Research: travelling to the Somme

The tiny cluster of graves in woodland where a single company fell and were buried in their own trench, the vast avenues of pristine stone, softened by the heather, roses, tulips of an English country garden. The endless small cemeteries that mark a landscape of death in northern France. A city of the dead at Tyne Cot in Flanders.

It was beautiful weather—more like summer than spring—which somehow made the events I was trying to imagine even more
poignant.

July 1st 1916 had been a fine day too. As the barrage lifted, the lark-song above was one of the last sounds many of those men would ever hear.

We stood by a vast crater, now a gentle lake with weeping willows. And they might well weep: when the crater was blown the thuds and cries of Germans trapped in their trenches went on for three days. Now all is absolute peace, yet the Germans are still beneath our feet.

Shell crater

Now I passed slowly by the memorials: Newfoundlanders and Indians, South Africans in their peaceful wood of ash and hornbeam, the floor a haze of bluebells where once battle raged for 5 days, and Australians remembered at a ruined windmill, in the taking of which they lost nearly as many men as at Gallipoli.

Tiny paper Australian flags fade in the sunlight. Australian visitors have not forgotten. Blossom falls in drifts.

The idea, the ideal which brought men from the colonies—from sheep farms, from Canadian logging stations, from the Punjab and Madras, from Cape Town and the West Indies—is as hard to imagine as the fact that this war took 10 million soldiers’ lives, and that behind every soldier were parents, grandparents, wives, sweethearts, children, siblings, friends: a vale of tears so deep it is, yet again, as unimaginable as everything about this war.

One inscription reads, simply, ‘Our Only Son.’ Another, ‘Good-night Daddy.’

The Great War took writers, musicians, doctors, scholars, actors, politicians and teachers, just as it took miners, shipbuilders, publicans, farriers, shop-assistants and builders’ labourers.

It devastated small communities.

It stole the future.

It is one the reasons I, and others of course, return to write fiction set in the period: to try to impose a painful humanity on unspeakable statistics, and to question what now seems like a monumental and unforgivable folly.
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