Last Friday, July1, was the 100th anniversary of The Battle of Somme, the most important battle of WWI. Historian and author Thirza Vallois has written extensively and lectured about WWI for several years. Thirza has written an informative article commemorating the historic battle.
It was a beautiful day on the Somme that 1st July 1916, the most beautiful day of that summer so far, sunny and cloudless, with just a hint of mist on the meadows at day break, reported Siegfried Sassoon. "The weather was the kind commonly called heavenly" he wrote, "The skylarks were singing as they flew heavenwards and unknown to them thousands of our soldiers were on their way there too". They would first have to be baptised by the fire of hell. At 7.30am, the blue heavens over the Somme Valley made way to a deluge of lead and iron, the skylarks to an Apocalypse of guns, smoke and fire. The worst disaster in the history of British warfare was about to commence and Paradise lost to an entire generation of young British men. This was the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
They came to France as volunteers initially, from England and from all corners of her Empire, for King, Country and Empire, chivalrous some, out to defend a decent world against the bullying Hun and his tyrant of a Kaiser, Wilhelm II. These were often the educated ones - the Public Schools Battalions - Oxbridge graduates and such, out on a crusade for the defence of civilisation. Others came for the adventure, for the thrill beyond the sea, away from the rote of daily life; others still for comradeship, entire communities from Northern England in the main, Scotland and Ireland too, "pals" excited to fight together in the same battalions, innocently sailing arm-in-arm to France. They were so young, so easily taken in by the prevailing propaganda, playfully recreating an underground London in the trenches — White City, Bond Street, Park Lane..., whimsically renaming soon-to-be deadly battlefields Mash Valley, Sausage Valley...
The Offensive was preceded by a seven-day unrelenting artillery barrage. At zero hour, it was presumed, the German defence would have been wiped out, the men would sweep over No Man's Land unhindered and climb up the ridge to capture the German positions. It all seemed so simple. Instead the Germans, far from wiped out, were comfortably installed in their deep dugouts. If shadows of doubt ever crossed the minds of the High Command, they preferred to brush it aside. "Nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment" said General Rawlinson, who headed the Somme operation. Yet Lt Cl Sandys, who had noticed that the German wire had not been cut, spent sleepless nights over his misgivings. His Second Middlesex were to advance through the above mentioned Mash Valley, a vast No Man's Land situated in a depression. To the left it was exposed to the Ovillers Spur, ahead to 750m-high ground, and to the right to the Bapaume-Albert road. Sandys suspected the Germans were dug in along those elevated positions, but was unheeded. Wounded on the first day of the battle and evacuated to England, he would take his own life the following September.
The Germans knew an attack was underway. On the eve of the Offensive, General Rawlinson's final message to the troops was transmitted by phone at La Boisselle and intercepted by the Germans, informing them the attack was imminent. The next morning, at 7.28am, as a final preliminary two minutes ahead of the attack, a series of mines were exploded under the Germans, at La Boisselle, Fricourt and other locations, seventeen in all. Preparing this had been a seven-month job, undertaken by one of the army's Tunnelling Companies, its men largely drawn from Welsh coal-mining communities. The resulting craters, it was reckoned, would produce huge "lips" that would offer the attackers protection as they launched their assaults. For whatever reason, disregarding the general order, the local commander at Beaumont-Hamel, on the northern edge of the battlefield, advanced the detonation to 7.20, sending up into the air a stupendous mountain of dark dust, which kept rising and rising, then hanging on suspended above the skyline before falling back upon itself and petering out into a gigantic crater. Recorded for posterity (and visible on the internet) by war cinematographer, Geoffrey Malins, this famous scene was edited into his "Battle of the Somme", which was screened in picture houses all over Britain and believed to have been viewed by half the population. In real life, they say the roar could be heard in England. It could certainly be heard by the Germans, as well as be seen! From their elevated positions and the safety of their dugouts, they were set for curtain-rise and for action to begin.
Imagine the consequences: the men marching on in broad daylight through the vast no-man's-land, erect and spaced out in orderly rows, as instructed, burdened by 60lb of equipment and slowed down by thick barbed wire (which the British artillery had failed to eliminate). Unknowingly, they made perfect targets, easy to mow down. When the shooting started - so sudden and unexpected -, baffled, stunned, bewildered, terrorised, they had no time to mentally process what was happening and nowhere to take shelter. An archive photo shows them as tiny creatures twisting, writhing in a thick screen of smoke, not unlike insects caught in a cobweb. Many were caught by another camera huddled like foetuses inside shell holes. And then came the sudden awareness that they were trapped, that there was no going back like a coward (and risking being shot), nor forward towards certain death. Perhaps the cruellest realisation was that they had been cheated, that they had been promised it would be a walkover, that the Hun would be smashed by the evening.
