The literacy programme at school presents students with a Word of the Week each Monday, a word to prompt their thoughts. Words this term have included psychoanalysis, heresy, landslide and fashionista (an Italian boy in the class helped us to pronounce it correctly). The words are chosen on the basis of anniversaries, including the death of Sigmund Freud in 1939, the arrest of Bishop Latimer in 1553, the Aberfan tragedy in 1966, and the Paris fashion show in 1914
This week, the word is “offensive.” Tomorrow is the 103rd anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, the 103rd anniversary of General Haig calling off one of the most fruitless military campaigns in British history.
The suggested synonyms for the Word of the Week are “fight” and “attack.” If it is the Battle of the Somme that is being remembered, might not “causing offence” and objectionable” be added?
Walk the battlefields and cemeteries of the Somme and it would be hard not to be offended. 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
Lennox Martin shared his thoughts with senior officers; they were unmoved by his pleas. At 7.30 am, on 1st July 1916, it is hard to imagine what Lennox Martin said 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
Walk along the graves in the Devonshire Cemetery and read the names of the men sent to a pointless death; the very name of the Battle of the Somme becomes offensive.