Friday, 1 July 2016

1st OF JULY 1916

It is the 1st of July today. 100 years ago the bloodiest battle of the First World War began at 7.30 in the morning. Throughout this morning there has been coverage by the BBC of commemorative events in France, and a number of stories from relatives of those who fought, alongside interviews filmed in the 60s and 70s of participants, has been shown.

During the course of this first day, of a battle that would rage for 141 days, more than 16,000 British soldiers were slaughtered. To put that in perspective for myself, that is the equivalent of every man woman and child in the neighbourhood of Portobello where I live, disappearing overnight.


By the time the the generals, among them Haig and my namesake Kitchener, decided to withdraw, almost 1 million soldiers lay dead. They had advanced just 6 miles.

Two months into the bloodbath and the advance had stalled. New technology reached the front in the shape of two V-Star tanks, in the hope that it would restart movement forward. These machines were able to traverse across the trenches and barbed wire toward enemy lines. What no one had considered though was the thousands of now rotting bodies that lay several men deep everywhere. One of the films the BBC showed was an interview in the 60s with one of those tank commanders. He recounted the story of how he had no choice but to drive over the top of all these dead soldiers from both sides, and the look of horror on his face 50 years on said it all.

Back then there was still a British Empire, and part of that empire was Newfoundland, across the Atlantic, now part of Canada. 800 volunteers trained and then set sail for France to stand alongside their countrymen. On one particular day the command went up for this entire battalion to advance, and on the blow of a whistle, these 800 men went over the top.

The following day just 68 reported for duty.

Of course there were horrendous casualties on both sides. The Germans had been entrenched for 20 months before the British arrived, and had been in fierce conflict with the French. The French had learned early on that a direct charge was futile, but back then communication between forces was minimal at best, and the British never took advantage of this intelligence. However, they did discover that the Germans were surviving the artillery shelling because they had dug deep underground. Discovering this the British Royal Engineers dug tunnels even deeper, right underneath the Germans. One such tunnel, Lochnagar, was then packed with 16,000lbs of explosives and detonated at 7.28am today, 100 years ago, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme. No one knows how many were killed, as the plume of debris rose 4,000 feet into the air. It left an enormous crater 300ft wide and 20ft deep, which is still there today, and is named the Lochnagar Crater.

When you look at a population census of the UK, you can see that every year the population rises. Except during what they call The Great War. In 1914 the population stood at 41 million. By the end of 1918 it had fallen to 38 million.

72,000 soldiers are still missing, buried somewhere in the fields.

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