Friday, 1 July 2016
Valour and Sacrifice
“On a 16-mile front between Gommecourt and Maricourt, 73 infantry battalions, some 55 000 British and French soldiers left their trenches and swept towards the German front line….It was not the first, last or biggest push, yet the events of 1 July 1916 were to make it the most notorious.”
Last year, right before taking a rather long break to work on the manuscript of my first novel “Killing is a Sin” (publication pending), I wrote a two-part series on the intended nature of the battle of the Somme. As I am quite satisfied that I illustrated my intended points, I did not wish to revisit the subject (they can be viewed here: Part One and Part Two), but with the centennial of the events of 1st July 1916, I feel compelled to submit something reflecting the grave nature associated with that day’s actions.
What comes up in the public conscious upon the anniversary of the opening day of the Somme, more than anything is the large, unprecedented and unsurpassed number of casualties. “The British army suffered 57, 470 casualties that day, 19,240 of them were killed or died of wounds.” It is a staggeringly tragic number, so much so because such a figure can be difficult to conceive in the abstract. My favourite analogy is to invite the observer to imagine the seating capacity of a modest sports stadium. With the Euro Cup in full swing, this is a readily available visual cue.
Adding to the sense of tragedy is the generally held notion that these casualties occurred in a senseless, futile and unsuccessful attack which was only the beginning of a months’ long campaign that overall failed to gain anything significant. It is my position that to classify this as a terrible loss to no gain not only skips over practical history, thinking of the day as entirely futile erodes the value of sacrifice these tens of thousands made.
The issue with our perception at this remove of so many deaths all at once is that it challenges our desire to apply meaning to human life, which is part of the psychology of our own awareness of mortality found in the theory of “Terror Management.” “Terror Management Theory…starts with the idea that humans, unlike other animals, face something that is potentially terrifying: the awareness of our own mortality coupled with the desire to live….humans developed cultural symbols of meaning and value that offer a sense of significance and importance, and ultimately, immortality, when people live up to and sustain the standards of these beliefs (hence the human need for self-esteem), as a means of coping with their own death.” This is why battlefields are commemorated with statues and memorials to the fallen and is a large motivating force behind the mandate of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. (For more on this theory and the CWGC please see my post on the subject, found here.)
With that in mind, it can be understood how, a century later, we still find it difficult to reconcile the record casualties of 1st July 1916. For, if we cannot fathom a purpose to the deaths of twenty thousand, we might struggle to assign purpose to our own lives and inevitable deaths. I propose, then, to examine the deaths of six individuals, narrowing by a great margin the scope of the day’s fatalities in the hope that the record of sacrifice of these six men may better enable us to assign that sought after significance to our own mortality. These six, Temporary Major Stewart Loudoun-Shand, Captain John Green, Temporary Captain Eric Bell, Temporary Lieutenant Geoffrey Cather, Sergeant James Turnbull and Private William McFadzean were all awarded the Victoria Cross, posthumously, for their actions on the 1st of July 1916.
Temporary Major Loudon-Shand was mortally wounded whilst encouraging his men forward when taken under “very fierce machine gun fire.” His citation reads in part “Maj. Loudoun-Shand immediately leapt on the parapet, helped the men over and encouraged them in every way.”
Captain Green, of the Royal Army Medical Corps “went to the assistance of an officer who had been wounded”, despite being wounded himself. He was able to free his comrade from German wire entanglements and move the man into cover to dress his wounds, whilst being under heavy fire the whole time. In attempting to move the wounded officer into safe cover he ‘had nearly succeeded in doing so when he was killed.”
Temporary Captain Bell, commanding a trench mortar battery “gave his life in his supreme devotion to duty” which included single handedly reducing an enemy machine gun and “on no less than three occasions…went forward alone and threw Trench Mortar bombs among the enemy.” He was killed while attempting to organise groups of soldiers who had lost their officers; all of his actions were beyond the scope of his usual duties.
Temporary Lieutenant Cather “in full view of the enemy and under direct machine gun fire and intermittent artillery fire” went out into No-Man’s Land on several occasions, bringing back four wounded men and delivering water to several others to be rescued later. It was during one of these sorties, at about half past ten the morning of 2nd July that he was killed. Lt. Cather’s actions, notes his citation, “set a splendid example of courage and self-sacrifice.”
Sergeant Turnbull “having with his party captured a post apparently of great importance,” held it despite heavy and consistent counterattacks and the loss of his party and those sent to reinforce him. “Almost single-handed, he maintained his position, and displayed the highest degree of valour.” He was later killed in action during a subsequent counterattack.
Private McFadzean lost his life when a box of grenades fell into a crowded trench, which loosened the safety pins on two of the bombs. McFadzean, “with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the bombs….blowing him to pieces but only one other man was injured….without a moment’s hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.”
Historians have, and will continue to debate the purpose or even the sensibility of the Somme, and the way in which it was fought. What can’t be denied is that 19,240 lost their lives on the first day of battle a century ago. Many, a great many perhaps, were killed without having the opportunity to be of any practical influence in battle. These six, though, by their example of valour and sacrifice might give some comfort that those who died, died well.
I am also very pleased to announce the pending North American release of “And The World Went Dark: An Illustrated Interpretation of the Great War” by Stephen Patricia, Casemate Books. Already available for sale in the UK, it is currently on pre-order through Amazon and Chapters. It was an esteemed honour to be invited to contribute some small samples of my writing to Mr. Patricia’s fine piece of illustrated history.
The book, geared towards a wide audience, and particularly those not readily familiar with the First World War is artfully illustrated. Mr. Patricia’s talent lends a detailed visual aspect to a thorough understanding of this monumental event in human history.
 Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme” Abacus, 2009 pg. 175
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29740 pg. 8869, 08 September 1916
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29695 pg. 7743, 04 August 1916
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29765 pp 9417-8, 26 September 1916
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29740 pg. 8869, 08 September 1916
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29836 pg. 11526, 25 November 1916
 Supplement to the London Gazette Number 29740 pg. 8871, 9 September 1916