The Leader’s Club centenary tour of The Somme
Recently returned from The Leaders Club’s fascinating tour of the Western Front, led by Admiral Sir Trevor Soar our four day odyssey was at the same time a stimulating break with friends, historically informative and, for many of us, a deeply personal tribute to The Fallen.
Gazing across the verdant rolling valleys and lush copses that typify North West France, it’s difficult to imagine that 100 years ago this small geographic area saw unprecedented carnage during the Somme Offensive that raged from 1 July to 18 November 1916… Until, that is, you find yourself among myriad rows of carved white headstones in any of the 211 cemeteries for Allied Dead – or in stark contrast, any of only five locations that contain line upon line of multi-occupied German graves. The starkness of this 40:1 ratio disguises that both sides suffered over half a million fatalities in a period of less than five months and, as our superbly prepared guides Malcolm Sperring-Toy and Graham Stow observed, is a sad but understandable dimension of the oft-spoken adage, “to the victor belong the spoils”.
From our comfortable base at the Hotel-Restaurant Saint Claude in Peronne, over three days we criss-crossed the battle lines, gaining insights to the why’s, how’s and wherefores while our expert commentators wove in heart-rending tales of valour, courage and sacrifice.
Their statistics were relentless, harsh and staggering. For instance, we are told that over the 141 days of battle, a 6.5 mile Allied Advance cost 117 casualties per yard: incredible except that on the first day alone, the British lost 19,240 dead and 38,230 injured.
It both helps and hurts to break down these numbers down by Country or Town of origin; to Armed Service, Regiment, Battalion or Ship; or to consider individually defined relationships – husband, father, sons, brothers and childhood friends. I still feel raw emotion to write about the countless graves we visited… of soldiers, sailors and airmen; from boys to grandads, ratings to generals, farmhands to stockbrokers, and a feted VC hero buried as I recall in the very same block as a disruptive Aussie who was shot at dawn for desertion…
Individual gravestones sometimes carry a cherished epitaph from bewildered loved ones left behind. In many places these are outnumbered by anonymous graves to “Unknown” Allies and French “Inconnu”, or those poor souls buried where they fell beside their foes, both now lying unmarked together among the preserved trenches and craters of Newfoundland Park, around the tranquil South African Memorial at Delville Wood, at the Lochnagar mine crater or with the Canadian contingent in the coniferous woods on the hill up to Vimy Ridge.
Tributes to sacrifice and heroism abound when, just as you think you’ve seen it all, the vast and majestic Thiepval Memorial reveals – in reassuringly alphabetical order by regiment – a further 72,194 names of Allied dead whose remains could not be identified and so are left here, commemorated only as one of many lettered details on immense edifice walls…
If it seems trite to call this “a lost generation” it is also impossible to capture destruction on this grand scale. Hard too, to comprehend the unquestioning beliefs and reliance in loyalty, service, honour and obedience from a bygone age that, in a way, enabled and allowed such unprecedented losses to occur. Leadership blunders or blind heroics, one wonders if such devastation would be accepted let alone facilitated by today’s generation and social media?
I went to The Somme for its centenary year as a tourist; I return humbled, moved and very grateful for its incredible sacrifices, and that in my lifetime I have only ever known Peace. It is rare for me to find a trip both fulfilling and educational but this one truly was and I would heartily recommend it. Thanks to John Henry Travel of Stafford, for bringing it all together.
Julian Childs BA, MA, MCIM, RCDP
Senior Business Developer
Regent’s University London,
For more photo’s of the trip please visit the Gallery