How do you read land? I mean, how do you read a landscape when
it is wholly unfamiliar, when you yourself grew up in a different place and have come here enthusiastically, but naively, in a hurry, with little equipment to speak of?
How do you read land when it is so gentle and so rolling and so treacherous in its subtle beauty? When it seems to change with every step you take, the hills rearranging themselves and valleys disappearing and new ridges coming into view, gold giving way to green, the green of the fields to the darker green of the trees?
How do you read land when all you possess to assist you is a well-intentioned but rather turgid little guidebook, a book that right now is explaining that "attacking just to the north of that crater, to the left as you look at it from the Becourt road, on the morning of 1st July were the 21st Northumberland Fusiliers, with the 22nd battalion in close support"? How do you read land when your guidebook then offers -- as if this might clarify everything -- the additional information that "the right hand, 101, brigade of the 34th Division was then positioned from their lines facing the site of the crater and then south eastwards towards the eastern side of Sausage Valley"?
How do you find your bearings under such conditions?
This is what my husband and I are asking ourselves as we stand, confused but oddly euphoric, on the sunny outskirts of La Boisselle, a tiny crossroads village in the verdant farmland of northern France. To our right, in the near distance, is an ordinary hillside over which an ordinary tractor is navigating its ordinary way. To our immediate left is another ordinary hillside, offering the glint of chalky white soil and the occasional blood-red poppy through low-growing green. We are standing on a narrow paved road where we have come to try to understand an event that took place more than 80 years ago, an event on which a worldwide conflict depended and of which, now, hardly a trace remains. Here in this place, on July 1, 1916, at the outset of one of the Great War's most savage engagements, 3,000 men stood at the crest of that field to our right, trying, in their own way, to understand the land and what its lovely folds might hold.
These men were called the Tyneside Irish. They were laborers, most of them, men born and raised in Ireland who had left their homeland to find work in the British town of Tyneside. When World War I started, they -- like similar groups of companions and co-workers throughout the United Kingdom -- eagerly signed up together to become part of the greatest standing army England had ever assembled. On the morning in question they took part in what their commanders fully believed would be a quick and triumphant assault on German troops entrenched in this crucial part of the Western Front. We stand, imagining them rising up over the hillside promptly at 7:30 in the morning, to begin their slow and measured attack. We are trying to understand what went wrong; why it was that the first day of the Somme, far from a walkover, in fact became -- and remains -- one of the bloodiest single days in recorded history.
More prosaically, we are trying to make sure we are standing in the right place, looking at the right hill.
It is hard to read this land, I point out.
"Well, somebody sure misread it," my husband mutters as we plunge into the landscape, finding our way forward as best we can. Already -- at noon -- we can tell it's going to be a singularly good day. That is the strangest thing: how pleasant it is to walk a battlefield. How sad and yet beautiful is the land where men fought and died. Somehow, walking one small stretch of the legendary Somme engagement offers everything you could expect from a European vacation: a picnic lunch, a history lesson, a peaceful walk, a view of splendid country, and, inevitably, death.
Death, death, death, as far as the eye can see.
"La Somme?" said the friendly neighbors in the small village where we were staying, an hour and a half northwest of Paris, when we asked how long it would take to reach the battlefield in our rented Citroen. They seemed perplexed. Why would Americans wish to visit the Somme? Was it not Normandy we wanted to see? The World War II beaches? Normandy was less than two hours to the north; Normandy was the war field Americans toured when they came to France. Normandy was the reason for staying in Normandy.
And we were, in fact, staying in Normandy. How we ended up there is a tangled tale: Suffice it to say that a baby had been born, and I had this fantasy about how it would be nice, for a small portion of time, to take care of the kids in a place other than my own hot home, and a friend knew friends who owned a Norman farmhouse and were willing to rent it reasonably. "How far do you think it is from the Somme?" I asked, knowing that my husband, whose family comes from Ireland, had always wanted to walk the path of the Tyneside Irish. "Not far, I'd imagine," the friend replied; only later did we realize she must have been talking about Normandy.
