How the Somme and other horrors link us all…

SOMEWHERE in Germany there is a man like me. When he was young his grandfather sat him on his knee and made up stories about Robin Hood. The old man should have a name and I shall call him Wilhelm Kohl. Wilhelm was one of the lucky ones who made it back from the Somme.

He lived a long life, reaching 82 or perhaps it was 83. After his death an old diary was discovered locked in a box. In this he wrote many things, including the following: “The roaring of the guns grew louder and louder, until the diabolical bellowing sound, combined with the blasts made by the exploding shells, threatened to rip the whole world off its hinges and turn everything upside down. The roaring became so loud that it was impossible to hear oneself speak and we were simultaneously blinded by the fog. We waited, wondering what would happen next, realising that this day might be our last.”

The German man like me was moved by those words, and sought out a photograph of his grandfather, staring at the kindly face with lines round the eyes. And he wondered again at what his grandfather went through.

For there will be German man in his fifties whose grandfather survived the Somme, as mine did. The words quoted above appeared in an article in last Sunday’s Observer by the historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, as extracted from his new book, Somme: Into the Breach.

The article contained many such descriptions of the hell that was the Battle of the Somme, but told from the German perspective, the line taken by his book. That was interesting and moved me in surprising ways.

In the end there is always someone standing on the other side, in the other trench, sitting in the other tank or whatever. A foreign someone, your enemy, and yet a man like you. A man who didn’t start the war, as that was arranged by the politicians and the generals. No, just a man standing there who has to kill you before you kill him, whether or not he wishes to do so.

The Battle of the Somme began 100 years ago next week, on July 1 1916. British casualties on that day alone were in excess of 57,000, with more than 19,000 killed. I don’t know if my grandfather, Bill Cole, was there on that first day, but I do know that he survived the battle while toiling as a stretcher bearer.

The Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest battles in the First Wold War, a brutal wearing down of life that lasted for five months as the British and French armies engaged the Germans on a 15-mile front.

The intention was to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German army, but the Allies were unable to break through German lines.

The first day was a disaster for the British as the Germans, however terrified they might have been, had weathered the 18-pounder Field Guns that boomed away for seven days. One hundred thousand British men went over the top to attack the German lines, and in total 19,240 lost their lives in the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

When General Douglas Haig finally ended the series of offences we know as the Battle of the Somme, one million men had been killed or wounded on all sides.

My grandfather got through somehow, as too did Wilhelm Kohl, at least in my telling of this story. It is instructive to think of Wilhelm’s grandson and his family, or at least to picture a German version of me, the two of us threaded by the weave and weft of history.

All of us in various blooded ways are connected to the Somme or other battles, here today because someone made it through. Twenty years after that hell-like battle, fought for what proved to be so little gain, Europe was deep into another war. After that war ended, the Continent found a better way ahead; not perfect but more peaceful. And that comparative peace did not just happen. It took collaboration and the sinking of differences. Something to think of today.

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