Country Life is urging our readers to hold a two minute silence on July 1 at 7.30am to remember those who fell in the Battle of the Somme
The coming of summer sees the reassuring return of some of our most definingly British annual occasions, yet, amid the flower shows, colour troopings, Test matches and tennis, one historic date in our calendar— perhaps, as a country, our most defining of all—usually goes by unnoticed. This year, it will be noticed by us all. July 1 will mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a day that saw the greatest British offensive of the First World War. By mid 1916, the Western Front was still mired in deadlock. The German line of trenches remained stretched impenetrably from Nieuwpoort on the Belgian coast to the village of Pfetterhausen on the Swiss border. More than 300,000 British and Empire soldiers had already died trying to break it.
Faced with the defensive acme of barbed wire and machine guns in Belgium and France, the British government had sought to win the war elsewhere, but the failure of the Dardanelles expedition in 1915 (the Turks had barbed wire and machine guns, too) had forced a return to the Continent. Gen Haig wanted more time to prepare his great new volunteer army, but the French were being ‘bled white’ at Verdun and Gen Joffre demanded the British make haste to bleed with him. So it was that the largest—and noblest— British army ever deployed attacked the German positions at the junction of the two Allied lines. Nowhere on the whole German front was more impregnably defended.
At 7.30am exactly that Saturday morning, as if to the hand-pinch of a conductor, the seven-day British artillery barrage stopped, giving way to one of the great silences of history. The shrill whistle blasts of what ‘sounded like a thousand indignant policemen’ then signalled the assault. By nightfall, nearly 60,000 men had been killed or wounded in 16 hours of fighting. Most fell in the first 90 minutes.
In 1930, the Bishop of Ripon was moved to describe the new national ritual of Armistice Day as ‘the new Good Friday of the post-war world’, but, as we are reminded by the elegiac prose and artworks contained in Jolyon Fenwick’s deeply moving new book, it is perhaps that fateful day on the sunlit downlands of Picardy that most closely resembles our national Passion—a day that witnessed the greatest human suffering and personal sacrifice our country has ever known.
The battle that opened on July 1, 1916, on those peculiarly ‘English’ fields of northern France irrevocably changed the Britain of our forebears. A hundred years later, its story retains the power to change us, too.
We shall remember them
At Country Life, wherever we are, we will be holding a two minute silence on July 1 at 7.30am, Zero Hour, in remembrance of the British Army’s greatest losses in a single day. We hope that you can join us in our Silence for the Somme.
The Royal British Legion is encouraging people to remember the local men lost in individual villages and communities in a more personal way by issuing toolkits designed to inspire remembrance.
These include an order of service for an Act of Remembrance, a music list, extracts from soldiers’ diaries and letters, a DVD with films and music, a souvenir ‘1916’ newspaper and a box of poppy petals.
A mobile and tablet app presented by historian Dan Snow features more than 250 pieces of content, from first-hand audio accounts and written diaries, to film and photo archives and animated maps of key moments in the battle. Visit www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance or telephone 020–3207 2100.