Just before 7:28 this morning, I pulled off the road on my way to work and observed the two minutes silence to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.
I’m no expert on this battle—or military conflict in general—but the detonation of a mine (or mines) shortly before 7:30am heralded the start of a British advance into No-Man’s Land in this particular part of northern France. Nine minutes earlier, a young soldier named Albert McMillan had peered out of his trench to look at the aftermath of the mine explosion at Hawthorn Ridge, when a shock wave from the blast threw him back against the trench wall….
“You silly bastard,” observed his Platoon Sergeant.
At 7:29am… “Zero Hour”… the sound of British gun fire stopped in preparation for troops going “over the top”; the sudden silence being broken only by the sound of bird song. Some of the British thought the mines had all but removed the immediate German threat; however the second device was incorrectly placed in No-Man’s Land and any hint of confidence was about to be proved horribly misplaced as the whistle sounded and the British troops swarmed out of the trenches… and into a hail of bullets.
“For some reason, nothing seemed to happen to us at first,” recalled one Private Slater, “then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl round and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit—quite unlike the way actors do it in films.”
The landscape became a smoke-shrouded mass of shell holes and dead bodies: nearly twenty-thousand British soldiers perished on that first day alone….
At 7:31am on July 1, 2016, I restarted my journey to work. In the preceding two minutes I had sat in silence, with my eyes closed, and hands instinctively clasped together trying to comprehend the sheer scale of sacrifice and slaughter witnessed in France a century earlier. My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of car engines… people dashing to work… their lives seemingly too important to stop even for a moment and remember some of those who suffered such an appalling death to help secure the life we now take for granted.
In the fifteen minutes it took to drive the final seven miles, I wondered how many British troops would have perished: Tens? Hundreds? Thousands? People wiped out in an instant. Families devastated as so many futures… so many hopes… possibilities… snatched away in the blinking of an eye.
Unlike a number of posts I’ve seen on social media, I have no intention of drawing comparisons with the respective younger generations of 1916 and 2016; nor is there a need to find some link with the current political goings-on. All I want to do is show my respect to all those who fought— and especially the millions that died—to defend our freedom.
One hundred years ago, tens of thousands of young men died without having a choice. Observing two minutes silence and reflection in their collective memory may not seem much—and for those who decided not to… well, at least you had a choice.
Lest we forget x