The Battle of the Somme
On 1 July 2016 the Battle of the Somme commenced and lasted 141 days. Over three million men fought in the battle and one million men were wounded or killed. It was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
When I first started writing about the Battle of the Somme I had some trepidation. I had not experienced war in any form and count myself as a pacifist (albeit with some limits). However, I took the view that so long as I did the research I was just as capable to write about a war or a battle scene as any other writer.
Fortunately, for anyone who has to write about the Battle of the Somme, there are more books about the battle than one can read. There are the history books, love letters, poems and then there are books made up of eye witness accounts. I dipped into history books but was more interested in reading about the battle from the perspective of soldiers and officers who were there. I therefore focussed my reading towards diaries of nurses and letters from soldiers. In around 2008 I read Forgotten Voices of the Somme, written by Joshua Levine from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. Forgotten Voices had been designed to obtain first hand accounts from soldiers and officers who had experienced the battle but had often never spoken about the war to anyone ever again. In my novel I say that: "The Somme had changed the language of life" and that: "It was a jealous war that kept on calling the soldiers back to it." It was from reading the Forgotten Voices that the idea of 'a jealous war' emerged, where the soldiers could only talk openly to their comrades at the front because no one at home could understand the horror.
In the novel the story of the Battle of the Somme is told from the perspective of two people, Lieutenant Christian Drewe and Private George Poley. Christian sees the futility of the endeavour but leads his men across no mans land. Christian by this time was a fairly rounded character in the novel. He doubts that the war was necessary but feels compelled to enlist. Despite not wanting to fight, Christian Drewe is not afraid of the war. The story therefore needs to be told from that perspective and, at this point, the writer must ignore most of what they have read. There are, of course, letters and memoirs from officers who had the same thought but it is dangerous for the author to start taking too much from these documents because the character in the novel may be substantially different.
George Poley, on the other hand, was a minor character. He is a young boy that wants to join up, neither fearing nor understanding the horror that would be involved. Once he is on the front lines he is afraid. Here, the memoirs and diaries of soldiers who fought on the Somme were invaluable. That feeling of helplessness and fear that George Poley experiences was felt by many other soldiers. I have been told by a few people who read drafts of the novel that the scenes with George Poley are my strongest writing. It is because his feelings of fear and helplessness were directly lifted from memoirs and diaries that this part of the story resonates as being true. Similarly, the exhaustion that he experiences when he gets to the field hospital at Albert was something that soldiers wrote about after the first day of the battle ended.
On one of my many trips to the World War1 battlefields I went to La Boisselle where the Lochnager mine was exploded just before 7:30am on 1 July 1916. It left a crater 98 ft (30 m) deep and 330 ft (100 m) wide. I remember looking at the crater, full of water, in astonishment. The amount of effort and endurance that it had taken to create the mine was astonishing. I often think that if we could turn that kind of effort and endurance towards creating things rather than blowing them up then the world might be a little brighter. There were accounts of the explosions in many books and diaries and I therefore decided to include it as the final scene before the soldiers went over the top.
In contrast to the horror that George Poley and Christian Drewe encounter, General Rawlinson, who is in command, is "safe from the threat of bullet and explosion" and considers the days events over "lunch and a small crystal glass of Hock." The Imperial War Museum does not shy away from its condemnation of either General Haig or General Rawlinson for what happened on the Somme. They state that: "Essentially the tragedy of 1 July stemmed from the failure of the week-long British bombardment to neutralise the German artillery and machine guns. The attack did not fail everywhere however. The British forces which attacked nearest their French allies actually took their objectives, but here Rawlinson's caution proved costly, as no plans had been made to exploit such successes."
The courage of the men who fought on the Somme is without question. However, at the end of the day one is left wondering whether the Battle of the Somme was a glorious failure or a needless failure. What is clear is that the front line soldiers paid the cost from other peoples decisions and mistakes.