The Somme, as seen from the air.
The Somme, as seen from the air.

‘We are on the eve – all packed and ready – I can’t say more’.

The words of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in a letter to his friend Gustav Holst sent at the end of June 1916. Vaughan Williams had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps two years earlier, despite being in his early forties. The eve was, of course, the looming battle that we now know simply, evocatively, as ‘The Somme’. It began one hundred years ago today on 1 July 1916. No other battle of the twentieth century has loomed in the British collective memory, not even the Battle of Britain. One of those who was there was Arthur Henry Cook of the Somerset Light Infantry. He wrote in his diary on 30 June 1916, a Friday:

The bombardment was very intense all last night and throughout the day. The attack begins at 7.30 am tomorrow. […] We form at 9.45pm and march to the assembly trenches which were reached about midnight. We were then ordered to put our ladders and bridges into position and try to get a couple of hours’ rest.

Cook awoke early, as dawn broke, the birds singing all around him. The bombardment resumed, booming all across the landscape. He scribbled in his diary:

It seems impossible for anyone to live in such a hell, it’s a wonderful sight.

As the men of the Somerset Light Infantry gathered nervously by the ladders they had placed the night before, shortly before half past seven, the battlefield echoed again with the explosion of a mine under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. It made for good film footage, but was a mistake which allowed the German lines to regroup prior to the initial attack. The whistles sounded exactly ten minutes after the explosion. At first things seemed to be going to plan.

Troops could be seen advancing in perfect skirmishing order as far as the eye could see, left and right. What a sight it was to watch, everything going smoothly with no resistance. The first line had nearly reached the German front line, when all at once machine guns opened up with terrific murderous fire.

By the end of the day, 58,000 British soldiers had been lost, almost 20,000 killed. In his diary Cook captured the horror:

The ground is littered with our dead […] our guns have made a horrible mess of the German trenches, but very few dead can be seen, owing to the fact they were all safely in their dug-outs during the bombardment. […] I have never seen so many dead in such a small area before, in places […] they are 3 & 4 deep on top of each other, the shell holes are full of wounded and no hope of getting them back. […] The life we are leading now is more fit for devils not human beings.

The 38th (Welsh) Division joined in a week later, at Mametz Wood. Before their attack was launched, singing could be heard rising out of the trenches. A reminder of home. At the end of her life, the wife of the composer John Hughes, told the Pontypridd Observer that her husband’s most famous composition, Cwm Rhondda, had been sung by the men as they readied to go over the top. It was, she reflected tearfully, the last words many of them ever spoke. It brings a very different meaning to the words, ‘guide me with thy powerful hand’. Some of those who survived to witness the capture of Mametz Wood, took comfort in another hymn, O Fryniau Caersalem (Bright Hills of Zion), often sung at funerals in Wales. Its mournful lyrics captured the essence of the battered, broken, bruised battlefield, and may stand as a meaningful reflection on the enormity of the battle and its human cost.

O fryniau Caersalem ceir gweled,

Holl daith yr anialwch i gyd,

Pryd hyn y daw troeon yr yrfa,

Yn felus i lanw ein bryd:

Cawn edruch ar stormydd ac ofnau,

Ac angeu dychrynllyd a’r bed,

A ninnau’n ddiangol o’u cyrraedd,

Yn nofio mewn cariad a hedd.

From Salem’s fair heights we shall witness,

Our way through the desert of life,

And then shall we see the sweet fitness,

Of all its strange sorrows and strife:

Its storms shall we see and its fears,

And death – from the mansions above –

When, safe from its terrors and tears,

We revel in peace and in love.