Ninety- six years ago, my step-grandfather stepped out with thousands of other young men on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was the first of July, 1916.
He was a north countryman from Northumberland, and the four Northumberland regiments were the first to walk into battle at 7 30 am on a blue sunny morning with the birds singing. The four Geordie regiments stepped purposefully towards the German lines which were supposed to have been bombarded into nothing, the barbed wire cut by the bombardment also.
For a moment, they walked into the sudden silence, and then the German machine guns began to fire. The guns simply swept the battle field, as their targets continued walking steadily towards them, and line after line of brave young men fell. These regiments belonged to what was known as the New Army, bodies of men who had joined up from their towns, villages and workplaces, calling themselves names like the Grimsby Chums, and the Manchester Pals. They had set off that morning believing that this battle would end the war.
Percy, my step-grandfather, didn’t become one of the 60,000 dead British soldiers killed on that one day, but just one of over 30,000 wounded. He was a young officer, and like them all, easily distinguishable to the German machine-gunners. Officers went into battle wearing their service dress, collar and tie, shining leather Sam Browne belts, and carrying a pistol, not a rifle. By the end of the day, 75 per cent of officers had been killed, compared with fifty per cent of men. The three colonels of the four Geordie regiments were dead, the fourth badly wounded.
Percy was shot in the face, and later buried in a huge crater after a mine had exploded. He was found four days later, still alive – just – and he grabbed a helmet lying on the ground to drink from it and quench his terrible thirst. The helmet was full of chemicals and poisons from the battlefield, and Percy ruined his insides. The face wound healed, he was returned to the battlefield, and unlike so many of the men who endured the hell of the First World War, he survived to see peace.
The day that 60,000 brave young men died on the Somme was the worst day of that terrible war. Waterloo was accounted a bloody battle, but Wellington lost only 25 per cent of his army, 8458 men. El Alamein, an eleven day battle, cost 1,125 men a day, while on D-Day the British and Canadian casualties cost 4000 men.
So my grandmother, living in a north country village, had seen all the young men march proudly through the streets on their way to fight for their country, trumpets blowing, banners flying, girls throwing flowers. Now all the houses had their blinds down, mourning their sons and husbands, brothers and fiancees, friends and neighbours. It wasn’t the same back in Germany. The Germans had not been slaughtered. For every seven British soldiers killed, they had lost one, from a much bigger population.
Paddy Kennedy, a soldier with the Manchester Pals, another regiment which was destroyed that day, helped to take a German post at Montauban. In the German trenches he found a small black frightened kitten, the pet of a dead soldier. Feeling sorry for it, he fastened it inside his pack, and took it with him. During lulls in the fighting he took it out and played with it. A few days later, he gave it to the company cooks as a mascot, and got on with his job… The following year, the kitten, now known as Nigger, went back to England hidden in a soldier’s battledress. The young man took it home on leave to his family in Rochdale, and left it with them. He was killed at Passchendale shortly afterwards. But Paddy Kennedy, who’d gone back to Manchester after the war, had not forgotten the cat. Throughout the twenties he went to visit Nigger at Rochdale.
This reminded me of the Dogs Cage on the beach at Dover. As the soldiers arrived back from Dunkirk in 1940, hungry, wounded, shattered, they brought with them dogs and puppies which they’d rescued from the deserted, burning town of Dunkirk. Since rabies could not be allowed to invade the British Isles, the commanding officer at Dover organised for the dogs to be labelled, and their addresses recorded; and after six months in quarantine, these French dogs were delivered to their rescuer’s homes around the British Isles. I suppose that by then they knew what ‘sit,’ and ‘stay’ were in English…
These loving actions by soldiers in the midst of fighting, somehow ease the heart when one reads the horror of those battles. So when I think of Percy and all those other wonderful young men, whose deaths wring the heart – “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”, I think of their kindness and courage and decency – and try not to think of the stupidity of the generals and politicians who sent them to die.
Do other families have their stories?
Food for Threadbare Gourmets.
Like the soldiers of most recent wars, when my military husband (first one) and I were down to the bare boards at the end of every month,( since we had married too young and didn’t get any allowances) we opened a tin of bully beef . If you’re really up against it and hungry too, this recipe is good value.
Fry a few onions in a little oil and butter. When soft, add some curry powder to taste, just enough to give some flavour, and fry a little more. Then add the chopped- up tin of bully beef, a few tomatoes if you have them, and a squeeze of tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pepper – salt if it needs it, or any spices you think would taste good. Stir-fry this altogether. Sometimes I might add a tin of baked beans to the mix. If it’s dry, add some water and a chicken bouillon cube and some flour to thicken it. Stir the flour into some water till the lumps have gone, before adding to the mix and cook for a few minutes. Serve hot with plenty of creamy mashed potatoes and some green vegetables. Not an elegant dish, but tasty and filling!
Food for Thought
Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me.
The prayer of Cavalier Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Edgehill 1642