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Return to the Somme

This sombre cemetery at Fricourt contains the remains of 17,000 German soldiers who perished on the Somme. 12,000 of those buried here are interred in four mass graves. - Warren Sommer
This sombre cemetery at Fricourt contains the remains of 17,000 German soldiers who perished on the Somme. 12,000 of those buried here are interred in four mass graves.
— image credit: Warren Sommer

Crouched in his battalion’s front-line trench, 25-year-old Sid Boundy glanced at his watch, his stomach in a knot.

It was 7:20 a.m. on July 1, 1916. The rain had stopped and the mist that rose from the warming, churned-up soil promised a brighter and warmer day.

But the day was anything but peaceful.  Though sited far to the rear, the thunder of the army’s heavy guns was nothing short of deafening. Shells shrieked incessantly overhead and landed in the enemy’s front line, the smoke from their explosions all but obscuring a scene of utter devastation. With every flash the acrid stench of yet more cordite filled the air. The artillery barrage had begun a week before, but this morning it was different. At 6:25 a.m. the artillery’s rate of fire had increased, a clear signal that something momentous was in the offing.

A tremendous roar abruptly rent the air and the earth began to shake. Deep under the enemy’s front lines, 40,000 pounds of high explosives erupted in a massive cloud of smoke and fire. Tons of soil and shattered bodies rose and filled the sky, then settled back to earth. As one witness recalled:

“The ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion. It rocked and swayed.  I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then for all the world like a gigantic sponge, the earth rose high in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible grinding roar the earth settled back upon itself, leaving in its place a mountain of smoke.”

Then, the dust began to settle, slowly revealing a massive crater some 140 metres long and 25 metres deep.

Ten minutes later, the scene was repeated further down the line as British soldiers continued to detonate a further 18 mines. Thousands of German soldiers perished in the ensuing explosions, their bodies ripped apart, incinerated, or buried under tons of steaming earth.

The Battle of the Somme had begun at last.

Assigned to the 8th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, Sid Boundy was a seasoned soldier, having survived the disastrous Battle of Loos some 12 months earlier. Mines had also been used at Loos, but with nowhere near the same effect as on the Somme. Nor had the previous year’s artillery barrage been anywhere near as heavy. The Battle of Somme, the generals promised, would finally break the stalemate on the Western Front.

During the previous week, an astounding 1.7 million shells had been hurled at the enemy lines — more shells than had been fired during the first full year of war. The artillery bombardment, it was felt, would destroy the Germans’ trenches, bury their protective dugouts, shatter their concrete machine gun bunkers, and rip their barbed wire to shreds. Those few Germans who survived would be deeply demoralized, flee in terror, or even be driven mad. The British infantry would have an easy time of it, having little more to do than stroll across No Man’s Land and occupy the enemy’s abandoned positions.

As the sound of the exploding mines began to cease, officers up and down the British lines began to blow their hand-held whistles, signalling the start of the infantry’s attack. Sid doubtless tensed.  Scheduled to join the second wave of attacking soldiers, he watched as the men of his regiment’s 9th Battalion climbed from the front line trench.

Armed with the British Army’s standard Lee-Enfield rifle, each was heavily laden with 66 pounds of equipment. With such a weight on their backs, it was no easy task to walk down the shell-pocked slopes of Mansel Copse and out into No Man’s Land. Dozens of other units rose simultaneously from a series of trenches that spanned the 30 kilometre-long line of attack. Following their instructions to the letter, the Devonshires walked at a sedate pace across the open country, slowly making their way toward the German-held village of Mametz. Sid and his comrades could only wait their turn.

During his sojourn in the trenches, Sid had likely reflected on his life and wondered what the future held in store. Born in rural Devon in the fall of 1886, Sid was orphaned while still in his teens. Unable to continue his education, the young man found work as an agricultural labourer.  Facing uncertain futures, Sid and his brother John decided to emigrate, Sid choosing Australia, John selecting Canada. By 1910 John had settled in rural South Aldergrove, acquiring a 40-acre farm. Two years later he was dead, felled by heart disease at the age of just 29.

Named in his brother’s will as one of his beneficiaries, Sid journeyed to Canada. After his previous, tenuous existence, the prospect of owning a large piece of property was nothing if not alluring. Arriving in Aldergrove, Sid took up his brother’s farm.  Like many at the time, he also sought paying employment. As an experienced farm worker he readily found work at the recently opened Fraser Valley Nursery, located near downtown Aldergrove.

In June 1914, however, fate intervened once again. A shot from an assassin’s gun in far off Sarajevo ignited the flames of war in Europe.  By early August the British Empire was at war with Germany. Impelled by the call of King and Empire, Canadians raced by the thousands to rescue the mother country.  Sid was among the first to join.  Rather than enlisting in Canada, he returned to England, enrolling in the Devonshires, his home county’s regiment. July 1915 found his battalion in France.

The Devons had fought with William of Orange and the Duke of Marlborough. They had served in Afghanistan and the Caribbean. One of their officers had won the Victoria Cross while fighting against the Boers in South Africa. As the 9th Battalion disappeared in the distance, Sid and the men of the 8th stood by their ladders, ready to honour their regiment’s traditions and prepared to do their duty. The whistles blew again. Sid and his company climbed from their trenches and into a hail of unrelenting machine gun fire.

