I still have The Somme mud on my Blundstones.
The mud is the stuff of legend. It sucks your feet in and doesn’t let go. Sticks to everything. Engulfs horses, cars, men, equipment. It made the hell that was WW1 even more hellish – if that is possible.
My muddy Blundstones struck me as we packed up to leave the Somme Valley the other morning. Something that was a mild annoyance to me was sometimes a thing of life or death to the soldiers on the Western Front in 1916. So as I walked the green fields of France and strolled past the endless row upon row of white headstones – the yawning gap between what they experienced and the comfort I now have seemed surreal. All my efforts to immerse myself in their world so I could remember them better seemed pitiful and shallow. They died in the Somme mud. I simply wiped it off my boots and kept moving.
Being here in the Somme Valley – the scene of some of the most horrific fighting of WWI – was a masterstroke. Mel suggested it many moons ago and I thought it was a good rough guide for a destination but never attached too great an importance on being here on ANZAC day.
I have wanted to come to the Western Front from the moment I started studying WWI history in school. It captivated me completely. The sheer enormity of loss, the terror, the day to day reality and mostly the bloody futility. The horrible irony of it being called the “War to end all wars”. The loss seemingly amplified by the fact that this whole part of the world was hurled back into war again so quickly after the horror of the first had subsided.
I took a photo at the National Australian Memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux. It was a WWII bullet hole in the wall of the large memorial tower. Meaning someone was firing from that high vantage point and someone was firing back at them. I wondered if that lone soldier stuck in a tower commemorating the fallen from WWI ever stopped and just thought…..”Seriously? Do we EVER learn?”. Fighting another war amongst the memorials to the last.
Being here finally was strange. I often tried to imagine what I would feel when I finally walked the fields that saw thousands of young men die so violently. Ground that swallowed up lives. Lives lost to gain several hundred metres of land – which more often than not was lost again.
I have a vivid memory of the first time I really comprehended the calamity of the first morning of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. In one morning alone there were close to 60,000 casualties. One morning. Of that number there were tens of thousands dead. Lives spent to gain ground that was once again lost until later in 1918. As a 15 year old I sat at my study desk, late at night and worked out that a man had fallen for merely centimetres of ground gained.
I wasn’t ever sure what I would feel when I came – numb, sorrow, pain, confusion. So much was the affinity I felt for these young men that I was never quite sure if I would not just sit there crying.
But it was all different when I actually arrived. I think seeing so much WW2 devastation across Europe had numbed me a little. So when I actually saw the endless rows of headstones and walked the fields of Poziers it wasn’t as emotional as I thought. But slowly stories emerged as we moved around. The history started to come back and the enormity crept down upon me. I found myself just staring at the fields. I found myself staring at the ploughed ground as if it might reveal something about the lives or pain of those young men that died there. As if it might help me understand what it may have felt like to cower under the earth amidst a hellish, unfathomable constant barrage of shells while you waited to emerge into a ceaseless sweep of machine gun fire. Knowing that the odds were so firmly stacked against you that considering it was not an option. Knowing that trying to understand WHY you were there was futile – so you did your duty and tried to bring your mates home alive.
And almost like the earth was answering my questions it revealed its scars. Standing on the roadside beside a freshly ploughed field I picked up a piece of shrapnel. I picked up something else that looked like bone fragments. Driving along a back road we stopped beside a pile of unexploded shells freshly dug up by a local farmer. Then when we visited Moucoult Farm – a stretch of land more densely bathed in Australian blood than any other place on earth – the farmer showed us a huge pile of maybe 200 shells. Casually pointing out the German ones, the English ones, the French ones. The earth still reveals the scars of WWI. Like a body trying to get rid of an infection it oozes out slowly 100 years after the trauma.
How do you make sense of this? How do you honour the fallen and thank them for the sacrifice they made so I could live so comfortably and freely?
Beyond the obvious fascination with the places where Australians fought and fell one other place caught my attention so we made a trip specifically to see it. It is a piece of land where men from Newfoundland fought and fell on the first day of the Somme.
The story was enough to break your heart. At the outbreak of WWI the country of Newfoundland responded to the call. Newfoundland – a minor player on the world stage. Struggling for some sort of post colonial identity stuck between reliance and independence on the Motherland. A harsh, rock strewn place of precious few people where all you can do is fish or cut down trees. They answered the call and gathered up around 800 men. They were trained for 2 weeks at home and then sent abroad for more training. Completely unblooded by battle they were sent to the Somme and placed on terrible exposed terrain, opposite battle hardened German soldiers who had been fighting in the trenches together for almost 2 years. They didn’t stand a chance.
The first day of the Somme was a mess. Confusion, mistakes, the element of surprise lost and failed artillery batteries that allowed German soldiers to quietly creep back out of their trenches and set up their machine guns and wait for the inevitable wave of soldiers that would advance over no mans land. Specific attacks that were meant to gain key strategic vantage points started to fail and the domino of tragic decisions followed. This resulted in men being sent out of trenches into relentless waves of bullets.
So there were the Newfounland soldiers. Sitting, waiting, trusting their commanders, expecting to fight valiantly. They were sent over the top to advance slowly down an open hillside in front of German machine guns. Of the 600 who went over the top 63 survived. The total time it took for this to occur…..20 minutes.
I thought of the men, their wives, children, families, their communities. Not just the emotional loss they had to live with but the devastation of their entire livelihood. Communities where in those days it was almost physically impossible for the remaining wives and daughters to earn money. Everything would have been manual and primitive so it would have been nigh on impossible for the women to fell and haul trees or man fishing boats.
So it is marked in Newfoundland as a day of mourning. Their memorial is one of the most moving you will see. The preserved trenches, the green fields, the landmarks they were meant to reach but never did. The reality that you are standing on ground that would have been strewn with the bravest and strongest men a small fragile nation could possibly have mustered.
So I did what I felt I could do to remember. I lay on the almost luminous green grass outside the memorial with two of my daughters. We wrestled and laughed and they jumped on me. I lay crouched over Ellie with Zoe clinging to my back – her cheek brushing against mine, her breath warm and close. I paused there with this beautiful life below me and above me and I thought of those men who had fallen. I thought of them maybe sitting in a trench, maybe lying wounded, maybe in their final moments. How they would have dreamed of holding their children one last time. How they would have given their soul to just be smothered with love from two little lives. Instead they were alone, cold, in pain, suffering on the other side of the planet. I thought of them and then wallowed in the life that was on top of me and all around me. I offered it to those men and thanked them that they had allowed me to have something they could only have dreamt of.
All that loss. So mind numbingly senseless – yet somehow so essential. For if they hadn’t done it – what would the world have been?
[A short note about the idea of doing something that these soldiers were never able to. The first time my dad came to the Western Front he visited the Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretenneux. Between the graves and the memorial there is a beautiful sea of lime green lawn. To my father it begged to have an Aussie Rules football kicked on it in memory of those that lay there. Something so Australian that those buried there would have enjoyed. So this time he brought a brand new, never-touched-a-boot Sherrin – with the intention of christening it at Villers-Bretonneux. Of course when we visited they were preparing for ANZAC day so the place was swarming with officials and the lawn covered in chairs. None the less we decided to kick the ball in memory of the fallen. After a little time an Australian Official wandered over to do the obligatory “please don’t”. My dads comment was simple and poignant.
“I’m just kicking a footy with my son – like these soldiers never got the chance to….”
The Australian official thought this fair enough….he left us alone and wandered off. He has a way with words and a sense of place my father.]