Scars of the Somme
On the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, Paul Lamarra tours the Picardy countryside where one of the bloodiest battles was fought
Driving north-east out of Amiens on the D929 towards the town of Albert, the Somme’s hedge-less landscape billowed before me. It was early spring and ploughmen were out in the fields of Picardy combing the light-brown soil into fine furrows.
For the farmers of the Somme preparing the ground for the next crop is also a continuing act of repair. Straddled by World War I’s Western Front this was a landscape ravaged by a trench and artillery war of attrition that lasted more than four years. Nearly a century has passed since the Battle of the Somme, but despite the farmers’ best efforts, deep scars remain.
In the intervening years ‘Somme’ has become a byword for hell on earth and the 18-week battle of 1916 has often been characterised by historians as one of mud, blood and futility. To try to make sense of it all, the appropriate starting point would have been the Historial de la Grande Guerre in the town of Péronne and from there to follow the Circuit du Souvenir (Remembrance Trail) that links eight of the most important sites closest to the Front and highlights 13 others scattered along the Somme valley. My initial inclination, however, was to seek out somewhere that still reflected the true scale of the battle and so I headed instead beyond Albert to the crater at La Boiselle.
At first everything seemed normal. A roadside sign advertised the new season’s endives – a northern predilection – and a red-hooded pheasant marched across the fresh furrows unperturbed by the dust devils whipping up around it. In the fine, dry weather there was certainly not going to be any mud.
After taking a side road off the D929, just past Albert, I arrived at a point where I stood at the edge of the Lochnagar crater. More than 90 metres across and 20 metres deep, it is a permanent anomaly in the gentle Somme countryside.
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This was a key vantage point in the Germans’ line on the Western Front and they had chosen their position well. From the far side of the crater I could see for several kilometres across empty fields to a horizon crowned by countable trees. For the British attack to stand any chance of success, the German position had to be neutralised.
At 7.28am on 1 July, 1916, Captain James Young of 179 Tunnelling Company pushed the button that detonated 60,000lbs of explosives, carefully placed by miners who had been tunnelling for months, directly underneath the German line. The blast was so powerful that earth was sent more than one kilometre into the air. Two minutes later, the signal was given and British soldiers in the new 34th Division went over the top. The Battle of the Somme had begun.
Walking around the rim of the crater, I found it hard to believe that the explosion had no material effect on the outcome of the battle that day. The German dugouts were gone, but in the time it took the heavily laden troops to cross the open fields to reach no-man’s-land, the Germans had reoccupied the position. The element of surprise was lost and the division suffered more than 6,000 casualties. It was a baptism of fire for many of the troops, who had, at the instigation of war minister Lord Kitchener, joined up with friends, teammates and work colleagues to form the so-called Pals’ Battalions.
It would turn out to be the blackest day in British military history. At the end, nearly 20,000 troops were dead and 40,000 wounded along the 30 kilometres of the British front. It was the battle that was supposed to end the stalemate that had existed since 1914. By the end of the offensive, there were an estimated 1.6 million casualties, including 320,000 dead. The stalemate persisted and Péronne, situated a mere 24 kilometres to the east of Albert, would remain behind enemy lines for another two years.
Feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of grim statistics, I dropped off the plateau and into the valley of the slow-moving River Somme, following it upstream towards Péronne. Here the mood was lighter and I was glad to watch while boats on the Canal de Somme tied up for lunch at Bray-sur-Somme.
From Cappy, where German flying ace Manfred, Baron von Richthofen (the ‘Red Baron’) had been based, I climbed with the steam railway, built to carry men and munitions to the Front, on to the featureless Santerre plateau.
Up here the horizons were so wide as to induce agoraphobia and the remote, walled-off cemeteries, with their tidy rows of white crosses, resembled isolated atolls in a patchwork ocean of green, yellow and fallow fields. Despite my earlier doubts, the Historial de la Grande Guerre turned out to be a worthwhile stop. Housed in a modern extension to the town’s medieval castle, the carefully curated exhibition explains in English, French and German all aspects of World War I.
After starting with the geo-political tensions that led to the war and the propaganda that had men joining up in their millions, the exhibition moves on to the reality of the battlefield. Through a miscellany of authentic shaving brushes, cups and canteens salvaged from the trenches, it conveys the largely mundane reality of months at or behind the front line.
The museum’s last word goes to Otto Dix, the German artist who served on the Somme. His Der Krieg (The War) collection of 51 nightmarish black and white etchings, exhibited in low light, effectively expresses the futility of a battle where the only tactic was attrition.
From Péronne I tried to follow the Circuit du Souvenir, but found it easier to mark the sites on a road map and follow that, rather than look out for signs that may not always be there. First was the chapel of remembrance at Rancourt, sitting among the vivid yellow fields of rapeseed, but I was more intrigued by the starkly colourless German cemetery nearby where four men were buried to every black cross. For the losing side there were no flags, no daffodils and no words of comfort.
Once over the A1 autoroute and the TGV line that links Paris with Lille I was once again among the artillery-blasted killing fields where so many British and Commonwealth troops perished. At Delville Wood near Longueval I wandered for at least an hour among the replanted trees that now cover the undisturbed battlefield and unexcavated mass grave.