Either that or in my own ignorance I had asked her about Normandy. Because that's what everybody talks about when they talk about the northern coast of France, the spacious land located between Paris and the English Channel, a peaceful agricultural region famous for cheese, beef, creamy sauces, and -- owing to its proximity to England -- for invading and being invaded.
And we did go to the Normandy beaches. As part of a series of day trips from the farmhouse, we spent a brilliant day on that well-trafficked and meticulously maintained coast. We drove, first, to the seaside town of Arromanches, where there is a circular theater that, using both modern and historical footage, enables the viewer to feel part of the D-Day landing: the chaos and destruction, the shelling, the helpless men waiting in the swells. From Arromanches we visited the American cemetery. Together with a couple of old friends we walked that famous memorial site, with its Arlington-like tablets that line up diagonally and vertically and horizontally, its French tourists in berets and Americans in ball caps, its incongruous flavor of a coastal resort. From there we drove to the Pointe du Hoc, a high ridge where a group of Army rangers ascended a cliff to take out German fortifications. We strolled the pillowy land above the sea -- still deeply pockmarked from shelling -- and marveled at what those strong brave men accomplished. We finished at Omaha Beach, walking the long stretch of sand toward the sea, where, in the cold water, swimmers stroked past the hulks of iron barriers.
So yes, we went to Normandy. We went to the beaches and on another day we went to the nearby town of Bayeux, standing in line to see the marvelous medieval tapestry of the Norman conquest of Britain, with its vividly stitched archers, its frothing horses, its men cutting off the heads of other men with battle-axes, a different way of memorializing war. We realized, quickly, that there is nowhere in the northern part of France where you are not reminded of European conflict. In Chartres, 45 minutes from our farmhouse, we saw photographs of the cathedral with its stained-glass windows removed to save them from the Luftwaffe, the snow drifting onto the grim forlorn statuary during the darkest days of World War II.
But early one morning, we also did what we had initially intended. We left the kids with the farm girl next door, gathered our maps and guidebooks, got in the car and drove northeast past fields and behind hay trucks, beside signs that advertised "tracteur pulling" events and statues that mourned men lost to both wars; drove until Normandy gave way to neighboring Picardy; drove until we alit, some four hours later, on the remote, little-traveled, virtually deserted, sketchily memorialized, deeply moving, infinitely bloodier battlefield called the Somme.
"What was World War I about?" I keep saying, trying to understand why it was -- exactly -- that more than 100,000 British soldiers found themselves here, in northern France, in the summer of 1916. Somehow -- I am still not quite sure how this happened -- I managed to grow into adulthood without formally studying either of the century's great conflicts. In high school, teachers never made it past the Industrial Revolution before the year ended, and I didn't have the sense to take a popular course on the wars in college. So even as we try to decipher the intricacies of the immediate landscape, I am struggling with the larger picture. Yes yes, the assassination of the archduke, yes yes, Sarajevo, but why, in 1916, was Britain at war? France? The Tyneside Irish? What were they fighting for? What were they fighting against? What are the words of the W.B. Yeats poem? Those that I fight I do not hate? Those that I guard I do not love?
My husband, who is well read on the war, readily grants the difficulty of articulating an answer. Basically, he says, World War I was a reckoning between Germany on the one hand, and England and France on the other, over "who was going to run things."
So World War I was a reckoning, and the Battle of the Somme was an opportunity for Britain -- historically a naval power -- to show what its large but hastily assembled volunteer army could do. The Somme (which, incidentally, is named for the region; the Somme River is miles away) was a way to distract and engage the deeply entrenched Germans while the French were fighting at Verdun. This much I have grasped from our primary reference, a wonderful work by the British historian Martin Middlebrook called The First Day of the Somme. Each summer, Middlebrook leads tours of World War I battlefields, and of Normandy as well, and under different circumstances -- with no kids in tow, or older kids in tow -- we would have readily enlisted in such a prolonged excursion from such a master.
