I don’t know what it is that fascinates me about the First World War – particularly the Western Front and the carnage of the battle which has become known simply by the name of the nondescript river near which it was fought – The Somme.
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because my grandfather was there – how close to the front I may never know; he was a quartermaster in one of the Highland regiments. I have a box of correspondence of his from those days somewhere. Maybe this year, one hundred years after it all started, is the time to pull it out of the attic to see if the contents will shed any light on his experiences.
Maybe it’s just that the literature I’ve read – Faulks’ Birdsong, Hill’s Strange Meeting to name just two – has left a deep impression upon my psyche of what these men, so unfortunate to have been born in the late Victorian era, went through in those dark years of 1914-1918.
Maybe it’s the thought of the huge loss of life? Casualties on a scale previously unimaginable as row after row of trudging Tommies went down under the withering fire of the German machine guns.
Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that many of the survivors were utterly unable to live a normal life after demobilisation – and this not always due to physical infirmity, but rather the colossal mental trauma inflicted by sights, sounds and circumstances no human being should ever have had to endure.
According to my late father my grandfather ‘never spoke’ of his experiences on the Western Front. And how could these veterans have shared what they had experienced?
Neither you, nor I, nor anyone alive will ever know what it was like. We’d have to have fought alongside them, crouching terrified under bursting shells, dodging snipers’ bullets, burying friends and enemies side by side in the filth. That’s the only way we could ever empathise.
How can we hope to understand what it felt like to be huddled at the foot of the trench ladder waiting for the whistle to blow on that fateful July morning in 1916; to know that the German wire was not cut, as the bombardments had intended it to be, to know that you were required to walk – walk! – fully loaded with rifle, pack and other heavy accoutrements, into the path of countless traversing machine guns?
There’s something about that awful morning which haunts me and won’t let go.
Susan Hill (‘Strange Meeting’) tells us that it was only when she had finished her novel that she was able to ‘let go’ of her obsession with the Great War.
So maybe that’s what I need to do: write it out of my system.
In memory of those ordinary, long-dead soldiers.
Like Wraysford, Weir, Hilliard, Barton.