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. 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.
 Joint author of a brilliant book on tunnelling, among others.
Despite a strong local campaign since the autumn of 2015, the DLI Museum and Art Gallery in Durham will close in April of this year as a result of the decision of Durham County Council under the leadership of the Labour Party. Once upon a time that was the Party which would fight on behalf of working people and local communities against just the sort of austerities and cutbacks from which we have been suffering this past few years. Nowadays the Labour Party could not fight its way out of a paper bag, except perhaps a few individuals trying to preserve their sense of self-importance.
What can we do? The campaign ‘Save the DLI’ [http://savethedli.org.uk/] will no doubt still go on. But meanwhile it is planned to mothball the collection, to be stored in a former tobacco factory, on a short lease, in conditions that I doubt will meet official standards for conservation practice. Some time or never, depending on funds one presumes, there will be ‘travelling exhibitions’. More likely the collection will eventually be scattered and may even be sold off into private hands – where are the guarantees?
I would suggest that all of you out there whose families have donated personal items relating to your DLI ancestors, such as medals, certificates and bronze plaques – ask for them back. Point out that the Durham County Council by its decision had abrogated its responsibility for care, preservation and display of these precious family heirlooms entrusted to them. Demand your heirlooms back!
Whatever you do – don’t just sit back and do nothing. We are in the centenary years of the First World War when many of our families lost relatives: fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, as well as sisters and aunts. Stand up and be counted.
My last public talk on the 11th Durham Light Infantry took place in York on Saturday 12 January 2013. It was an excellent turn-out at the Yorkshire Branch of the Western Front Association and they gave me a great reception. I hope they enjoyed the talk as much as the applause at the end seemed to show.
I have now sold out of my personal stock of the book, and the publishers no longer stock it, but it can still be bought from on-line sellers. I have had the publishing rights returned to me by the publishers, which frees me up to do something different with the material in the future and lifts any contractual restrictions on what I put on this blog site.
Will I do further talks? Definitely not on the subject of the battalion history as such, but I won’t absolutely rule out doing talks on the general issue of grassroots study of the First World War – at least after a few months’ rest and the chance to work on some of my other projects. And I will continue posting material on this site from the battalion war diary as well as some other features yet to be dreamed up!
There was a good crowd at the DLI Museum on 14 May 2011, including many relatives of men from 11th DLI in WW1. There were no less than eleven descendants related to Pte Robert Bennett, whose letters are such a singular feature of the book. Mike Lavelle, grandson of Pte Hugh Lavelle brought along originals of the images from the book. I was surprised how small was the certificate from the Divisional Commander commending Hugh’s courageous efforts running messages during the March Retreat. Moss Hardy, from the same family line as Thomas Thew was there. Best of all, I made a new contact, with a relative of 2nd Lt Thomas William Applegarth. Let’s hope that, as time goes on, this site becomes a focal point for other descendants yet to be discovered.
The talk was well-received, to judge by comments from people who approached me afterwards, and from the generous vote of thanks at the end. The message seems to have got over that this is not just another battalion history, and that it really does do something different, based on solid and deep research. Of course, these are early days!
The author with the descendants of Pte Robert Bennett, DLI Museum, 14 May 2011
The book 11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names will be formally launched at the DLI Museum in Durham on Saturday, 14 May. The launch will be accompanied by a talk by the author, using extracts from more than eighty letters and personal records of more than 350 men who served with the battalion. The talk is at 2 p.m. and there is an entrance fee payable to the Museum – which helps with the upkeep of the museum. I hope to see you there!