The lads in their hundreds…

As a subject, The Somme is huge – as immense as the Thiepval monument to the 72,000 missing, men who in many cases met their deaths within minutes of the start of the slaughter, fodder for the German guns, caught on German wire, or atomised by artillery bombardments.

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There’s hardly any more to be said. Words fail and figures speak for themselves.

  • 20,000 British and Empire dead on day one
  • 100,000 troops sent into battle along a fifteen mile front
  • A seven day preliminary bombardment designed to destroy German defences, firing 1.7 million shells
  • 625,000 Allied casualties in total; an estimated half a million German dead and injured
  • The almost total destruction of both the Newfoundland Regiment and the 10th West

Best, then, on the awful anniversary of Britain’s bloodiest battle, to perhaps do what we did on our visit to Thiepval a few weeks ago – to concentrate on someone, an individual, and to think of them, to find out a little of their lives in an attempt to make the massive massacre mean something, an attempt to better comprehend the incomprehensible.

So, to mark the anniversary, I’ll be listening, playing and singing the music of this man – George Butterworth, MC. Here he is, among those ‘intolerably nameless names’ on that huge monolith.

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He died, aged 31 on 5th August 1916, after leading his men of the 13th Durham Light Infantry in a successful assault of Munster Alley. Prior to the war he was a composer of immense promise. Here’s an example of his music, a more appropriate – and eerily prescient – tribute is hard to imagine…

They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

(A.E.Housman)

Wittgenstein was a boozy swine…

 

…Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

According to Monty Python, at any rate.

But Wittgenstein was also a soldier, fighting for the Austrian empire and winning Silver Medal for Valour for remaining in the open under artillery fire, studying the trajectory of enemy mortar fire and using that colossal brain of his to calculate the precise location of the Russian guns.

The irony is that Wittgenstein’s former (and future) Cambridge friend and mentor, Lord Bertrand Russell, was also in action on this day – in the dock, defending himself against a charge of distributing pacifist literature. Russell won no medals although it must take courage to take such an unpopular stand. In his case, of course, he could afford the fine (£100) and his reputation was unaffected by the adverse publicity.

Others weren’t so lucky. Although the Germans had secretly already offered the Allies peace terms in early 1916, the war was still popular; men were still signing their names in fits of patriotic fervour. To object to the war was to invite ridicule, abuse and much, much worse.

The Somme and the awful death toll was still to come. As Russell said, ‘war doesn’t determine who is right; only who is left.’