Bear with me while I linger on this subject again, because for me today and tomorrow are days to reflect upon. Ninety years ago today, Jack Winspear, 27, was “somewhere in France,” marching along a hastily prepared road on his way to the Somme Valley. Having enlisted for service in 1914, he had already seen most of his mates killed at Ypres and at Ploegsteert Wood – “Wipers” and “Plugstreet Wood” as the soldiers called them. Most of his battalion had been decimated at Ypres, so he had been placed on stretcher-bearer duty before being assigned to a new division, only for there to be the same outcome. And so it went on.
On June 30th, 1916, marching with the column that snaked along for miles and miles, he would likely have passed the extra-large trenches dug out in readiness for mass burials following what was expected to be the decisive battle in a war that had already claimed far too many lives. And Jack would also have seen the new casualty clearing stations being set up, and hospital trains at the ready. The land around was scarred after almost two years of incessant fighting, and I expect that Jack just wanted to be home as he stood with his comrades and listened to the Divisional Commander give a rousing speech, telling the lads that they should be proud to be doing their bit, now that the “big show” was about to start.
My grandfather came home from the war, put away his medals and barely spoke of what he had seen and done, shunning any questions by leaving the room. But my father managed to weasel a few quickly-recounted memories from him. Those stories were branded into me young by a curiosity that matched my father’s when he was a boy. Grandad told my father about waiting his turn to step onto the ladder that led from the trench and onto the battlefield. With a ration of rum still warm on his breath, along with his mates he was waiting for the whistle, the signal to go “over the top’ before running towards the enemy with bayonets fixed. How he was supposed to run, I don’t know, because he would have had a pack on his back weighing at least 68lbs. But run he did, and on that day, in the early hours of the Battle of the Somme, it was straight into hell. Within minutes he was hit, the shell knocking him up into the air and onto the bodies of fallen comrades. With the screams of dying men around him, after hours and hours of waiting for the stretcher-bearers to come, he eventually listed into uncconsciousness and woke up days later in a military hospital.
The Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1st, 1916, will be discussed and debated by military minds, historians and social scientists for decades to come, not least because of its continuing relevance. Winston Churchill said that with the Great War came humankind’s realization that it could obliterate itself completely. This was never more true than at the Battle of the Somme. A short excerpt on the flyleaf of a new book about the battle by the distinguished historian, Martin Gilbert, speaks volumes: “In just 138 days of fighting, an average of more than 2,000 men per day were killed, 310,000 in all. The Allied forces lost nearly 150,000 men. And not one of the Allied objectives of the first day was reached.”
But stats are stats and soon any connection with the suffering of another human being is replaced by a number, whether it’s the dead in Somalia, the dying in Darfur or Gaza or Iraq, New Orleans. Jack suffered crippling wounds to his legs, and was shell-shocked and gassed in various battles of the First World War. I was aware of his disabilities from childhood, and I’ve written stories about how his wounds inspired my curiosity about that war. But there’s one story I have never told, mainly for fear of it being misunderstood, and my dear grandfather being considered in a poor light, without compassion. And I loved that kind, gentle man too much for that to happen. But I will tell it now, and probably never again.
I was born in rural Kent, England, to parents who “escaped” post-WW2 London after they were married in 1949, and then who, for various reasons, decided to return when I was a toddler. That return didn’t last long, because after ten months of living with my grandparents, they couldn’t wait to get back to Kent. I think my unhappiness had a lot to do with it, because I was a country kid already used to fields and farmland. In London, while my parents were at work all day, I was left in the care of my grandparents. Grandad was only about 69, but years of pain and a compromised respiratory system made him seem much older. I was a high energy child used to an endless playground, so I know I must have been unbearable in London, because I can remember the velocity with which I would race to the park, past bombsites and still-broken buildings, when my mother came home from work.
After we’d had lunch one day, my grandparents and me, I asked to leave the table to play with my toys. What happened next is as clear in my mind’s eye as if it happened yesterday. I had a rag doll with a red jumpsuit and a plastic face. She had big eyes, rosy cheeks and cherubic lips, and she went everywhere with me. I began running around the table, waving my doll, squealing as I played, fizzy with pent up energy like a bottle of soda ready to pop. I remember looking up at my grandfather and seeing him become agitated, his body shaking and his eyes wide and watering. He seemed to be looking past me. Then he grabbed a knife from the table, snatched the doll from my hands and stabbed her in the forehead, twisting the blade before pulling it out. A guttural cry came from his throat as he threw the doll along the hallway and began to weep.
My grandmother made a fuss of finding a dressing for my doll’s forehead, and pronounced her “all better.” When satisfied that I was settled, she went to her husband, who was paralyzed by what had come to pass. I remember the feeling that enveloped me, even then – it was a sense of his despair.
I bore no lasting wound, in the way that child psychologists might suggest, though as I grew older I wanted to know more about the events and memories that shaped such despair, and what terrors from his soldiering days had been triggered anew by a child’s unleashed energy. I reached adulthood with everything I understood about the broad and deep human cost of conflict weighing heavy on my heart. In Grandad’s war hundreds of thousands of families in Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, South Africa, France, Belgium, Germany, India, Nepal – the list goes on – were impacted by that one battle. Jack Winspear marched to the Somme Valley 90 years ago, little knowing how his experiences might affect the family that was yet to be, and never in the world dreaming that a grand-daughter named for him would write about it one day.
I have on my desk the base of a shell found in a field close to Serre in the Somme Valley. It would have been filled with shrapnel ready to kill and maim upon impact. Today it is polished to a shine, and now holds my pens.
If you are further interested in the subject of this blog, here are some links for you:
London’s famous Imperial War Museum has launched its first online exhibition on The Somme: http://www.iwm.org.uk/server/show/nav.00o
Historian Andrew Robertshaw explains why The Battle of The Somme is of such interest today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr//2/hi/uk_news/england/manchester/5083196.stm
You can read my essay on my pilgrimage to the battlefields of the Great War, as the First World War is known: http://jacquelinewinspear.com/essays_604.htm
And though my shelves are filled with books about the war, here are two of “highly recommendeds” on The Battle of The Somme, both written by historians whose main interest is the human cost, and human experience of war:
Somme by Lyn MacDonald (pub: Michael Joseph)
The Somme by Martin Gilbert (pub: Henry Holt)