Without this guidance, we're stumbling through country that, in contrast to Normandy, is stunningly unmarked and unmaintained. To our amazement -- living as we do in the Washington area, with so many well-preserved Civil War battlefields -- there has been virtually no effort made to guide the newcomer through the scene of this pivotal World War I engagement. There are no reconstructed trenches, no barbed wire coils, no machine guns stationed suggestively on the hillsides, very little really, to help the casual traveler understand what a chaotic scene this must have been in 1916, the land scarred and white not only from trenches but from craters where British miners placed explosives in an attempt literally to "undermine" the Germans. The Somme, after all, was primarily a British engagement on French soil. (There were some French divisions that fought, farther south, with far fewer casualties than the inexperienced British.) In that sense it has fallen through the preservationist cracks. Why should France go to great lengths to memorialize Britons lost? And why should Britain go to great lengths to memorialize a massive yet distant slaughter, a battle that would become known, by the men, as the Great (Expletive)-up?
So it has been work to get here. We have Middlebrook, and we have two Somme-related guidebooks from the British "Battleground Europe" series, which provides detailed walks through the sites of specific engagements. Unfortunately, these latter works are written by aficionados whose passion for the terrain outstrips their ability to make it intelligible to the ordinary reader. In addition we have just visited the underground museum in the nearby town of Albert, where -- to be fair -- one does get some sense of what the Somme was like. Extending endlessly under Albert's great basilica are still-life exhibits depicting life in trenches, tea in trenches, rats in trenches, first aid in trenches, mortars in trenches, and, of course, horrible death in trenches. Since so much of the war took place underground, local farmers still plow up artifacts; heavy bags of shrapnel can be bought in the museum gift shop, along with dirt-caked badges and helmets.
In the countryside, though -- in the countryside there are only sad and scattered markers, such as the memorial to the Tyneside Irish and their comrades the Tyneside Scottish, located at the entrance to La Boisselle. (Scottish laborers, also living in Tyneside, competed with the Irish to see which immigrant group could raise the most men the fastest; around the country, similar groups were joining up in what became known as "pals" units.) We are following Walk Four in our guide, a three-hour excursion roughly tracing the route of the Irish soldiers, who, like us, traveled from Albert. It's impossible to follow their exact route, since that would mean hiking over working farmland. Instead we make our way through La Boisselle along the Rue de la 34th Division, the official name of the Tyneside units. Then, after a hard right, we find ourselves beside a violently pockmarked stretch of land known -- though there is no marker to tell you this -- as the Glory Hole. It was so named because the British and German front lines were so close to each other here that, as the battle progressed, the slaughter was unimaginably hellish.
Here, the bumps in the land resemble the grassy swells along Normandy's Pointe du Hoc. Here -- as in Normandy -- you can see what war does to land: how war reshapes land, refashions land, leaves, so to speak, a permanent depression. But here, at the Somme, you can also see what land does to war, how the lay of the land so drastically affected the outcome of the battle. Even as we struggle to get our bearings, we can easily appreciate the crucial importance of the fact that the Germans occupied the high ridges and spurs; the fatal significance of the fact that the British, inevitably, were forced to attack uphill.
Almost incomprehensibly, the British commanders (billeted in distant chateaux) did not think this uphill sweep so daunting. For seven days prior to the attack the British had been pounding the Germans with artillery -- a barrage audible even in England -- and fully expected that by now the German weaponry, barbed wire and trenches would be destroyed. All the infantrymen would have to do, the officers blithely announced, was scramble up to the rubble and roust what few Germans remained. So confident were they that one British captain brought along four soccer balls; whichever man kicked one to the German lines first would win a prize, he announced, of 50 pounds.
So the Tyneside Irish, like everyone else, gathered at their appointed place: the long ridge we can see in the distance, the one where now a tractor is moving. It was their job to descend that ridge, known as Tara Hill; cross the gentle valley at the bottom; walk through no man's land and take the German trenches line by line; then (ludicrous thought) open the ground for the cavalry -- the British cavalry! -- to sweep through. Throughout they were ordered to walk: Incredibly, the commanders ordered the men to proceed in parade-ground fashion, forcing them to use 19th-century tactics against the 20th-century German machine gun.
