SSI Somme Field Trip
Three MStrat Students recall the SSI Somme Trip:
“On a drab and grey Friday afternoon in March we found ourselves standing in a hedgerow next to a farm looking at a large-ish copse at the far end of a field. Except it wasn’t a hedgerow, it was the forward-most trench of the German Strongpoint defending Serre village on the morning of 1 July 1916. And the copse wasn’t one large copse but four smaller ones – known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This was the left hand flank (the German right) of the British attack on the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme where the British Army, largely made up of Kitchener’s volunteers formed into Pal’s Battalions, sustained nearly 60,000 casualties in a single day. Over the course of the weekend we worked our way south, visiting the battlefields around Serre, Beaumont-Hamel and, finally, Thiepval where we laid a wreath from the students and staff of the Strategy and Security Institute at the imposing memorial.
A dozen of intrepid MStrat students took the opportunity of being in France to tour the battlefields. Whilst many of us had been before, Professor Newton situated the battle in its wider strategic context and gave us a different view of the Great War. Even if he did have a particular interest in resurrecting the reputation of the Generals… It was interesting to see the extent to which our understanding of what happened in the trenches is coloured by myth. The portrayals of ‘lions lead by donkeys’ in films and TV shows like Blackadder and Oh What a Lovely War have had a lasting impact and overwritten what may be a more accurate portrayal of strategic leadership in 1916.
Kevin Myers, an Irish historian and journalist, took up this theme of building a myth as he explained how those Irish who fought with the Allies, have been written out of Irish history by successive waves of politicians and academics – despite many of the soldiers being Nationalists themselves. The power of this narrative is striking, and fascinating how it endures a century on.
For all the understanding we developed of the wider ‘picture’ surrounding The Great War, you cannot escape the pathos of rows of, immaculately kept, white gravestones. Many of the graves, particularly at ‘Sunken Lane’ the forming up point for the attack on Beaumont-Hamel, stood in clusters – in the beaten zones of the German heavy machine guns. It does not take much imagination to visualize the ranks of men trudging across No Man’s Land and what they must have gone through.
It was a thoroughly valuable, fascinating and ‘enjoyable’ (if such a word can be used in such a context) trip brought to life and to relevance by our two excellent Tour Guides!” Gavin Saunders
“Having been to the First World War battlefields on a school trip almost a decade ago, as many thousands of children will do so over the coming years to mark the anniversary of the conflict, a few recollections of the Somme stood out – bad weather, the perfectly conserved cemeteries dotted about the countryside, the vast expanses of openness, story after story of seemingly futile attempts to break the German line and, embedded in the psyche, the striking Thiepval Memorial.
This SSI trip now as a (hopefully) more observant MA student and soon-to-be platoon commander, confirmed these memories but also did much, much more. Perhaps unsurprisingly the ability of General Newton to tie tactical, operational and strategic elements of the Somme together, along with the stories of individuals that really bring a battlefield tour to life, was remarkable – his descriptions of enfilading fire and beaten zones were somewhat more convincing than the valiant efforts of Miss Smith nine years ago. Likewise Kevin Myers powerful inputs on the myths surrounding the Somme were important in helping aid our understanding of the post-war narrative of the battle, and appreciating its place in British history.
As to be expected the sheer scale of the bloodshed is impossible to ignore. While an overall view of the statistics is shocking enough, it is only when you walk along the headstones reading names, ranks, ages and inscriptions that the emotion tied to understanding that each grave relates to an individual story, of life and of death, really hits home. Visiting the Thiepval Memorial will once again be an overriding memory of the trip. Laying a wreath from SSI to show our respect was a moving tribute and the image of General Newton and Gavin Saunders bracing up having placed a cross at the gravestones of two unknown soldiers of the Hampshire Regiment, a lineage I hope one day to join, is one that will undoubtedly remain vivid for some time.” Daniel Hunt
“As a journalist, I’m well aware of the sacrifices the brave men and women of our Armed Forces have made over recent years. I can vividly remember every single repatriation, inquest and funeral I’ve ever been assigned. All were deeply sad occasions. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for the families and friends of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps the main thing I took away from the SSI trip to the Somme was the industrial scale of the killing that occurred during World War One. Of course, I had read about the horrors of the war at school but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of graves. Each one marking a life cut short, a family bereaved and a community shattered. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Thiepval Memorial; a huge dedication to the 72,000 missing British and South African men who died in the battles of the Somme. It was an utterly overwhelming experience and a poignant reminder of what can happen when strategies fail.” Dominic Valitis