so great. Six months of summer sat in a chalk trench would destroy anybodies eyes.
The day was filled with more trenches and cemeteries; late afternoon I came to Beaumont Hamel, an area riddled with unexploded bombs, gas canisters and curly metal posts that used to support the barbed wire. On Redan Ridge, overlooking Auchonvillers, I rolled out my sleeping bag next to a mass grave. The sunset was a deep blood red.
At midnight, lit by a full moon, I tried to make a brew but ran out of camping gas. So I shivered until dawn, when I knocked the ice off my sleeping bag, packed up camp and descended into Sunken Lane, where soldiers had waited under the same clear sky, all those years ago, for the ‘over the top’ whistle that’d signaled the end.
A day later, the headlights of the bus taking me home illuminated a sign. ‘Arras.’ Beyond shivered the Somme. I dozed, and in my head it was Saturday afternoon, 1976, all over again. And there was me, as yet unaffected by 30 years of apathy, with Granddad patting me on the back approvingly and reciting some Sassoon…
‘Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the
Spring that you’ll never forget.’