WPA Tour to The Somme, 2016: ‘The Turning Point’

35 members and friends of the War Poets Association travelled in October to the battle sites of The Somme.  The outstanding feature of this tour was the guide, Andy Thompson, who treated us to his wealth of knowledge of the war itself, the sites and the poets.

The first stop was at Peronne to view the Historiale museum.  We were guided by Jay Winter, one of its architects: this was not the conventional vertical layout but a horizontal museum: a soldier’s kit and machinery were laid at our feet.  We learnt the L-shape of The Somme battle front, how the Germans had dug into the high ground intending to stay, while the British expected a fast-moving experience.  And in the battle itself, the Great Offensive of July 1st, 1916, how the Devonshires obeyed orders precisely and were almost all killed, including William Hodgson Help me to die, O Lord, while the Ulstermen took the initiative by creeping close and running lightly clad at their target immediately the artillery stopped.  That way they were able to win their ground.

We heard from many poets, from Sassoon, Graves, Rosenburg, David Jones It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle, Geoffrey Dearmer, all of whom fought on The Somme and from Llewellyn Griffith Remember now all beauty gone, who sent his younger brother to carry a message only to see him killed carrying it.  Jean Liddiard led us through their words and their fortunes.

It’s the individual tales that can touch.  Wayne and Rosemary Thomas brought a tribute from his home village of Stoke-under-Ham to the graveside of Private Walter George Ralph of the Somerset Light Infantry, who died there precisely 100 years ago.  This grave was in the Guards’ Cemetery, Les Bœufs in open fields overlooked by the woods where the enemy had lain.  Such visits allowed us to look at the architects, many of whom had fought and who later arranged the resting places of their comrades in arms.  Their individual touch became clear as we saw how different is each site, yet how calm and fitting to hold so many tragedies, all now finely cared for by the War Graves Commission.  And we learnt of the principal architects too, Edwin Lutyens and his Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and Herbert Baker who designed both the cemetery and the memorial to the South Africans at Delville Wood.  We attended a brief service at Thiepval and found the name of Lt. Cyril Winterbotham, who wrote From The Cross of Wood: Not now for you the Glorious return… He served in the Glosters and was killed in August 1916.

Michael Baker