Remembering the Somme
Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest engagements of WWI. Over nineteen thousand soldiers died on the first day alone and the battle raged from July 1 to November 18, 1916. It was the largest battle of WWI. Over a million people died making it also one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
I think we often forget about this war – once called ‘the War to End All Wars’ in light of the horrific war that followed twenty years later. It’s easy to forget the impact the First World War had on society – it ended the world as people knew it, transformed the face of Europe, transformed social relations (not necessarily for the better), changed the position of women, revolutionized warfare, and set the stage for the second world war. It also wiped out a generation of young men and some women (I’m reading a wonderful book right now called “Female Tommies” by E. Shipton that discusses the role of women in WWI, including women who actually saw combat).
I am struck as well by the fact that it’s no longer in our living memory. I believe the last (or one of the very last) veterans of this war died in 2012 at something like 110 years old. It has passed out of living memory and that seems to be both a powerful moment and a dangerous one: powerful because the duty of remembrance passes more forcefully to us, that those who died might not have died in vain and that we may learn and remember, remember and learn and do our damndest to prevent such senseless loss of life again (we’re not doing the best job of that, I fear) and dangerous because since it is not in living memory, it’s far too easy for its impact to be downplayed, and its sacrifices…forgotten.
I wasn’t able to post anything yesterday as I normally would have done, but I did leave memorial tokens about – yet another “glamour bomb” urging remembrance of both this battle, the war itself, and most especially those who fought in it. I scattered them across three towns. Today, a friend sent me a couple of links highlighting other memorials for the dead and I’ll share those with you here.
A theatre troupe across the UK created a living memorial:
“The powerful scenes of the young men standing en masse during rush hour at UK’s busiest thoroughfares provided a poignant reminder of the scale of human suffering experienced by so many, 100 years ago today.”
In Exeter, the first day of the battle was marked by figurines laid out to represent the nearly twenty thousand dead on that July 1 so long ago.
“The figurines, each clad in a hand-made calico shroud, mark the anniversary of the start of the battle 100 years ago. They were placed on the grass next to the World War One memorial in Exeter, by artist Rob Heard. The artwork was opened at 07:30 BST, the exact time the whistle was blown 100 years ago for the battle’s start.”
Read more here.
Then there is the Every Man Remembered Project run by the British Royal Legion which allows one to commemorate individual soldiers who died in WWI. You can commemorate, place a poppy on a map to mark their passing and, if you wish, donate to the Legion for specific causes. It’s a powerful and beautiful memorial and there are many personal accounts posted by those who’ve chosen to become involved. It costs nothing to commemorate and that can be done here.
The legion is also selling gold poppy lapel pins, made from melted down shell casings found at the Somme, with soil from the battlefield mixed into the paint, the proceeds of which go to help veterans of today’s wars. Read more on that here.
I’m glad to note that the US will be getting its own WWI memorial soon. Those interested can learn more about that here and donate toward the memorial if so moved.
For the Fallen
Poem by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), published in The Times newspaper on 21st September 1914.
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.