NR Digital

A Gruesome Drudgery

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Remembering the unromantic reality of World War I

The Somme, France — Almost a century later, the scars still blight the open field. The grass has grown back and the birds have returned, but they fly now over traumatized and disfigured terrain — sacred land that will never fully heal. At Beaumont-Hamel, in a remote corner of northwestern France, embryonic trenches zigzag across the meadows. Between them are a host of craters, each four or five feet deep and almost preternaturally rounded, as if cut out by a tablespoon. In the corner of one dugout, bent and rusted steel spikes still thrust upward to the sky — in preparation, perhaps, for a moment that never came.

It was here, in this quiet corner of the Somme, that boys from the British colony of Newfoundland traded their fishing gear for rifles and bayonets and walked, in catastrophic numbers, to their deaths. Theirs was a common fate. Over its four and a half months, the battle cost the British and the French a staggering 1.2 million lives — all to push the line forward a pitiful ten miles. On the first day of fighting, 60,000 of the 100,000 deployed British and Commonwealth soldiers were either killed or injured — tués ou blessés, in a French phrase that one sees dotted around the museums. By the time the fighting finished, those men would be joined by hundreds of thousands more from around the world — from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia, India, Bermuda, and beyond. All of them came to play their parts in the worst catastrophe in British military history, and in the darkest moment that the Empire would ever see.

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