When you knew you would not survive the Great War
Three days until the centenary of the Armistice and I shared with a colleague the story of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment on 1st July 1916. The Western Front is full of poignant places, but the small, neat Devonshire Cemetery at Mametz on the Somme must be one of the most moving.
Histories of the Battle of the Somme tend to tell us that the British were shocked at how the first day unfolded. Were they really? Surely, the commanding officers knew that the shrapnel rounds the artillery were firing were ineffective against barbed wire? Surely, they knew that French artillery fire was much more concentrated than that of the British? Surely, they heard the reports from aerial reconnaissance? Captain Duncan Lennox Martin of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment knew what was going to happen. Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day of The Somme describes how Lennox Martin, in the weeks ahead of the battle, had reached the awful conclusion about what awaited:
“A few soldiers were still able to come home on leave, among them a Capt. D.L. Martin, a company commander in the 9th Devons. He took with him a large scale map of the area his company was to attack: some German trenches in front of Mametz. While on leave, Capt. Martin, an artist, amused himself by making a plasticine model of the battlefield. The longer he looked at the model, the stronger his feeling grew that if and when his company advanced over a small rise by some trees called Mansel Copse, they would come under fire from a German machine-gun position built into the base of a wayside shrine in Mametz. On his return he showed the model to his brother officers and told them of his forecast”. The First Day of The Somme, p.86
At 7.30 am, on 1st July 1916, what did Lennox Martin say to his men as the attack began, as he realized his prediction would be fulfilled?
“Just outside Mametz, the 9th Devons did not attack from their front-line trench which had been badly damaged by shell fire, but from the support line. As Capt. Martin led his company forward at zero hour, they were for some time sheltered by the small hill at Mansel Copse but, as the Devons topped the rise and moved downhill, they were in full view of any enemy who might have survived the bombardment.
A single machine gun, built into the base of the crucifix on the edge of the village, exactly where Capt. Martin forecast, was only 400 yards away – easy range for a competent machine-gunner. The crew had survived; the gun was not damaged and, when it opened fire, it caught the Devons on the exposed slope. Scores of men went down, among them Capt. Martin, killed at the exact spot by Mansel Copse that he had predicted from his model would be where his company would be doomed”. The First Day of The Somme, p.103
With which officers did Lennox Martin share his thoughts? Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, the officer responsible for ensuring that members of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment were kept supplied with grenades seemed aware of the fate that awaited. On 29th June, Hodgson, the son of the Bishop of Saint Edmundsbury and Ipswich and a man whose faith seems to have endured the horrors of the Western Front, had published, under the pseudonym of Edward Melbourne, a poem called “Before Action”. He seems as certain as Lennox Martin of what was about to happen.
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
Hodgson was killed by a single bullet through his neck, fired from the same machine gun that had killed his comrades.
If we know how Duncan Lennox Martin and W.N. Hodgson might have felt, then what about Private John Milford, an eighteen year old from Kenn, outside of Exeter, or 41 year old Private James Carter, a man twice the age of some of those around him, or Lawrence Williams, a sergeant at just nineteen? What did they feel?
The Devonshire Cemetery at Mametz is one of the most moving places on the Western Front, a memorial stone declares, “The Devonshires held this trench; the Devonshires hold it still.” Below the cross at its top, the memorial gives details of the events of 1st July 1916:
1ST JULY 1916
THE 8TH AND 9TH DEVONS
SUFFERED VERY HEAVY CASUALTIES
AS THEY LEFT THEIR FORWARD
TRENCH TO ATTACK
LATER THAT DAY
THE SURVIVORS BURIED THEIR FALLEN
COMRADES IN THAT SAME TRENCH
AND ERECTED A WOODEN MEMORIAL
WITH THE WORDS WHICH ARE
CARVED IN THE CROSS ABOVE
The burial took place not on the evening of the awful first day of the Somme, but three days later, after the bodies had been retrieved from where the men had fallen. But does it matter that the details are not correct? Are there other truths that are more important? When the conventional histories leave out the expectations of what would happen, a wrong date for a burial seems a very trivial matter.
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