But the German weaponry, as it turned out, had not been destroyed at all. During the seven-day barrage, the Germans (who received warning of the attack from an intercepted transmission) simply hunkered in their well-built trenches, some of which were complete with plumbing and electricity, not to mention chairs and tables and staircases. When the barrage lifted they came up out of the ground, positioned their guns, and could not believe what they saw.
"The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on a parade ground," said one German officer whose account is quoted in Middlebrook. "We felt they were mad."
"When the English started advancing we were very worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches," recalled another German. "We were very surprised to see them walking . . . When we started firing, we just had to load and reload. They went down in the hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them.
"If only they had run," he added, "they would have overwhelmed us."
But they did not run. They walked. The Irishmen walked, just as we are walking now, making our way to a copse of trees where, as we peer inside past a high wall of shrubbery, we see the faint pebbly remains of German fortifications. The Irishmen walked, as they had been instructed, and the Germans mowed them down. Mowed them down as they descended Tara Hill; mowed them down as they reached the British front lines and, rather than pausing to seek refuge, bravely filed through the deadly gaps in the barbed wire and began the gentle ascent to where we are standing. They sat on that high ground, the Germans did, and they kept on shooting, and the Tyneside Irish kept on coming and kept on dying. As did soldiers attempting similar struggles along the massive 18-mile Somme front: One hour after the Battle of the Somme began, Middlebrook estimates, there were 30,000 British casualties. There would be 60,000 men dead or wounded by the end of the day.
"Where were the Tyneside Irish now?" I am wondering, looking out over the golden and green fields. It's hard to figure out where they were, we realize, not just because there are no markers but because where most of them were was on the ground, dead. Most did not make it even as far as where we are standing. As we think about this, a tiny twister whips its way across the stubble. How odd. The weather changes often here, so near the sea. Even so, we have never seen such a thing, this miniature cyclone, this little isolated spiral of wind advancing toward us up the hill. We shiver. So many men fell and died here, bullets passing through their stomachs, their heads, the trees hearing their cries, the land absorbing their blood. "It was about this time," a soldier recalled after seeing a comrade shot through the eye, "that my feeling of confidence was replaced by an acceptance of the fact that I had been sent here to die."
If there are ghosts anywhere, this quiet farmland is where there would be ghosts.
And if there are graves anywhere, this quiet farmland is where there should be graves. We pass a small chateau where we can hear a French girl's voice calling in the peaceful afternoon, then walk through a shady forest until we emerge into a bright clearing where we find a most unlikely thing, a walled British garden. Actually, it is a meticulously gardened British cemetery, invisible until you come upon it, nestled among the fields and the staring cows. For -- as we are learning -- the Battle of the Somme did not go entirely unmarked. It only appears that way when you arrive.
In fact, throughout this cultivated countryside there are cemeteries and memorials, rising suddenly out of fields on land maintained by a war graves commission representing not just Britain but Australia, Canada, and other former colonies that also sent men to die in the cause of "who was going to run things." Inside the cemetery we walk past graves that are lovingly planted with roses and irises and yarrow and sedum, the classic ingredients of an English garden, like something you'd see at Oxford or Cambridge, or rambling along a lane in the Lake District.
There is no one else here, but that does not mean no one comes here. In a small alcove is a visitors book with entries including one from a British family that says, simply, "We came to see the grandfather we never knew." Looking at the graves, I shiver again. In Normandy, amid all those American graves, we were struck by what a strange thing it must be, to fall and die and be buried in a foreign land. How strange, for a parent, to lose a child in battle and learn that not only is he dead; he is buried in a place where you have never been and, possibly, will never visit. As it happens, waiting for us back in the Norman farmhouse is a 2-month-old son. It does change things, having a son. It changes your relationship to a battlefield. Walking through the cemetery, I think of a Great War documentary that included a scene where a husband and wife were riding a public train in Britain. The woman was gibbering hysterically.
"Forgive her," the man said to the passengers, or words to that effect. "She has lost every one of her sons."
