Friday, July 1, 2016

One Hundred Years Ago, July 1, 1916: First Day of the Somme

The bombardment began a week before. But instead of hunkering down, the Germans used the cover of being shelled constantly to move their machine gun crews closer to the No Man's Land between their trenches and the British., When the first whistles and shouts of “Over the Top!” spurred British soldiers to attack, the Germans were ready. Along a front that stretched across one hundred miles, one hundred thousand soldiers threw themselves straight into a meat grinder. Two poets, Alexander Robertson and John Sheets, were killed nearly outright. Their bodies were missing for almost a year before being unearthed. Five other soldier-poets died on that terrible day: Henry Field, W.N.Hodgson, Victor Ratcliffe, Gilbert Waterhouse and Bernard White. An eighth poet-soldier, Brian Brooke, died on July 25 of wounds suffered on the 1st. I write their names because I know them. Twenty thousand Brits were killed on that first day alone, one of every five who attacked. No ground was gained. The Somme was not done yet. The battle raged on and on. It would last five long months. Among all combatants, there would be one million casualties, killed or wounded, during its course. It ended not in a decisive victory fir either side, but rather it just wore out and the fighting moved. The Allies pushed the Germans back a total of seven miles. The war itself dragged on for two more years. On July 4, an American poet named Alan Seeger, serving with the French Foreign Legion so he could get into the fight, was struck by multiple machine gun bullets while leading a charge, dying of his wounds. Seeger was a classmate of T. S. Eliot at Harvard. Seeger's poem, Rendezvous with Death, was the personal favorite of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Seeger's brother Charles was a pacifist and remained so all his life; Charles' son, a nephew that Alan never knew he had, would grow up to be folk singing legend Pete Seeger. Tom Kettle, an Irish poet, witnessed much of the devastation of the early days of this horrendous battle. He wrote, “If I live, I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery and know what an outrage it is against simple men.” Like so many of the soldier-poets of this war, Kettle saw the futility of slaughter all around him and vowed to make sure it could not happen again. Day one at the Somme could easily stand for the poster child that war does one thing only and one thing well, kill young people. But Kettle did not survive. He died in combat on September 9, 1918, another victim of the Somme. When I was eight years old, my parents began to work as full time managers of a motel in Santa Barbara that was owned by a British ex-patriot named Charles Cunningham. Mr. Cunningham told me that he had been wounded on that first day at the Somme, 42 years earlier, now one hundred years ago. He is no longer here to remember, but I still am. For him, for Kettle, for all the dead, we have a responsibility to mark and remember, and vow never to repeat.

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