The Somme – Another Way of Looking

Recently in Norwich, where I live, there visited a commemorative display called ‘The Trench Experience’. It purported to be about the battle of the Somme. It was most remarkable for being completely Anglo-focussed. There was barely a mention of the involvement of the French forces and nothing at all about the consequences for French civilians caught up in the carnage. It was exactly the sort of thing that adds nothing to public understanding but merely exploits public interest in the crudest possible way.

Two things have been brought to my attention that I feel expose different sides of the story. Most readers of this blog will be more familiar with what is being shown on British TV. By far the best programme to appear in many a year has been the current series on BBC2 hosted and researched by the historian and battlefield archaeologist, Peter Barton[1]. The series is called ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Despite his every effort to be balanced and professional, sticking closely to the evidence, you can see how he is frequently visibly upset and emotional about what he has discovered. Watch it! It is a horror story that sadly involved tens of thousands of victims, well beyond anything the most gruesome Hollywood movie might show. Only by understanding how the Germans responded to the Allied offensives can you really appreciate the disaster in its totality, its inhumanity and its ultimate stupidity (though Barton might not wish to use such a word).

The second came from a French friend in the form of a special supplement from the Courrier Picard covering the recent 1 July centenary commemorative events at Thiepval, Amiens, Albert and elsewhere. It is tucked away on a back page and refers to a new book by Philippe Nivet and Marjolaine Boutet: ‘The Forgotten Hecatomb’ (my clumsy and literal translation from the French). The article is an interview with Marjolaine Boutet. Those of you who have visited the Somme battlefield area will no doubt be familiar with the Historial at Peronne and its even-handed coverage of all nations involved including the civilian experience. This book is another contribution to that broader understanding of the whole experience and Marjolaine Boutet works at the Historial. It seeks to retrieve what she calls the common human experience of what happened and to overturn the odd way in which French people themselves seem to regard the Somme battles as being somehow not to do with them. As she says: there were at least 204 000 French soldiers killed or wounded. She goes on, speaking to a French audience: ‘When you walk in the Somme, each farm, each site of the sector has an history, a crater, some buried shells. And yet, it is not only the British who were there. That is a shame. These are places of memory. You should go there!’ She doesn’t quite say it, but the way in which Picardy has become a place of British pilgrimage and tourism has somehow overshadowed the French experience. Remember that next time you visit and also take another look at some of the photographs in Peter Barton’s TV series showing the scale of destruction of French farms, villages, towns, roads and infrastructure.

Finally, a tribute to my French friend, who is hosting a website looking at the 1918 Somme Battlefield area in the vicinity of where she lives and where my grandfather and several more men from 11 DLI served and died. You can find it via this link: https://somme18.com/

She too makes no distinctions between nations. This is part of a common, human experience we all share with regret and sorrow.

[1] Joint author of a brilliant book on tunnelling, among others.