On July 1, 2016 it will be a century since they went over the top at the Somme. A little fiction from a historian.
The Battalion Sergeant Major awaken his Commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Oliver Jones III. Sir it is time, three hours before we go over the top. He handed him a cup of tea.
In the line Sergeants began waking men, it is time to go over the top. It was quiet. Nothing moved excepts the rats scurrying along the trench line looking for morsels of food. The men, hollowed eyed knew what was coming, over the top they would go and then they would go forth into the jaws of hell.
The new Lieutenant, fresh from Oxford, wondered if he would bring his family honour. He was scared, his hands trembled, this was his first time going over the top.
On the other side of no man’s land, Private Gunter Schmidt waited. He knew it was coming. He could hear the whistles, the bugles, the sounds of artillery moving up. He knew the Tommie’s were coming over the top and he knew he would wait and then he would pull the trigger of his Maxim Machine Gun and fire until the barrel was white hot and they stopped coming. His Sergeant Fritz Hause told him to go below, to wait it out until the barrage passed over them. He had done this often and knew that the slaughter was about to begin.
In a Villa, far to the rear, the batman awakens his General. Sir Douglas Haig, scion of a great Scottish noble family, veteran of the Boer Wars and India, rose quickly. He was handed a cup of tea and he prepared his to execute his morning ritual. A recitation of Matins from the Book of Common Prayer, a reading from the Old and New Testament, and a Psalm. Today he chose the twenty third.
The General, a splendid example of the perfect British General donned his uniform. A Cavalryman and a veteran of the Blues and Grays his uniform was immaculately tailored. His buttons gleamed brightly, his ribbons were arranged precisely. His boots shined brightly, and he was a proper British General. He knew what was coming, he was determined to go forth this day and urge the men forward. The Cavalry stood ready moving up to exploit the expected break through.
Whistles blew, bugles sounded. Sergeants urged the men forward. The barrage begins a few feet in front of the trench line and slowly moved forward. The Hun hunkered down and awaited knowing the earth would shake and the ground rumble but if lucky they would survive and prosper.
The old sergeants, veterans of many a battle knew their time was nigh. They would go over the top never to return. The lads were scared. They ate little, what they did eat they threw up. The Lieutenant was white as a ghost. His hands shook, but he moved forward with confidence. He grabbed his Webley Model 1887 from its holster, opened it to ensure it was loaded. He grabbed his whistle from its position on his uniform, he adjusted his tunic one last time. He blew the whistle, scampered up the ladder, and moved fifteen feet before he was cut in two by the fire from Gunter’s Maxim. Those who followed him that day, also died or bled to death in no man’s land. Those who were lucky crawled back to the trenches where the rat drank the blood that flowed from their wounds. Some would survive, others would heal physically but would never be the same. They lived their days in a room where each hour they relived the horrors of a few minutes.
General Haig went forward and greeted those who survived and said, “well boy we shall do better tomorrow.” He climbed into his staff car, drove to the rear, and ate and drank well far from the horrors of that day July 1st, 1916. Somewhere in the night Gunter heard a cry for help from somewhere in no man’s land. By morning the cry was no more.
In London a memorial says it so well, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.” In Flanders the dead lay knowing it is a lie.