As the UK and Commonwealth steels itself for the forthcoming rememberance of the greatest waste of human life in their histories of warfare, it is fitting to display some choice images taken during my recent tour of the Somme front line.
(The stylish logo at the New Zealanders’ monument at Longueval)
Picardy is a rolling chalk landscape of industrial arable agriculture criss-crossed with tracks that frequently follow the line of allied trenches or light railway beds. Cycling or walking these with a tome like Peter Hart’s The Somme in hand enables visitors to achieve a deep insight into the insanity of this crucial phase of the so-called Great War.
(The fields of Picardy before the Thiepval Monunment to the Missing bearing 17,192 names)
It is a sobering experience to be stood in this beautiful landscape with birdsong ringing in your ears overlooking a valley where, in the space of no more than a few hundred metres, thousands of young men were slaughtered in a matter of minutes and left to rot into the mud.
(The remains of trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel)
While their lords and masters planned one insane offensive after another in the comfort of a chateau fifty miles from the front line (General Haig never left GHQ to visit his troops), ill-equipped, inexperienced but eager volunteers readied themselves to go ‘over the top’ with just one thought in their minds; that death will come suddenly and painlessly.
(Primary School Poppy at Sunken Lane, Beaumont Hamel)
The CWGC cemeteries are lovingly tended and intensely moving islands of calm, but to ride through a working landscape that continues to reveal 100 year old ordinance brings home just how toxic Picardy continues to be. Had World War One been a Napoleonic war, it would have been an ideal battleground.
(Ordinance recently ploughed up in No Man’s Land, Hawthorne Ridge)
But the Battle of the Somme was a modern industrial conflict, with planes and tanks and heavy artillery and, worst of all, water-cooled machine guns that scythed through rows of over-laden canon fodder walking forwards, frequently up to their knees in human bonemeal.
(Headstone for a Chinese labourer, Albert)
And to think our enlightened government had the goddamn nerve to try and privatise or scrap or hive off to G4S the Commonwealth War Graves Commission!!
(Tommy memorial, Sommecourt – Serre Road Cemetery No.2 – CWGC engraver maintaining headstone at Delville Wood – Chorley Pals memorial, Serre)