At 0730 on the 1st July 1916, the first wave of soldiers from the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers climbed out of their trenches just north of the River Ancre and began to move towards the heavily defended German lines a few hundreds metres away. Over 500 men of the Battalion were killed or wounded that day.
The Somme was different to how we expected it to be.
All three of us grew up with “The Somme” as one of the base narratives of our Ulster Protestant culture and the 1st July as a significant date in the calendar. After all, our grandfather’s generation were the young men who fought there, but, for obvious reasons, they didn’t tell their story. So the myth grew out of the facts of mud, slaughter and heroism. And we built our own narrative on top of that.
Growing up and leaving that culture leads to a more objective view. But being in the actual landscape changes perspective even more. Here are some reasons why:
- The trenches were dug into solid chalk, about 15cm below the surface. Yes, the continual shelling would have churned it up a bit, but it wasn’t the sea of mud that we associate with Passchendaele (more of that tomorrow). The advance was over relatively dry terrain, and that was probably why the leading companies made it so far.
- There is significant relief over the battlefield. Being on chalk, the landscape is remarkably similar to parts of Hampshire. The Ancre is a chalk stream not unlike the Test or the Anton. And that means rolling hills. That relief caused significant problems on 1 July 1916 as it meant that the Germans could fire machine guns and shells from great vantage points (enfilading fire).
- The ravine where the Ancre Cemetery lies now was a significant barrier to cross. Many soldiers who got into the ravine found relative safety there but couldn’t break out. Many didn’t make it back. Some have their graves in the Ancre ravine, many many more are listed on the Thiepval memorial to the missing.
- And finally, the landscape shows the potential for post-conflict restoration. The fields we walked across today are being used to grow rape, peas and wheat, and there are few clues that such terrible events took place 98 years ago.
Many thanks to Teddy from the Ulster Tower (Somme Association) for the tour of Thiepval Wood. I would highly recommend it if you want to know more about the real rather than mythical Somme.