Friday, 25 April 2008

The Somme

I guess it's pretty apt that I'm posting this today, seeing as how it is ANZAC day, at least on my time it still is. The other weekend I spent a day out on the Somme in line with the war theme I have going here lately. Though this was my first foray into the First World War. I went on another day tour, like the one I spent out in Normandy. Though of course this tour was completely different. The Normandy tour covered just a few days from the whole of the Second World War, whilst the Somme is a huge area over which the front line shifted back and forth throughout the whole first World War. I was kind of hoping for a little bit more history than what I got, not realising that the Battle of the Somme covered 4 years, a massive front line and countless little battles.

The photo to the left is a tulip growing in the cemetery at the Australian War Memorial.

I suppose the D-Day of the First World War was the 1st of July 1916, this is when the Battle of the Somme really started. The British and their allies first went "over the top" then and got completely slaughtered by the German soldiers, 20 000 dead British soldiers on that first day, another 40 000 Brits were injured. I didn't really know much about the First World War, in fact I still don't know all that much, but it always did seem like such a silly war to me. The French and the Germans seemed to just hate each other and that seemed to be the only reason the war started and then us poor colonies all got dragged into it as well, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa and no-one could see a way out of the troubles.

To the left is the cemetery at the Australian Memorial near the village of Villers-Bretonneux. They had their first dawn service their today. The memorial is actually on the top of a hill where the Aussies and British repelled the Germans, to prevent them capturing the city of Amien and thus cutting the French off from the British. During the First World War 313,000 Aussies (out of a total population of 4.5 million) volunteered, 60,000 men never returned and 45,000 of those died on the Western Front. It was one of the most peaceful memorials I have visited, though the fact that I was the only person there probably helped in that.

I guess you could say the Germans "started" the first world war by a rapid invasion of France and Belgium in 1914 and they almost reached Paris before they were beaten back by the English and French. The Germans then retreated and dug themselves in, they spent the next 2 years building a massive system of trenches, full on houses under the ground. The British waited until the 1st of July 1916 to attack and here they made their first mistake, they didn't realise how well the Germans had engineered their trenches, so even though the British had been shelling the Germans for half an hour before hand, the Germans hardly even felt it so when the British did go over the top they all just got cut to pieces.

To the left is the British memorial at Thiepval it's meant to be the largest memorial in the world, you can just see someone standing on the steps at the front for scale. This was built on the site of a heavily fortified German position which was stormed in 1916 with huge casualties. On the white stone is inscribed the names of the 73,000 British and South African soldiers who's remains were never identified/found.

I visited the Canadian trench site, where the Canadian government have bought a section of the battlefield and then just left it like it is, so you can still see the trenches and how the battle was played out. The reason the Canadian government bought this section is that a Newfoundland Division was completely decimated at that spot on the 1st of July. Out a population of about 200,000, 860 people had joined up and they were all in a division together and then they all got killed together at this one spot. Because the Germans had got there first they had picked out all the strategically best positions and then just settled into wait. Whilst the British always saw the war as temporary and so never bothered building massive trenches and instead slept in the mud with the rats. After the 1st of July offensive it then settled into a massive war of attrition, with the allies winning and pushing the Germans back one year, only to have the Germans launch a massive counter-offensive the next year and take back a lot of land before they were finally defeated in 1918. At the time these three main countries, Germany, France and Britain were at their absolute peak in terms of world domination and importance, and then they chucked it all away with a drawn-out 4 year long war. Sounds a bit like what a country today is doing.

To the left is me with the only tree that was left standing in Derville Wood after the War was finished. There are still craters in the woods were you aren't meant to go as they are still finding unexploded shells all over the place.

It was awesome to go see this area though, for one thing the countryside is so pretty up there, rolling hills covered in farmland and little rivers and woods all over the place. It is only when you have been standing in the middle of a real pretty area and then you go to a museum and you see that same place as it looked during the war that you really understand how horrible it must have been to fight back then. All you see in the photos is a field of mud, full of craters and smashed tree stumps, it really is a vision of hell.

