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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

The Somme: Lessons still?

One of the stranger things about the present pandemic is that many people, who have not experienced a family or friend's death or even their hospitalisation, seem to be continuing with their lives, as far as Government guidelines allow (and often when they don't) as though there is no pandemic. Death today is hidden away in hospitals (where even relatives are unable to visit) and in Care Homes (where likewise relatives are excluded). This was not, of course, the case in the past, even with the flu pandemic of 1918/19. Death was in the community and thus not so easily ignored. No longer do we hear that dreadful refrain from the London of 1665, 'Bring out your dead!', or houses marked with red crosses, which so unnerved Samuel Pepys, as he walked briskly through the streets of the capital.

This indeed, as the Government has said, is 'a hidden enemy'. 'Hidden' to many means, 'it won't get me'. Despite the Government advising us to 'Keep Alert', many take the very English view: 'The Government can't tell me what to do. This is a free country. I'll take my own risks'. In a sense, it would appear, the Government itself is now following this line, when saying, for example, 'We trust the British People to act sensibly'.

What has this to do with The Somme? Well, the pandemic got me thinking this week, the 104th Anniversary of the First Day of the Battle, 1st July 1916, of that dreadful day in our history and what we might learn from it.

That ghastly day over a century ago saw The British Army bear losses on a scale neither seen before nor since. There were 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were deaths. When the battle finished in the following November, the figures had risen to 420,000 casualties, of whom there were 125,000 deaths. The statistics shock us still. The stories behind those stark figures are equally shocking. As the historian Lyn Macdonald has written, 'We didn't get over it then, we haven't got over it still'. The corona figures hugely tragic, and perhaps equally avoidable, do not match, and are unlikely to match, those of The Somme - thank goodness. Yet these are deaths in peacetime which makes them all the more shocking for their unexpectedness.

Yet the public reaction to the deaths on The Somme may nevertheless have something to teach us about our present crisis. Of course, in 1916, there was no internet, television, or even radio. News came from newspapers, national and local, and from personal letters (later too from diary accounts, and published reminiscences).

In that first week of July 1916, the first accounts of the battle to appear followed the official line, of a victory won, of prisoners taken, of land gained, and at little cost in British lives. The story changed by the end of the week, when casualty list began to appear in the Press, pages of them, and when newspapers began to quote from soldiers who had fought and survived the battle. At home, in town and village the formal letters of condolence began to arrive, first as a trickle then, finally, as a veritable flood. In deepest Essex, in the village of Great Leighs, outside Chelmsford, the rector, Rev Andrew Clarke, was keeping up his extensive wartime diary. On the 9th July, over a week after the battle, he wrote, 'The official bulletin exhibits the heartless insolence of the war office in its most heartless form. With the guns in Flanders thundering in the ears of villagers here [quite literally], whose relative are at the front, there is not a word about our troops'. Heartlessness, or at least perceived heartlessness, of our Government is thus no new phenomenon.

What made the situation far worse was that the vast majority of the troops who had fought were the volunteers called forth by Lord Kitchener's campaign, 'Your Country Needs You'. The very best of us, as many have commented. Lancashire and Yorkshire were particularly badly hit as the volunteers had joined up together, fought together, and died together. Of 1,400 Bradford Pals, over 1,000 were killed or wounded on that one day. In Accrington the town mourned the loss over 580 men of its Pals Battalion.

The agony of not knowing what had happened to her son must have been more than agonising. Mrs Duesbery of Goole in Yorkshire was informed in the September that her son, John, was 'missing'. Missing was the cruellest of words because it still carried hope in it, even when that hope was very small indeed. In the following August, 1917, nearly a year after being told John was missing, Mrs Duesbery received a letter from her now certainly dead son. His body had been found and with it a letter. The letter read, 'I am laid in a shell hole with 2 wounds in my hip and through my back. I cannot move or crawl. I have been here for 24 hours and never seen a living soul. I hope you will receive these few lines as I don't expect anyone will come to take me away'.

The huge losses of 1st July for the small gains did nothing to dent public support for the war. Indeed, it rather strengthened that resolve, so that the sacrifice of so many young lives would not have been in vain.

One thing did change. Trust in Generals and trust in all those in Authority took a blow from which it has never recovered. In the famous phrase of Alan Clark, it was all about 'Lions led by Donkeys'. Although historians have challenged Clark's view, it nevertheless remains that of the general public. As AJP Taylor in 1963, writing specifically of The Somme, wrote, '[It] set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War; brave helpless soldiers;blundering, obstinate generals; nothing achieved'.

Are there clues in this as to how in the future the pandemic of 2020 will be viewed? I believe so, you may disagree.

Firstly, the pandemic will mark the moment when our blind faith in modern medicine received a bad hit. Secondly, the public will want someone to blame other than themselves, for failing to follow government guidelines. The obvious candidate here, as in 1916, are those in charge; the senior politicians and their scientific advisers. Thirdly, life will have altered as it did after the First War; 'Before the War/After the War' thus 'Before the Pandemic/After the Pandemic'. Some of these changes can already be seen - Work Practices (eg Working from Home), Shopping habits (eg The escalation of the decline of The High Street), conduct of Government (introduction of weekly Prime Ministerial televised Press Conferences), the policy beliefs of The Conservative Party (Economic Rooseveltian and social authoritarianism, in the words of ex Tory Minister David Gauke).

Yet perhaps the biggest fallout of all will be the increased pressure from Scotland for independence. It is worth noting that 1916 saw in Dublin The Easter Rising against Britain; and the beginning of the final road towards an independent Republic in Southern Ireland. This had been fuelled by the threat of conscription as well as Irish losses at Gallipoli. As Irish historian, Conor Mulvagh, has written, 'It's clear that the people behind the rebellion benefited as the continental war worsened'. The SNP clearly hopes to benefit from the pandemic, as divisions between the English and Scottish approaches become more pronounced, and the lack of clarity from Ministers at Westminster as to when they are English Ministers and when UK ones.

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