But their superiors had been terribly misguided - the Joffres and the Haigs who were men of the 19th century, unprepared for the tactics of modern warfare. Britain, moreover, had been predominantly a naval power, with only a small mobile army. At the outset of the war, the British Expeditionary Force numbered around 80,000 soldiers, the German and French armies over a million each. However, it had the advantage of being entirely professional and better trained. "With God's help I feel hopeful," Haig wrote in his diary. "The men are in splendid spirits." Lt Cl Sandys's misgivings did not fit into this optimistic picture and he was overruled. Yet on that first day of the attack, Captain Alan Habury-Sparrow "saw the Germans almost standing up in their trenches, well over the top, firing and sniping at those who had taken shelter in the shell holes..." Of the 120,000 men deployed along the 45km-long front at 7.30 in the morning, 58,000 were down by the evening, 20,000 of them dead. 60% of the officers serving on the British side were killed on that day. In Habury-Sparrow's 8th Division alone, which was fighting in Mash Valley, there were 5,121 casualties, 1,900 dead. Sandys' 2nd Middlesex lost almost 600. Worse was to befall the Newfoundlanders.
No place on the memorial trail of the Somme captures the heavenly morning described by Sassoon better than the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel, inaugurated by Earl Haig in 1925. Covering a 74-acre area, it is the largest memorial area in the Somme and the largest battalion memorial on the Western Front, purchased with great effort by the women of Newfoundland to secure the battlefield in perpetuity. It encompasses the battlefield where the Newfoundlanders fought and died, with a rare well-preserved trench system, and several memorials and cemeteries. Stepping in transports you to a patch of Canada, with a visiting centre evocative of a fishing village.
In 1914 Newfoundland was not part of Canada but a British dominion, 60% of its population still born in Britain. Enthusiastically patriotic, 8,000 from a population of just under 250,000, volunteered to enlist under British command, part of the British 29th Division here in the Somme. Although they had already fought in Gallipoli, following some rudimentary training in England, "the blue putties" as they were nicknamed were unprepared for the German artillery on the Western Front. When the “Hawthorn” mine was exploded at 7.20am, it ripped a hole in the German lines, but it also alerted them to the imminence of the attack. Consequently, at 8.45, when the Newfoundlanders went over and began to advance up the slope, the Germans had already poured out of their dugouts, at the ready on the defensive lines, waiting for them to reach the top of the ridge. Within fifteen minutes they were all but annihilated. Out of 753 men at the beginning of the attack, 68 were present at the roll call the following day, not one officer among them. The Memorial Monument — a bronze Caribou surmounting a rocky mound covered with heather — is where their aborted offensive began on the morning of that fateful July 1st,, 1916.
Thirza Vallois is also a travel writer and has written the best selling books Around and About Paris, and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia.
I've happy to announce Eye Prefer Paris Tours has been nominated by Expatriates Magazine for Best Tour in Paris. I would greatly appreciate it for you would vote for me. Click here to vote.
Eye Prefer Paris Postcards
I am thrilled to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Postcards, a 3, 6 or 12-month subscription service where the subscriber receives three physical postcards of my iconic Paris photos every month. Each month will have a specific theme, from architectural street scenes to romantic outdoor cafes to beautiful gardens to unique shots of iconic monuments. Each mailing will include two postcards in color and one in black & white or sepia, beautifully packaged in a special French Blue postcard holder with a custom designed seal.
Each 6” X 4.25” traditional size postcard is printed on thick matte coated card stock, similar to traditional vintage postcard stock that enhances the vibrancy of every image.
Only $30 for a 3-month subscription plus shipping or
Only $60 for a 6 month subscription (plus shipping)or
$110 for a 12-month subscription (plus shipping)
Click here to order a 3-month subscription from my Etsy store
Come experience Eye Prefer Paris live with Eye Prefer Paris Tours, which are 3-hour walking tours I personally lead. Eye Prefer Paris Tours include many of the places I have written about such as small museums & galleries, restaurants, cafes, food markets, secret addresses, fashion & home boutiques, parks and gardens and much more. In addition to my specialty Marais Tour, I also lead tours of Montmartre, St. Germain, Latin Quarter, in addition to Shopping Tours, Gay Tours, Girlfriend Tours, Food Tours, Flea Market Tours, Paris Highlights Tours, and Chocolate & Pastry tours.
Tours start at 225 euros for up to 3 people, and 75 euros for each additional person. I look forward to meeting you on my tours and it will be my pleasure and delight to show you my insiders Paris.
Check it out at www.eyepreferparistours.com
Click here to watch a video of our famous Marais tour
New! Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes
I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotte's professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
Cost: 195 euros per person (about $210)
Time: 9:30AM- 2PM (approximately 4 1/2 hours)
Location: We will meet by a metro station close to the market
Class days: Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday,Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
Minimum of 2 students, maximum 6 students.
Click here to sign up for the next class or for more info.