Dedicated to my Grandparents Michael and Peggy McNiffe of Sligo Eire, and dearest Delia on St Patrick’s Week.
There are few places on Earth where I am settled and find an inner peace. Many people choose sitting on a sunbed in a hotel in the Mediterranean, or go to the coast in a caravan or take city breaks in a foreign capital city. I have two such places, the Infamous Ypres Salient in Flanders Belgium, especially in the area around Messines, and the uplands north of the River Somme in Picardy. On Sunday it will be exactly 12 months to the day where I, alongside many other Great War enthusiasts and guides, went to the Somme and recieved training for the GP 90 event. We had our Photo taken in front of Sir Edwin Lutyens monument to the missing at Thiepval.
A year later, I will be returning with more knowledge and a far better understanding of the tragedy of the Somme. A Battle that for many Soldiers who fought it, forever changed their thoughts and ideals of the glorification of war. It was a Battle that haunted the Veterans who survived it, and also left deep scars that probably haunted them for the rest of their lives. To me the Somme marks the beginning of the end of the age of British imperialism, the names of so many etched into the Portland Stone of Thiepval as their bodies were smashed to pieces in the cauldron of battle. The unknown promise of what might have been had they lived. The Ghosts of those lost Soldiers surround the area in the early morning mists of Picardy.
On the Somme there are many places where you feel a certain presence, its something that you only understand as you leave the area. It stays with you and makes you want to go back time after time. You have studied the books and watched the endless documentaries dedicated to that campaign. You walk on to those fields and try to visualise things as that Generation did. Knowing that you will probably never ever be able to. You can only use the source material at your disposal. I like to use the old Battlefield Trench Maps, which was used by the British Army in preparation for their attacks. Most people now use Linesman, which is a GPS tracking system which gives you a pin point location of where the Trenches were, exactly at the point where you are standing. It is probably something that I will have to invest in the future. But nothing gives me more peace than to walk in the presence of what happened on the Somme, and to remember a Generation far more honourable and decent than mine.
The Somme in this Country has left a deep horrific legacy on our nation, 103 years later we are still reeling from the effects of that battle, that catastrophic first day in July to the muddy struggles of November 1916. My hometown raised 2 Pals Battalions. They were part of 31st Division that were committed to the Big Push of July 1st 1916. Supporting the Sheffield City Battalion and the Accrington Pals, they met severe losses in the very first minutes of the opening attack, the sinister quote ” 2 years in the making, 10 minutes in the destroying” is quite appropriate in the description of what happened. But this is not the only tragic story, along a 16 mile attacking front many other martyrdoms were created. The actions of the Ulstermen attacking the Schwaben Redoubt at Thiepval is one of incredible heroism, even after being left exposed because attacks to the left and right of them had failed, they kept fighting hard against overwhelming odds, sadly as it was getting dark and due to the heavy losses and fear of encirclement, they had to pull back to their original starting line. Many of the dead laid on the Battlefield, never to be recovered. In Belfast and in many other areas in Ulster, the Murals celebrate and commemorate the agony endured. The Legacy is maintained with honour and great dignity. The Soldiers who attacked on July 1st expected a glorious and quick breakthrough, by November 1916 it was apparant that the Somme had now become a byword for mass industrial slaughter on a human scale, as the Germans heroically held on for dear life, inflicting heavy casualties on their British adversaries. The consequences of giving battle to the British resulted in the Germans tactically withdrawing from the shattered area in February-March 1917. Retreating to the bastion of the newly created Hindenburg Line, creating another British headache that would last for another 2 years.
I am finally returning back to the Western Front, 4 months after the Centenary of the Armistice, it has truly flown by. A lot of things have happened, the nature of the beast and the game of how we remember the Glorious Dead has fundamentally changed already. The task that I have been graciously given and that so many other people my age is the fundamental question of how we keep and maintain the Legacy that was given to us by that Generation that did grew old and slowly with time faded away. I alongside 3 friends will together try and discover areas that we have never properly explored before, mostly on foot and together try to keep learning and absorbing what the Somme has to bring. Its time for my Generation to step up to the plate and come to the fore. I might be wrong in that assumption, but as uncertain times are ahead, it is probably more important now than ever before.
And the Earth Abideth Forever