Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Part Two - The Somme

Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys! --  An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. --
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen

Dulce et Decorum est was written in 1917 after heavy fighting in the Somme region. The shock of this was too great for Owen and he was soon sent back to the UK for medical and psychiatric treatment. He was killed in the Somme in November 1918, two months after returning to the Western Front. It was Wilfred Owen's poetry, the juxtaposition of beautiful lyrics with the ugliness of their content, that first sparked my interest in World War One. The horrors and futility of war; the hardship of life in the trenches; the fresh faces of the young men who went to their deaths or returned, maimed for life. The Great War tugged at my emotions, fostering a passion for history, a fanaticism that has stayed with me and shaped almost every holiday we took over the last two years. Our trip through Europe was, essentially, a war tour. Our photos consist mainly of white sandstone memorials, of marble headstones, of sombre and sacred ground. It was not so much a holiday as a pilgrimage. And the second step of that journey led us to the ground of the Somme.

The phrase 'The Somme' is usually used in reference to the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July to November 1916, and saw the heaviest casualties of the war up to that point. Four in ten New Zealand soldiers were injured, and one in seven killed during the Battle of the Somme. Over half of the New Zealanders who died at the Somme have no known grave. These men are commemorated at the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, at Caterpillar Valley near Longueval. We visited the memorial in heavy rain, on a cold September morning, the second morning of our trip.

The New Zealand Memorial is on the wall to the left of the picture

Looking out of the memorial, over the fields of Caterpillar Valley
There are many cemeteries and memorials dotted around this part of the French paysage (countryside), and we needed only to drive ten minutes to reach another New Zealand memorial, this time to the north of Longueval. This memorial commemorates the taking of this point, from where the New Zealanders launched their successful attack on Flers. 

This high-ground enabled us to look over the landscape of the Somme, full of cornfields and rolling hills. And yes, that mud. My shoe can verify that it is, indeed, very sticky and very red. It must have been hell to live in. 

The Somme region (and surrounding départments Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, and Nord) continued to see heavy action from late 1916 to 1918. The area was right at the heart of the Western Front, especially so when the Germans created the Hindenburg Line, which was a series of heavily-fortified defences running from Arras to Reims. The ground around which it was located was the site of crucial battles in 1917 and 1918, and saw the deaths of tens of thousands of both Allied and German soldiers. For four years, the fields of Northern France were subjected to heavy fighting, and the number of memorials is staggering. For this day, we limited ourselves to three. Our next stop was just outside the town of Bapaume.

Here, we visited the town of Grévillers. In March 1917, the town was occupied by Allied troops, who created a cemetery for their casualties. A year later, the town was briefly lost to the Germans, but the New Zealand Division recaptured it in August 1918. At the end of the war, graves from around the region were brought to the cemetery, and there are over 2000 Commonwealth soldiers buried there.

There is also a memorial dedicated to those men of the New Zealand Division who died in defensive fighting from March - August 1918, and those who died in the Advance to Victory, from August - November 1918.

This landscape is shaped by memorials, there are cemeteries in nearly every town. You soon come to realise just how much of an impact the Great War had not only on those who fought, but on France. The Somme, Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, and Oisne areas were decimated by four years of fighting; the French people scarred by the experience of living through a war; and over 1.3 million men had been killed, another 4.2 million wounded. It is hard to comprehend the ways in which this must have affected the nation, and it felt very bittersweet to travel around the north of France, exploring this beautiful country but dwelling on its tragic past. The landscape is rich with history, its fields still bearing the weight of those who lost their lives there.

French First Aid Station, Somme, 1916.
Photo property of the National Army Museum, UK

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