Updated: Jan 24, 2021
We can proudly announce our new pod episode "Hope and Glory: The Somme Centenary". A tour of the battlefield with Nigel Farage. A profound and emotional experience.
Nothing prepares you for the peace
You are expecting foreign fields whose cemetery corners are testament to the horror and carnage of a century ago, but oddly, what strikes you first is the terribly British beauty of the landscape. It is reminiscent of the Weald, the Downs, the expanses of Wiltshire. An undulating arable tranquillity, whose fields and copses seem to absorb sound, leaving visitors in a genteel softened silence. That peaceful environment, such a stark contrast with the stories of the spilt blood seeping through the soil under your feet, is overwhelming. Welcome to the Somme; a paradox in rural pasture.
I am of Generation X, offspring of the baby boomers. Many of whom have been entrusted with the oral history of World War II, living, by accident, the cliché of the men who fought yet did not speak of their experiences to their wives, or their children, but did so to us. Openly, quietly, humbly sharing their stories. We grew up with “Commando” and “Eagle”, comics that maintained the “romance” of just war. Growing up in Thanet, and in a forces family, I was also aware of the poignancy of “the few” and the fragile, unimaginable heroism of the Battle of Britain.
As a student of history I have been taught that the causes of that appalling conflagration were
rooted in the failure of the peace after the Great War, a conflict so unimaginably horrid, in numbers slain, that 1914-1918 is seemingly still too traumatic to fully pull back the curtain. We know the basics, ghastly trench warfare, unimaginable loss of life to move General Melchet’s drink cabinet a few feet closer to Berlin, but the stories of the Somme are not dusty history, they are not mere statistic, they are the hopes, dreams, lives, relationships and sacrifices of a fallen generation. Men we must honour, not for flag, nor crown or for wreaths of victory or misunderstood concepts of nationalism and gallantry, but for their nobility; in the manner in which they paid the ultimate price for something they may not have fully believed in. Further we ponder with awe their discipline and determination in the face of devastation. We crave understanding of those who stood so strong and smiling in the face of certain death.
We finally lost the living history connection with the Great War, with the passing of Harry Patch in 2009 at the extraordinary age of 111, our last surviving “Tommy”. But the anticipated “fading into history" of the Great War did not come to pass. Traversing the 2014-18 centenary remembrance of these events brings with it an interest and desire to understand and connect. Visitors to the Somme have surged to unprecedented numbers, in a region of France that maintains agricultural communities at the same numbers as in 1914, at the outbreak of war.
The story begins in the terraces and lanes of the northern provincial towns of England. The seeds of the stark memory are sown in the decision to form Pals battalions. Kitchener believed superior man power was the key to winning the war and sought that strength through a volunteer army to supplement the existing professional army. Enthusiasm to enlist was increased if people knew they could serve side by side in Battalions formed of friends, brothers, colleagues and companions.
Battalions were formed of the men of one town or city, The Grimbsy Chums, The Accrington Pals. Liverpool provided 5 such battalions, further social or professional battalions were formed including Golfers, Footballers and Stock Brokers. Supporters of Heart of Midlothian FC in Edinburgh provided a sizable number of men following the example of the sixteen players who volunteered.
This provided a wonderful Esprit De Corps, a sense of belonging and an intangible feeling of
camaraderie, bringing extraordinary success to the recruitment drive. Soldiers’ letters give insight on the closeness of these groups of men. Private Sam Hardman, a 26 year old teacher with the Accrington Pals wrote to his parents and sisters on the eve of the Somme offensive. In his letter he responds to his family questions as to where friends of the family are and that he has seen a particular friend, Jim Carter. He tells his family that Jim “would tell his mother in his letter that he had seen me”. The rest of the short letter is of trivial and mundane matters such as the scarcity of envelopes and that he has given up smoking. He tells his family to keep their “heart up if you do not hear from me for a while. I will write as soon as possible.”
At the end of our day touring the sites of the Somme at the close of September, we took a brisk walk up a gentle slope in a stiff breeze, under a breath-taking shepherds’ sunset sky. Like so many sites scattered across the battlefield it is peppered with small, unassuming cemeteries. Three such cemeteries sit on a ridge parallel to the tree line where the British front line trench was located. "The History of the East Lancashire Regiment in the Great War" records that out of some 720 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 584 were killed, wounded or missing. In Queens Cemetery, the middle of the three, lies Sam Hardman, loving brother and son.
A mere four miles or so south of this site is the Thiepval Memorial. An imposing memorial arch of red brick and stone that towers 140 feet above the surrounding countryside. It was erected to
honour the memory of the 72,246 missing British and Empire soldiers of the Somme. Their names are listed in dizzying array on the geometric stone walls rising over a central altar in an
overwhelming cloister of memorium. Each of those faceless names has a story behind them. Sweethearts, wives, children, parents who grieved over their potential that was never fulfilled. The shared but stolen lives of all their tomorrows.
There is no triumphalism on The Somme. There is quiet contemplation, the uncomfortable,
nervous laughter of touring groups who try to digest the horrendous mistakes that made for such horror. There are pipers playing laments at the side of rain soaked gravestones. There are
renditions of the Last Post and moments of respect fuelled by numbing shock and gratitude. A tour of The Somme is a humbling, spiritual experience. I, for one, cannot return to my previous
comfortable positions of vague awareness. The day has given me an evangelical zeal, a fervour not only to learn more, but to spread the word, encourage others to follow in the footsteps of the fallen.
I travelled with my colleague and fellow band member Ben and upon our return home; this desire to share the indescribable emotional tumult was enormous. We are working on a short audio documentary, but also produced a song in honour of the victims of The Somme. It was not a premeditated work, we needed an original piece of music for our documentary and went into the studio to record that, but within a short space of time, a folk style narrative emerged, and “Some Foreign Field” was completed in one chaotic afternoon.
We hope our small offering will help in raising awareness of our history, not the “boy’s own” military fantasia, more the human tragedy lost in a storm of statistics and a veil of trauma. The British Somme offensive strategy was dubbed “bite and hold”. It might not have worked well then, but it sure as hell works now. Once the Somme bites, it will hold you. In awe, in grief, in memory, and in contemplation. As those who were left grew old, in British Legion clubs all over this land, must have contemplated as survival wearied them, nothing prepares you for the peace.
Further information on the Poppy appeal and Remembrance Day can be found here
The original theme featured in the programme is "Some Foreign Field" by The Lost Clauses:
Music written by Donald Barnett,
Words and arrangement by Merrick Wells.
Acoustic Guitar Donald Barnett
Electric Guitar Benjamin Ansell
Trumpet Miguel Ángel Laita Chóliz
Keyboards, Vocals & Programming Merrick Wells
Miguel Ángel features with kind permission of Artistas del Gremio
Featured in the song are two letters. The first is from Sam Hardman to his family, written merely hours before he was killed in action in the Accrington Pals attack on Serre on the morning on July 1st 1916. More information on him can be found here.
The second letter is an example of those sent to the relatives of casualties of the Newfoundland Regiment. It features in the 2016 Penguin book "Somme - Into the Breach" by Hugh Sebag-Montefoire. The book can be purchased via Amazon here
Footage is taken from various newsreel sources and the final scenes are from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission youtube channel.