"Where were they now?" I am trying to figure out as, toward the end of our walk, we find ourselves -- having doubled back toward La Boisselle -- standing in the middle of yet another chalky field. This, we are pretty sure, was the deadly place with the comical name of Sausage Valley. Another way in which war has left its mark is the informal names the Englishmen gave to the French landscape: Tara Hill, Sausage Valley and, not far from here, the equally deadly depths of Mash Valley. The trenches here bore the names of Scottish streets, and our ultimate destination today is Lochnagar Crater -- named after Lochnagar Street in Scotland -- a huge depression where British miners ignited explosives to mark the beginning of the assault. As the day wore on, soldiers crawled to the crater to take refuge behind its lip; one, shot in the head, simply tumbled down to the deep bottom.
As it turned out, 50 of the Tyneside Irish did survive their deadly mile-long passage across the open field. They then pushed past where we are standing, fighting their way out of Sausage Valley and -- exactly as instructed -- battling their way, presumably hand to hand, into the next town of Contalmaison. There, seeing the town still held by the enemy, they turned and were slaughtered as they tried to fight their way back home. "This small determined band of men," Middlebrook writes, "had achieved the distinction of advancing farther than any other unit."
They also achieved the distinction of losing more men than any other unit.
Which is to say, basically everybody.
And that is why we chose to follow their route, these anonymous Irishmen. What a legacy. What an achievement. To lose the most men in one of the bloodiest single battles known to Western, and perhaps human, civilization. What sort of an achievement was that? I wonder as we settle on a bench and gaze into Lochnagar Crater, a massive hole in the ground that, in the absence of any other preservation efforts, was privately purchased by a Scotsman to prevent its total erosion. Here, every July 1, the "friends of the Lochnagar Crater" gather to commemorate the dead. This day, the only signs of visitors are small crosses left by Scottish schoolchildren.
What sort of a legacy was it? I continue to wonder. Dying in a foreign country, under commanders who had misled them, for a cause that must have seemed so abstract, this question of who, in the new world order that would follow the war, was going to run things? Did their death here make any difference, given that the battle would drag on for months, settling into a miserable war of inches? My husband replies that perhaps they did, perhaps in the new world order the deaths did matter. As it turned out, the British would be so deeply affected by the failure that they would not invade France again until . . . Normandy. During World War II, a British commander, asked why he did not go into France sooner, essentially replied: You don't understand. You are arguing against the casualties of the Somme.
And thanks -- perhaps -- to the Somme, the World War II commanders would better appreciate the import of surprise. Because they understood this, the Allied generals would go to great lengths to persuade the Germans they were going to attack not in Normandy but in Calais. And the ruse would succeed. Who knows? You could say that they died to win the next war, these men who lie in these small lone cemeteries, these dead soldiers whose names are inscribed on memorials throughout the French farmland near the sea. On the way back to Albert we stop at still another Somme cemetery, stooping to inspect graves with names like "T. Spoors, Tyneside Scottish N.F. 1st July 1916," and, next to that, "Captain A. Thompson: Tyneside Irish N.F., 1st July 1916" and, next to that, a young man whose remains were unrecognizable and who is described simply as "A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God."
Gazing at them, I realize that it is exactly as the war poet Rupert Brooke described: Throughout this part of France one inevitably stumbles upon "some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England." The whole place, you could say, is in some sense for ever England. Or -- depending on the dead men who lie there -- for ever Scotland. For ever Canada. For ever Australia.
For ever Tyneside.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer.
Touring Normandy is easy. There is a well-marked driving route; maps can be obtained at towns in the area or in the United States by calling the French Government Tourist Office at 410-286-8310. The Somme takes more initiative. Daily English-language excursions are offered by a British company, Salient Tours, which can be reached at 011-44-385-955908 or through its Web site (www.battlefields.freeserve.co.uk) or the tourism office in Albert. Martin Middlebrook (who with his wife, Mary, has written a guide called The Somme Battlefields) also leads excursions to the Somme and to Normandy. He can be reached at 011-44-1205-364555. -- L.M.