Saturday, July 01, 2006


The Serre front lineNow is not the time or place to rehearse the many controversies about the conduct of the First World War and, in particular, the carnage of the battle of the Somme which kicked off on 1 July 1916, exactly ninety years ago.

What is impossible to forget, though is the sheer scale of death and suffering on that first day, when nearly 20,000 died, many of their wounds while awaiting evacuation. Today, as we have forces committed all over the world, and in particular Iraq and Afghanistan, such carnage amongst our own is unimaginable.

Having visited most of the battlefields on the Somme, often with Nigel Farage who proved a knowledgeable and sensitive guide, even with the passage of time, it is very, very hard to keep a dry eye as you visit the immaculately kept war cemeteries which still, to this day, commemorate our dead.

But what really brought home the horror of the battle was a visit to the Serre sector where the Accrington Pals "jumped off" on their journey to death.

The trenches from which the attack started have been preserved (pictured) and, standing in them, you can look up the hill to the ridge, not three hundred yards distant, where the Germans waited with their machine guns. And, almost exactly half-way is a line of three cemeteries, marking the spot where the troops fell.

It was some long time before I could even speak after that, mute with the thought that, but for an accident of history and birth, it could so easily have been us, this generation, fed into the maw of the guns with no chance of survival.

My grandfather was in the trenches – he would never talk about it – but was invalided out after being gassed, and my father was evacuated with the BEF at Dunkirk. I am the first of three generations that was not forced to go to war, one of a generation that must count itself fortunate for the sacrifice of our fathers and grandfathers.

This, I am conscious of most days through the year, especially so as, ninety years later, we are committing troops to active combat. Remembrance is not just for 11 November each year, but for every day that we ask young men (and women) to die in our name.


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