Another reason I was pretty keen to go see the battlefields is that the First World War shaped so much of the rest of the 20th century. It was a war full of firsts: the first one where it wasn't just a professional army, but volunteers, the first use of tanks and an airforce, the first use of chemical warfare, the first truly global conflict, the first whole scale slaughter of a substantial proportion of the population and the first time women started to realise that they could actually perform jobs outside the kitchen. Even after the war had ended the allies then made sure that the repercussions would be felt for the rest of the 20th century, what with their arbitrary carve up of the old German/Austrian/Ottoman empires that began the continuing instability in Europe and the Middle East. Their system of reparations forced on the Germans also pretty much guaranteed there would be another war in a few years time.

Bluebells in Derville Wood in the photo to the left

The First World War was certainly the first time that such a large percentage of the population was killed at once, people have this impression that the First World War could never be beaten for whole scale slaughter and yet if you look at the numbers of dead it was maybe 3-4 million soldiers on the allies side and when you compare this to the 50 million soldiers killed during the Second World War, which doesn't seem to evoke the same feeling. I guess once you have lost that many people once, you get a bit blase about orders of magnitudes. The First World War also seemed to beat out the other wars on the sheer crapness of the living conditions, for the allies especially. They were basically living outdoors, in the mud, no shelter but what they could dig in the trench with the rats and lice and decomposing bodies. It seems the soldiers in the Second World War in comparison were quite well looked after.

The photo to the left shows the difference between the Allies cemeteries and the German ones. In this one cemetery were buried 20,000 Germans, most of them were piled into 4 mass graves behind this photo. The names of the soldiers were then just written in a big long list, no spaces, no ages, no ranks, no message. The crosses you can see are made of metal and they all have at least 2 names on each one, though lots have 4 people. Again there is just a name, no age or rank or personal message. The Commonwealth countries all have a big pool of money which they use to pay people to look after their cemeteries, but the Germans don't have that and rely on volunteers or very cheap gardeners to look after them. And you think that if the Germans had won it would be the complete opposite.

In fact the French soldiers actually went on strike at one point, they really did seem to get a raw deal and that's how the French deal with it. First of all their uniform was initially bright red pants and a lovely blue jacket, which certainly looks really pretty, but if you are fighting in the snow or forests or fields the red shows up quite nicely. There is a reason targets are usually painted red. So the soldiers were complaining about that, but initially the commanders wouldn't let them change the uniform, I guess they were budding fashionistas. You can see the French uniform in the photo to the left, very nice. The brown uniform is the British and I think the light blue uniform in the back is the compromise uniform that the French soldiers were allowed to wear in the later years of the war.

After the uniform debacle they then got a real crappy general in 1917. He was forcing them to attack the Germans uphill and even though 100,000 French were killed in one week he had vowed to keep on fighting, though I suppose his contribution to the effort was just yelling "charge" every time the last battalion had been wiped out. So the soldiers weren't too happy about that General's contribution to trying to lose the war and so they would turn up drunk and refuse to fight until eventually they got a new general. This new general was seen as a hero in France at the time but then he was the one who surrendered really quickly to Hitler and was head of the Vichy government before being sentenced to death for treason after the Second World War ended, this was commuted to life in prison. Though perhaps a reason for the quick surrender was that after fighting through World War I this general, Petain, didn't want to see the same pointless waste of life, which seemed to be a common thread for all the allied governments after the first war, except perhaps for Hitler who seemed to get a taste for the loss of human life in the first one.

So that was my trip out to the Somme, the countryside really is pretty and I recommend a visit, through try and go on a tour with more of a focus on explaining the history and why things happened they way they did. Though really I don't think many people understand what the hell was going on with that first war.

I had a few hours to spend in Amien before my train back to Paris so I checked out their cathedral, another Gothic one, though nice and white. It's meant to be the largest in France and it was begun in 1220 to house the alleged head of John the Baptist. Unfortunately they didn't have that on display, though they did have a photo up of what it looked like. Gruesome!

The Amien town centre with the cathedral in the background, pretty quiet on a Sunday evening, though surprisingly clean.

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