Another of the British War poets I discovered in my research of The Great War for my novel in progress, is Edmund Blunden. The poem I’ve included at the conclusion was inspired by his experience at the Somme in 1916.
The first large offensive of the Battle of the Somme was the offensive at Thiepval Ridge. Mounted by the Reserve Army commanded by Lieutenant General Hubert Gough, the attack was intended to benefit from the attack of the Fourth Army at the Battle of Morval which was planned for twenty four hours later.
However, Thiepval Ridge was a well fortified entrenchment. The German defenders fought doggedly while the British advance bogged down after the first day. The coordination between infantry and artillery declined thanks to the chaos of the maze-like trench system, the dug-outs and shell craters. The British objectives were not actually achieved until October-November when the Reserve Army was reorganized and reinforced at the Battle of Ancre Heights.
Beyond the organizational turmoil, the deteriorating weather frustrated the plans of General Joffre to forge ahead with the planned attacks of the Anglo-French armies. Coincidentally, the Allies’ failures were further hampered by a revival in the German defense. It was time for experimentation in the war’s cruelest and deadliest weapons. The British implemented new techniques in gas warfare, machine gun bombardment and tank/infantry cooperation. The Germans struggled to withstand the ascendancy of men and material fielded by the combined British and French forces, even though they were being reinforced by troops, artillery and aircraft from Verdun. September became the costliest month for German casualties in the Battle of the Somme.
Thiepval Wood – September 1916, Edmund Blunden
The tired air groans as the heavies swing over, the river-hollows boom;
The shell-fountains leap from the swamps, and with wild-fire and fume
The shoulder of the chalk down convulses.
Then jabbering echoes stampede in the slatting wood,
Ember-black the gibbet trees like bones or thorns protrude
From the poisonous smoke — past all impulses.
To them these silvery dews can never again be dear,
Nor the blue javelin-flame of thunderous noons strike fear.
I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. I hope you find these bits of information as interesting as I do. ~ Meg
“Wisdom is an arrow seldom used in the quiver of government.” -Historian Barbara Tuchman
The First World War was a ‘total’ war in the sense that the civilian populations and the entire economies of the warring nations were fully mobilized to support the effort. No longer was the conflict limited to fighting between professional armies. Rather, an entire generation of young men was conscripted to join the decimated troops on the frontline. It was a war of attrition, slow and deadly. The armies dug in and slaughtered each other with little ground gained, or goals achieved. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 is an example.
The battle, an offensive staged by a combined British and French force, began in July and lasted five months. On the first day alone, the British lost 57,000 men. When all was said and done, the British and French had advanced about 6 miles (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 miles (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 British and 202,567 French casualties, against 465,181 German casualties. Lloyd George called it, “the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fights ever waged in the history of the war.”
And so it was, until it was supplanted by an even more horrific battle the following year. In July of 1917, the assault began on the village of Passchendale, in the Ypres Salient. General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was confident he could take the village in a matter of hours by simultaneously attacking German positions. But the reality of the situation was that rains had turned Flanders into a muddy mire and thousands of men were quickly bogged down. They became sitting ducks for the German guns and died from a combination of wounds and the diseases that festered in the muck they were forced to fight and live in. At the end, Canadian forces eventually prevailed, but at the cost of a quarter million British soldiers. And for what? No German communication lines had been cut and the army’s morale was in tatters.
I heard this song performed in a pub the other night. Perhaps I’ve been living under a rock, but I’d never heard it before. I am not ashamed to say it made me cry. The song was written by Scottish songwriter Eric Bogle after he sat beside the graveside of Private William McBride of the Iniskilling Fusilliers (Ireland). On the day that the real Willie McBride died –April 22, 1916 at The Battle Of the Somme– the fighting was particularly fierce. The men were waist deep in water in the trenches as the German bombardment rained down on them. The green fields of France ran red with blood that day. I’ve included a video version of the song by The Furies, the Irish group who made the song famous.
Well how do you do young Willie McBride?
do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside
and rest for a while ‘neath the warm summer sun
I’ve been walkin’ all day and I’m nearly done
I see by your gravestone you were only nineteen
when you joined the great fallen of 1916
Well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Willie McBride was it slow and obscene
Did they beat the drum slowly did they play the fife lowly,
did they sound the death march as they lowered you down
did the band play the last post and chorus,
did the pipes play the “Flowers of the Forest”
And the beautiful wife or the sweetheart for life
in some faithful heart are you forever enshrined
and although you died back in 1916
in that faithful heart are you forever nineteen?
or are you a stranger without even a name
enshrined forever behind a glass pane
in an ould photograph torn tattered and stained,
fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?
Now the sun shines down on the green fields of France
a warm summer wind makes the red poppys dance
The trenches have vanished under the plows,
there’s no gas no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now
but here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s land,
the countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
for man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
to a whole generation that was butchered and damned
Now Willie McBride I can’t help wonder why
Do those who lie here do they know why they died
Did they really beleive when they answered the call
did they really believe that this war would end wars
Forever this song of suffereing and shame
the killing the dying was all done in vain
for young Willie McBride it’s all happened again,
and again, and again, and again and again