The Battle of the Somme 100 years on

by DANIEL HANNAN June 6, 2016


There should be a special name for books about World War One in which World War One doesn't feature. I mean novels such as Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta, Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and (except for two glancing references) F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Novels, in other words, where the trenches are a constant, brooding, unmentioned horror.

I'd add another classic to that list: J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Although Tolkien used to get cross with anyone who suggested that his books were allegorical, he admitted that "the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme." Tolkien served as a junior officer in that abomination, whose centenary we mark this week.

"Somme," wrote a Prussian veteran afterwards. "The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word." The first day remains, by some measure, the worst in the history of the British Army: An almost unbelievable 19,200 men were killed.

In the five months that followed, 400,000 British and Allied troops, and a similar number of Germans, lost their lives, without any noticeable gain or loss of territory. It was that territory, pock-marked by artillery, filled with toxic gas, devoid of any living thing except enemy patrols, that later inspired Tolkien:

Here nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.

It wasn't only the lansdscape that he recalled. "My 'Sam Gamgee' is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier," he later wrote, "of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself." (A batman is a soldier who, as well as fighting, looks after an officer's kit, as Sam tends to Frodo.)

Sam is, indeed, the archetypal British NCO: Uncurious, loyal, imperturbable and almost impossibly brave. He turns out to be the true hero of the story, yet he has come from the unlikeliest of backgrounds.

This point is made especially powerfully in the film version. In a scene that doesn't appear in the book, noble-hearted Faramir asks Sam if he is Frodo's bodyguard.

"I'm his gardener!" replies the little hobbit, in a way that is supposed to be dignified, but comes across as comical. When they eventually part ways, Faramir, now overcome with respect, tells Sam: "Truly the Shire must be a great realm, Master Samwise, where gardeners are held in high honor."

The director, Peter Jackson, was making explicit something that Tolkien had left as subtext. Before coming to the scarred and poisonous mud of Mordor, Sam had been surrounded by fecundity. After a lifetime of tending to living things, he was suddenly encircled by death.

My great uncle, Cpl. Bill Hannan, fought at the Somme at the same time as Tolkien. Like Sam, he was a gardener, dragged from his flowerbeds to the filthy sumps and shell-craters of the battlefield.

Unlike Sam, he never made it home. His name is carved into the great memorial at Thiepval, along with those of 72,000 other British and South African soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from no-man's land.

Almost every British family was touched, as mine was, by the tragedy. My old school lost 749 students, a number which I still struggle to take in. Like so many schools, many of its present buildings were erected as monuments to the slain: We were educated, I now realize, in a semi-mausoleum.

At the time, of course, it barely registered. Few adolescent boys have much sense of mortality. Now, though, my elder daughter is at the same school, and the remembrance services that slid past me as a schoolboy move me to tears. To look at the assembled teenagers when the roll-call of the fallen is recited is almost unbearable.

Year after year, we meet, go through the same rituals, recite the same consoling phrase: "We will remember them." Though the last of the veterans died some years ago, and though it won't be long before the last person who knew the fallen is also gone, we will remember them.

Though the slain survive only as names on family trees, faces in yellowing photographs, letters notched in marble, we will remember them. Those tram-drivers and locksmiths and miners, those common men who did uncommon deeds, those gardeners whom we hold in high honor. We will remember them.

Daniel Hannan is a British writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.

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