Contrary to expectations, the Germans had remained safe in their dugouts throughout the long artillery barrage. The enemy’s bunkers proved too strong and too deep to suffer much damage from the British artillery’s undersized guns. Fitted with faulty fuses, over 30 per cent of the British shells failed to explode on impact. Far from being destroyed, the Germans’ barbed wire defences had remained virtually uncut.

When the British artillery fell silent, the Germans had raced up and out to man their trenches, their rifles and guns levelled on the advancing line of khaki. The situation was near-hopeless. By the end of the day, Sid Boundy and scores of other Devons lay dead, caught on the German wire or felled in the blood-soaked fields.

A few days later, those whose bodies could safely be retrieved were hastily buried in their own front-line trench, the site marked by a rough wooden cross with the proud inscription:

“The Devonshires held this trench;

The Devonshires hold it still.”

The Devons had had it rough, but a dozen kilometres to the north, the situation was grimmer still. Stationed near Beaumont Hamel, the 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment had also been part of a second wave. Advancing down a slope towards some of the most heavily defended German positions on the Western Front, the Newfoundlanders lacked the friendly artillery fire that had covered the Devons’ attack.

Totally exposed, the regiment was immediately thrust into heavy cross fire. The few rare gaps in the barbed wire that lay ahead became, in the commanding officer’s report, “a proper trap.” Higher authorities had been told that the wire along the Somme had remained uncut but had chosen to ignore the information. Within just 30 minutes, the regiment was all but annihilated. When the roll was called the following day, there were only 68 responses.

The scene was repeated up and down the line of battle.  Poor communications sent wave after wave of unsuspecting men to their doom. On the first day of the battle, over 19,000 British soldiers were killed outright. A further 35,500 were wounded, many of them fatally. Hundreds more were taken prisoner. The casualties for the day totalled an astounding 57,470 men. Not only had these atrociously high casualties rendered the day the worst in the history of British arms, the territorial gains had been inconsequential.

Despite their heavy losses, the generals continued the offensive for a further 140 days, deploying troops from each of the Commonwealth countries. The main body of Canadians arrived in August and successfully engaged the enemy in a major offensive at Courcelette in mid-September.  By the time hostilities were suspected two months later, over 24,000 Canadians had fallen in the battle.

Struck down by a German shell on Sept. 27, Milner labourer Paul Doutaz would be buried near the infamous Regina Trench, a strategic stronghold taken by the Canadians on Nov. 11. West Langley farmhand Ernest Moody would perish the day of the victory and be buried in a cemetery named Adanac, which is Canada spelled backwards.

When the Battle of the Somme finally ceased, one-eighth of a million British and Commonwealth troops lay dead; a further 300,000 had been wounded, all for a gain of less than a dozen kilometres. Three men had died for every inch of captured territory, but in many places along the front there had been no gains at all.

But the bloodshed had not ended. On March 21, 1918 the enemy massed its armies and unleashed an artillery barrage of unprecedented proportions, preparing the way for a massive sweep across the Somme. Within days, one million German soldiers retook all the territory the Allies had so painfully gained a year and a half before. The Allies fought back, regaining the Somme in early September, albeit at the cost of a further quarter-million men.

A visit to the Somme is a humbling, emotion-fraught experience. A casual glance at the rolling, verdant landscape gives little sense of the wholesale carnage of a century ago. A closer examination, however, reveals a concentration of cemeteries and war memorials found nowhere else on earth.

Set amid peaceful fields and woodland, the 243 cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record the names, ranks, regimental affiliations, and nationalities of hundreds of thousands of men. A dozen German cemeteries contain the remains of thousands more, many of them anonymously buried in disturbing mass graves.

Additional memorials record the names of those with no known graves — about 30 per cent of those killed in action.  The largest of these is at Thiepval. Sited in a joint British-French war cemetery, this imposing monument — the largest on the Western Front — records the names of over 72,000 missing of the Somme.

A highly evocative memorial to the men of the Newfoundland Regiment stands five kilometres to the north. Located in a landscape of preserved trenches and war grave cemeteries, the memorial features a bronze sculpted caribou, the emblem of the regiment. With its head thrust heavenward, the beast cries out inconsolably for the colony’s vanished, butchered youth. While July 1 — Canada Day — is a date for celebration throughout the rest of Canada, in Newfoundland it remains Memorial Day, a time of utmost sorrow.

Touring the Somme for a second time this past summer, I could not help but ponder the futility of war. A million men had perished in this crucible of carnage, but for what?

In its entirety, the First World War had claimed upwards of nine million lives. At its outset, the war had been touted as the war to end all wars, yet the treaties that ended the hostilities would prove to be the peace to end all peace. A Second World War would follow within a generation and pave the way for further destructive conflicts in both Europe and the Middle East, and foster the global terrorism.

John Lennon’s admonition in 1969 to “Give Peace a Chance” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “peace cannot be achieved through violence” but only through understanding, might appear unrealistic to some.

To visit the Western Front, however, is to realize the senselessness of conflict. As more than one Langley veteran has counselled me, “there has to be a better way.”

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