WWI: Fifty two months, fifty two posts – 23 – On the Eve of Battle

On this night, one hundred years ago, men were packed into trenches and billets all along the battle front of the Somme. Overhead, shells continued to fly from the heavy artillery that had been pounding the German lines for weeks. This bombardment, their officers assured them, would destroy the barbed wire, the machine gun posts, and the German front trenches. When they went over the top the next morning it wouldn’t be a walk in the park but it would be relatively easy.

I’m not sure all the officers believed what they were telling their men, I certainly don’t think all the men believed it but that is almost immaterial. They were still going over, on the offensive to take a huge swath of trenches back from the Hun, regardless of what had or hadn’t been done to aid them.

At Beaumont Hamel, the tunnelers had been at work and had placed a large enough mine underneath the German redoubt on Hawthorn Ridge that when it was detonated – along with the other eighteen mines that had been dug in along the 16 miles (approximately) of trenches that formed the extent of the Somme Offensive – it completely demolished the position. Just outside Thiepval the Royal Ulster Regiment were ready to try and take the woods and hill  upon which now sits the Ulster Tower memorial – land that now belongs to Ulster, given to them by the French after WWI had ended to honour the sacrifice those men made on 1 July 1916. In Courcelette, JRR Tolkien waited to play his part as a Communications Officer, relaying information on the progress of the battle from the front line back to the command posts and carrying further orders in the other direction. And somewhere in the Meaulte area of the Somme Sgt Fredrick Neville Woodger of D Company, 3rd Regt. South African Infantry – my Great Grandfather – waited for the sun to rise and the whistle to blow.

Sgt Woodger’s story did not end the next day and, as everyone knows, neither did Tolkien’s but by sundown on the first day of that battle there were approximately 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers wounded, a third of whom died. By the time the offensive officially finished in November (although they continued to fight for the Butte de Warlencourt until they secured it in February 1917) the number of dead and wounded had reached approximately 1 million on both sides and the German lines had only been pushed back 6 miles (the Butte marking the furthest limit of the Allied advance). By the end of 1917 we had lost all the land we sacrificed so many lives to gain and had ourselves been pushed back several miles more. From that perspective alone the Somme offensive was a gratuitously prolonged senseless act in a war of senseless acts.

I spent a week in the Somme in 2013, visiting cemeteries, memorials and museums, walking the trench lines, and generally trying to get an understanding of what it must have been like for the men who fought and died there over the duration of the war. It was an emotional and, at times, surreal experience and over the next few months I’m hoping to share some of it with you.

For now, though, I ask you not only to think of the men on the battlefield but also of those left at home. On the eve of the Somme offensive Ethel Gawthorp was thinking of her fiancé, Walter Shaw, and what it might be like once the war was over and they were reunited. The next day she sat down and wrote this letter to him:

Meanwood Road

Sat 1-7-16

Dearest Walter,

Thanks ever so much for your most encouraging letter. ‘A few more week-ends & perhaps this business will be over.’ Oh that sentence was read and re-read. It was a grand letter, dearie. Your trust in God is fine. I thanked God for having given me such a good man. Oh bless you, I guess you will appreciate a Sunday at home. Only to think of having you next to me at Chapel, well laddie I’m sure of this, that I shall worship better. Of course I know that anyone’s presence should not make any difference to out worshipping God but it takes a very saintly person to concentrate one’s whole attention at a time like this. Then you say you will have tea in the basement. Now just fancy that. Why did you not say you would have it in ‘la salle a manger’. Will I guess the basement will appear as a Paradise compared to your billets.

Oh what a grand reunion we shall have at the S. School when you come home. My word the school will full & how we shall talk. I wish someone had a camera & could just snap us. You would see hand-shaking & heads nodding, getting hold of your arm if your hands were full. I’m thinking that I shall begrudge anyone taking possession of you. But then you’ll be able to save a lot of room for you girlie by your side, won’t you, love? Oh won’t it be grand when we meet again.

My word, I guess you have had a real bombardment and no mistake. It has gone on now for a week and as far as I read it looks like continuing. I pray that God will continue to watch over you & bring you safely through. I’m sure as Mrs Wood said this morning we must keep on prating and praying & never cease. That’s just what we are doing, pet, night & day. If I wake in the night my thoughts go up to God for you. You are never out of my thoughts night & day. There! I must stop talking about the future. I sometimes wonder what we shall do when you come back again dear. Last week Bert Lee was saying oh when Walter comes back we shall never see you, or perhaps I shall come in & you’ll say, well, I can go for a walk but I must be back at 7.30 or 8 because Walter is coming. I said, Oh, we’ll wait and see, he might want to drill one or two nights per week & then I laughed.

Won’t it be grand when you are walking up the road & then we walk over Sugar Well Hill & down that lane where we met on Sept 7th 1908. I think that is the right year. Well we have had a fairly rough passage but bless you there’s a reward at the end & after all this is over we shall be able to say that Christ went with us all the way & he will continue to do so if we will only trust Him. You don’t know how I’m longing to see you but there! Your longing is just as great, I know, but keep smiling & put a cheerful courage on. Now dear, no more at present. Good night and God bless you, my own brave darling & may you be kept under the shadow of the Almighty & may his choicest blessing rest upon you.

With best love

Her fiancé never received the letter. Private Walter C. Shaw, 15th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) was killed on 1 July 1916 as they attacked towards the village of Serre. His body was never found and his name is one of the 72,246 remembered on the Thiepval memorial.

Photo by me – 29-09-2013

[I found Ethel’s letter in the book “Love Letters of the Great War” edited by Mandy Kirkby and no copyright infringement is intended in reproducing it here]

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