I know that memories are long, and the loss of even a humble creature like myself will endure in the lives of those who loved me – so long as they have breath. But when those who love us are gone, who is left to remember? Our significance – or lack of it – is eventually put into perspective.
However, some memories haunt us like ghosts, like horrors staring in at us through a window, and we are gazing back into death’s eyes today and no mistake – at an event which shaped our consciousness and indeed history – as we prepare to commemorate tomorrow that defining moment in the madness of the First World War which has come to be known as the Battle of the Somme.
As it was taken a hundred years ago, in the normal run of things all of those pictured within this photograph would most likely have died by now anyway. But there is nothing normal about these men’s lives, impertinently captured at this most poignant moment, as they went over the top on the first day of the futile enterprise which was to last for months and bring no military gain. Though there is no one left to bear witness, there is testament a-plenty, garnered over the survivors’ lifetimes, and those who have never heard these soldiers’ memories will have no difficulty locating them and learning more. Lest we forget.
The Great War, as it has come to be known, took two of Kemo Sabe’s great uncles, one very near the area in the top photograph, only eight months before hostilities ceased; he was eighteen. They say military lessons were learnt from the catastrophe; that things changed, and the war of attrition rethought. Perhaps enough was learnt to make up for some of the terrible losses – 60,000 British casualties on the first day, 30,000 in the first half hour alone; over one and a half million casualties among all the nations involved in four months of fighting. 1 July 1916 was the worst day in the history of British warfare. As Winston Churchill said, that day machine gun bullets were fought ‘with the breasts of gallant men.’
A detailed documentary about the Battle of the Somme, made in 1976, can be found here:
The BBC has an excellent webpage about the Battle of the Somme, containing a timeline of the four-month engagement, as well as pages which explain all aspects of trench warfare and the weapons used by the soldiers involved: