I have just returned from a long weekend on the Somme. Time spent in the Silent Cities for me is not just an interest or a hobby, it is something deeply spiritual. To understand the events that took place in the fields and villages of the Somme with tools like Linesman is certainly valuable – looking out across the sweeping landscape from the smallest of inclines, we can visualise and better understand how certain events unfolded. But in walking the Old Front Line under those huge Somme skies, there is much more to gain than just understanding a regiment’s movements on say, the 1st of July. For me, it is to walk in the footsteps of the men who were there, those who died, those who survived, and to listen to and interpret the voice of the remaining witnesses to the Great War – the land and environment itself.
Many of the visual scars remain, though as is ever the case, nature has healed many and has begun the slow task of reclaiming others. Some people are fond of walking the ploughed fields at this time of the year in search of evidence of not the death that occurred there, but the life. Whether that be fragments of banal tasks in the trenches like a simple spoon, or a button or cap badge – worn in life and indeed perhaps death. These, the most ordinary of items, now become something extraordinary. Not because of the strategy of the British Army on the Somme, but because of the link to the men who walked these fields before us. A button once given no thought by the man wearing it 100 years ago, now becomes a vessel of remembrance, giving tangibility to the spiritual connection that we sense in those fields. And so, people collect these items, almost ritualistically and though it’s not something I feel passionately about I completely understand why some others do.
I walked around 24 miles this weekend, taking time to visit many cemeteries along the way, some I had been to before, some I had not. Each is unique and I took time to wander along the rows of graves as I usually do. A great deal can be learnt of the history of each cemetery simply by doing this, the men tell the wider story of the battle through their regiments and dates of death and by reading the words inscribed on the headstones, so too we may learn a little about who the men were and their families.
At Ovillers, I watched the Moon ‘rise’ over the Cross of Sacrifice. As sure as the sun will rise at dawn, so too night will arrive and I was mindful of some of the epitaphs that are seen on the headstones of the fallen – ‘Until the day breaks’, ‘The brightest day is yet to come’ etc. I thought then of the wider witness to the War. The land bears the scars, nature was wounded and in places destroyed but gradually recovers, but the day and night and seasons remained unchanged through all. Just as they did over the battlefields of Agincourt in 1415, Arakan in 1942 or and even at Hiroshima and Nakasagi when man’s most destructive weaponry was unleashed upon his fellow man. To me it is a comfort to know that there are some things which simply cannot be changed or destroyed. Things which are constant threads across life and time that link us back to Them and always will.
As I looked skywards watching the sun set over Mash Valley, my thoughts traced a path through time, over laying the thoughts of many thousands who looked skywards at that same place over 100 years ago. A soldier awaiting the signal to advance looking to the horizon, praying he would survive to see the sun rise once again over his garden at home, or at night watching the familiar stars appear in the darkness of a winter sky from the cold of the trenches – that constant gives security above all else. For me, it is the men themselves in their constellations of the CWGC cemeteries who have in many ways become the stars in my life, to guide and navigate by. It is my responsibility to ensure they remain, and to help to teach those who will come after me about the value of this Somme astronomy.