A long time ago I had to drive down to Paris late at night in my battered Renault. In the early hours of the morning, I was getting sleepy and pulled over to a rest area to get a 20-minute nap. There was a slight chill and I tugged my jacket closer to me. Outside a thin mist was creeping across the flat treeless fields and clinging to the rivers that crisscrossed them. I remember the bleakness of the place and then I saw a sign that chilled me to the core. It read "River Somme."
I slept fitfully but decided to wake and get back on the road. The name had unnerved me and I thought of all the ghosts of the anguished souls who once struggled and died in these fields.
The first day of the infamous Battle of the Somme was exactly 100 years ago today in 1916. It still stands as a monument to a barbarity that is almost unparalleled in the last century.
The bloody mechanized war that pitted France, Britain and Italy against Germany, Austria and Turkey was in its second year. For months on end men lived and died in waterlogged and rat filled trenches on the front line, in constant dread of hearing the order to go over the top.
At Verdun, a 300-day offensive as the Germans battered the French lines had left 800,000 soldiers dead.
In an attempt to relieve pressure on Verdun, the British army launched a massive offensive further north on the Somme. In the week before the battle began 1.7 million shells were fired by the British at the German lines to break up the barbed wire and demoralize the enemy.
Yet on July 1, when 100,000 British troops were sent over the top, they found most of the wires still intact. The soldiers were out in no-man's-land being mowed down by German machine guns. There are many accounts of the terrors of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, of men missing arms and legs who suffered drawn out deaths as the life bled out of them in shell holes. On the first day of the battle, the British suffered 57,000 casualties including 19,000 men who lost their lives. It was the bleakest day in the history of the British army.
At the end of 141 bloody days on the Somme, the British, French and Germans has lost 1.5 million men and the British had gained a few miles of waterlogged soil that would be recovered by the Germans in 1918.
Today the Battle of the Somme is just another obscure piece of history like Waterloo or 1066. I had a great uncle who was a stretcher bearer during the battle but he never spoke about it and is long gone.
On the way back from Paris, I returned to the Somme in daylight and drove down deserted roads until a thickset and brutal structure rose from the ground. It was the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, the 72,000 plus British Empire servicemen who never came home. The Somme remains an eerie landscape forever overshadowed by the Great War. Neat cemeteries of simple white crosses dot the dark hills here and the towns of Picardy seem mean, strained and cowering.
Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Thiepval Memorial. The architect is better known for his country houses and his work in New Delhi, settings for cocktail parties and polo on a sunny day.
Yet by the time the monstrous guns finally fell quiet on the Western front, the days when Britain ruled half of the world were over. The aura of invincibility had been swept away in a few hours as the smoke cleared over the Somme and a generation was cut down. Those who lived went home but many of them were never the same. The blooded ghosts of the battlefields followed them to the quiet country lanes of old England. Thousands suffered shell shock, including the poet Wilfred Owen who was killed on the last day of the war but whose lines lived on to give it a frightening poignancy to later generations.
Unlike World Wat Two, the Great War was not a clash of ideologies and it's difficult to portray it as a battle of good against evil. Rather, a complex set of treaties led the great European powers into a war that nobody wanted to fight. The terrible global conflicts of the early 20th Century were the catalyst to the European integration that has unraveled of late. It's a stark testimony to how quickly things can go wrong.
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.