As I walked I dwelt for some time on the order given to 3,032 South African men and 121 officers that the wood had to be taken “at all costs”. No doubt the Germans had been given a similar order, ensuring that mutual annihilation was the only ‘honourable’ outcome. When the South African contingent was eventually relieved on 20 July, 1916, after six days of attacks and counter-attacks, only the commanding officer, Lieut-Col Edward Thackeray, two other wounded officers and 140 men emerged from the wood.
Now in the care of the South African government, there is a dignified museum and memorial at Delville Wood that seeks, among other things, to promote greater awareness of the role played by black South Africans in the two world wars.
Whereas the South African memorial is low-key, the British memorial at Thiepval is large, red and bombastic. Its sheer mass does, however, reflect the scale of the British and Commonwealth losses incurred on the Somme and the memorial records on every available surface the names of more than 72,000 men who have no known grave. The adjacent visitor centre attempts to explain the intricate toing and froing of the battle and is part of a sincere effort to match a face and short biography to each of the missing troops.
At Thiepval the battlefield and the objectives are harder to visualise. Positioned on high ground that slopes off steeply into the Ancre Valley, the Germans were in an almost impregnable position. Taking Thiepval was crucial to the success of the Battle of the Somme and the first tanks were pressed into action on 15 September, 1916, at Pozières on the D929 in an attempt to encircle the position. It would be another 12 days before Thiepval was taken and the Germans recaptured it in their Spring offensive of 1918.
On the far side of the River Ancre, on a high heath grazed by sheep, the battlefield and the trench network survive. The mossy, saw-toothed trenches and shell holes have grown shallower over time, but it is a landscape that will never recover.
Overlooked by a bronze caribou, emblem of the Newfoundland regiment that was all but wiped out within the first 30 minutes of the battle, there was no horror to be found. Instead, I detected a sense of poignancy and in the failing light a silent melancholy. Across the battlefield at Beaumont-Hamel are spikes that held the acres of barbed wire in place; close to the centre is the blackened skeleton of the Danger Tree, so-called because it was a landmark for the Canadians – and the German guns. The cemeteries in the corners are small, because most men were buried by comrades in makeshift graves close to where they fell. Here the battlefield remains so polluted with unexploded ordinance that only sheep are allowed to wander from the path.
The next day I took an ad hoc approach to the remaining sites on the Circuit du Souvenir. Initially, I headed north to Doullens, a typical Somme town of brick houses and small family businesses serving an agricultural hinterland.
As I walked to the town hall, it struck me how unlikely a setting the Somme was for a conflict of global proportions. For it was here that the command of the British, American and French armies of the Somme was unified under Maréchal Foch in March 1918 at the height of the German Spring Offensive.
In no other circumstances would such a provincial town host a crisis meeting attended by President Raymond Poincaré, Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, the British and French war ministers and the top brass of the British and French armies. The room is set out as it had been that day and the event is depicted in a large stained-glass window. It was a hugely important meeting, as the Germans had been exploiting the lack of co-ordination between the British and French, and almost made the breakthrough that would have changed the course of the war.
When I returned to Thiepval to explore away from the memorial, I pulled off the quiet road at Blighty Valley and walked in solitude up the grassy path to the small cemetery on the left side of the narrow valley. I now saw that this first global war was fought inch by bloody inch to reach targets that otherwise would have had no significance: the wood at Delville, the farmhouse at Mouquet near Pozières or the blackened Danger Tree at Beaumont-Hamel.
I walked beyond the cemetery along the edge of the ploughed field towards the head of the flat-bottomed valley. In the trees I could still detect the paths across no-man’s-land that led to the steep slopes beneath Thiepval and what I thought might have been the outline of the casualty clearing station that would have been inundated with the dead and the wounded on that first day.
On the far side of the valley I could make out the shallow indentation of the trench that had been criminally exposed to enemy machine guns. It was a glimpse of the mayhem that must have ensued that day, but no more than that. Time, the ploughmen and nature have not completely healed the scars and in a strange way we have to cherish what remains out of fear that we just might forget.
By road/ferry: Amiens is 1hr 30min from the northern ferry ports.
See holiday planner on page 21 for more travel details.
WHERE TO STAY
3 Rue Marotte
Tel: (Fr) 3 60 12 50 00
www.hotel-marotte.com/enNew five-star boutique hotel. Doubles from €145.
WHERE TO EAT
13-15 Quai Bélu
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 72 10 80
www.restaurant-le-quai.comRestaurant by the river in the atmospheric Quartier Saint-Leu. Lunch menus from €16.
WHERE TO VISIT
Circuit de Souvenir
Historial de la Grande Guerre
Chateau de Péronne
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 83 12 18
www.historial.orgChapel of Remembrance
2 Route Nationale
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 85 04 47
Longueval & Delville Wood
5 Route de Ginchy
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 85 01 17
www.delvillewood.comTank memorial and memorial to 1st Australian division
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 74 60 47
Route de Saint-Pierre-Divion
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 74 81 11
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 76 70 86
www.somme-battlefields.comSomme 1916 Museum
Rue Anicet Godin
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 75 16 17
Hôtel de Ville
2 Avenue du Maréchal Foch
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 32 54 52
Picardy tourist board
Tel: (Fr) 3 22 22 33 66