My grandfather won his MC on the Somme in September 1916 and I spent yesterday, the occasion of the centenary of that Battle’s opening day (in terms of casualties the greatest catastrophe in British military history), in the company of my father.
Mr grandfather – by then a Brigadier – was killed in a motor accident in 1942 when my father was sixteen so, although I’ve heard a good deal about him from a number of sources, my personal experience of him is nil.
Like many of his generation, however, he apparently rarely if ever talked of his experiences of WW1. There are two schools of thought on why – the first being that that which he saw and went through was so awful that he consciously avoided recalling it less it bring back haunting memories or cause nightmares, the second being that he simply wished to spare family and friends the suffering that hearing or reading his account might cause.
I attended a talk by the famous military historian Richard Holmes not long before he died in 2011 in which he stated that the concept that WW1 soldiers didn’t want to talk about their experiences was hogwash. It is true that some genuinely didn’t, but others were all too happy to do so – even if, having initially been reluctant, they changed their mind as they neared the end of their lives because they appreciated that it was a case of ‘now or never’.
Separately Holmes also mentioned the issue that the greater the passage of time between those experiences and when they were described for the benefit of future generations, inevitably the greater became the chance those recollections were faulty, or even false. Memory has an in-built capacity to play tricks in any event, but also may be affected by exposure to the recollections of others and subsequently written (revisionist or otherwise) histories, or even fictional plays, movies or television programmes produced years or even decades later.
For what it’s worth, in my view my grandfather rarely spoke of his time in WW1 because of a desire not to bother his descendants with the awfulness of an experience that he hoped – having been through it himself – would never be repeated and therefore experienced by anyone else. In other words, he took the view that his generation had been through what occurred between 1914 and 1918 in order that others might never have to. It was more a ‘duty’ thing on his and his peers’ account, i.e. rather than something that he (or they) wished to brag about or seek gratitude from future generations for.
Yesterday, not having looked at the television schedules in advance, quite early in the morning my father and I noticed that BBC1 would be covering the centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme – taking place at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing from 9.15am to 12.15pm (in fact, because it over-ran, the transmission continued on until at least 12.30pm) and decided to watch at least the beginning.
In the event we stayed tuned for the entire broadcast and felt no guilt for doing so.
Both with my father and others, over the past twenty five years I have made perhaps fifteen trips to the Somme amidst perhaps the fifty or so I had made to the WW1 battlefields and cemeteries of WW1 in France and Belgium.
Yesterday’s ceremony at Edward Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial, on which are recorded the names of over 72,000 British and Allied troops whose remains were never found or identified, was tremendous: impressively mounted with the inclusion of both VIPs and ordinary people – many of the latter descendants of those killed; varied in terms of music, marches, songs, laments, readings of poetry, personal accounts, letters and straightforward military pomp; and, above all, extremely moving at times.
Hearty congratulations to all concerned, including the BBC.
In anticipation one was expecting, of course, that something would be done to commemorate this awful centenary and at the same time hoping that it would be fitting and capable of doing justice to, and helping to prompt reflection upon, those who were actually present one hundred years ago – especially those who never came home, or indeed those who came home drastically changed.