Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Horror of the Somme

Clearing out some cardboard boxes in the garage yesterday, I unearthed my Dad’s old school cap. Tucked inside was a little blue book, dated June 1920. “The Elysian War Roll” was a list of all the pupils from Dad’s school who had fought in the war, which had ended just 19 months before.

618 names, from Alabone to Young; 10 Military Crosses, 23 Mentioned in Dispatches; 89 Fallen in the Service of their Country. There on page 25 I read “H.T. Gutteridge, Rifleman, 16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles). 1916, France. Invalided Out.”

Dad never mentioned the war – the First World War, that is. He always had plenty to say about the Second; and his distrust of all things German, Italian and Japanese. But he refused to speak of the time in 1916 when, at the age of 20, he found himself shipped out to the Somme. That appalling, unnecessary battle, which resulted in more than a million deaths, was arguably the most shameful chapter in British military history. It clearly had a devastating effect on my Dad.

Even in his fifties, in times of stress his stiff upper lip would crumble into a nervous twitch. When as a child I probed him about the war, he would go silent. He couldn’t be drawn on the horrors he experienced in those few months before they discharged him with what today would be called a nervous breakdown.

A sensitive, proud man, he must have been overwhelmed by the stench of filth, human excrement and death, and by the terrible scenes. Hundreds of dead strung out like flotsam on the shore; many others caught in the enemy wire. According to one witness, some looked like they were praying: “they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall.”

How could he and the school friends who joined him in Kitchener’s Volunteer Army know what they were marching to, armed with just blind patriotism and a Lee Enfield rifle? One moment they were young, carefree boys from North London, the next they were surrounded by carnage. The Elysian War Roll lists their fate: P.T. Light must have been Dad’s classmate, killed in Leuze Wood (which the British soldiers nicknamed “Lousy Wood”) close to the village of Guillemont. I’ve found a photograph of Guillemont taken that same November: nothing but acres of mud and charred tree stumps.

Those back home had only a vague understanding of the conditions. My Mum knew a family called Upton whose father described how when he came home from leave, his own mother wouldn’t allow him into the house until he had stripped out of his uniform on the doorstep. Then she took a lighted candle and ran it up the seams of his uniform to burn out the thousands of lice.

Perhaps those who survived the trenches felt they shouldn’t tarnish their loved ones with the terrible blackness of their experiences, but Mum tells me that Dad wasn’t alone in not wanting to share his pain. In the 60’s and 70’s my Mum travelled the country teaching craft skills to disabled war veterans. She told me of one brave man, awarded the Military Medal, who every night woke up screaming and yet couldn’t discuss his nightmares with his wife. So Mum gave the old soldier a box of paints and suggested he tried to paint his own terror.

When Mum returned some weeks later, the man’s wife greeted her with smiles. At last, the nightmares were over, she said. Then Mum saw the painting: he had only used black and brown. The heavy strokes depicted the dark stumps of burnt trees, and to the far horizon, a sea of mud. It was a masterpiece.

90 years ago may seem like ancient history, but it is still only one lifetime. Some survivors couldn’t describe their horror – but we must never forget it.


Tim Atkinson said...

How very true. There can't be a single family in Britian (of more than three or four generations) that wasn't personally affected by WW1. And each story tells us something different. Thanks for sharing.

Expat mum said...

My great grandad was never the same after that war apparently. Unfortunately most family members just remember him as a mean old G*t but he must have been nice before going away?