Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What did we know of summer?

A Howitzer in Action, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2957)
A wall of sound. A deafening roar. A ceaseless rain of shells. These were soldiers' impressions as they described one of the greatest artillery actions the world had ever seen, the British bombardment that preceded the July 1st 1916 attack at the Somme. “The din of hundreds of shells whizzing over our heads was like several ghost-like express trains hurtling through the sky,” said Corporal George Ashurt of the Lancashire Fusiliers.

The shelling began on June 24th and could be heard over 240 miles away in London. For the next six days, more than 1500 heavy guns, often spaced at intervals of less than 30 yards, fired over 1,500,000 artillery and gas shells at German positions. British General Sir Henry Rawlinson is reported to have said, “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.”

Rawlinson was quite wrong about the bombardment’s effectiveness at eliminating enemy opposition. British soldiers attacked the German lines on July 1st 1916 , and 20,000 British men were killed, most dying in the first hours of the attack. 

While bombardments did not kill every man in the trenches, they were a horrific torture to endure. In a letter dated April of 1916, British soldier-poet T.P. Cameron Wilson wrote, “a real bombardment, where the sky is one screaming sheet of metal, is hell indescribable.”  His poem “During the Bombardment,” attempts to communicate the experience. 

During the Bombardment

What did we know of birds?
A Crump, H.S. Williamson
Though the wet woods rang with their blessing,
And the trees were awake and aware with wings,
And the little secrets of mirth, that have no words,
Made even the brambles chuckle, like baby things
Who find their toes too funny for any expressing.  

What did we know of flowers? 
Though the fields were gay with their flaming
Poppies, like joy itself, burning the young green maize,
And spreading their crinkled petals after the showers — 
Cornflower vieing with mustard; and all the three of them shaming
The tired old world with its careful browns and grays.  

What did we know of summer,
The larks, and the dusty clover,
And the little furry things that were busy and starry-eyed?
Each of us wore his brave disguise, like a mummer,
Hoping that no one saw, when the shells came over,
The little boy who was funking — somewhere inside!
     Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson

The roar and reverberations of an artillery bombardment consume the soldiers who must endure it. During the crash of exploding shells, men become oblivious to the sights and sounds of the world around them, blind to the fields of poppies and cornflowers, deaf to the sounds of birds and wind and woods. 

How loud is a bombardment that can be heard over 200 miles away? First World War bombardments were estimated to reach noise levels of at least 140 decibels, louder than a jackhammer at 50 feet (95 dB), louder than a power mower at 3 feet (107 dB), louder than sandblasting or a rock concert (115 dBs), and well past the point of pain that begins at 125 dBs. Even with hearing protection (which was not issued to men at the Front), 140 decibels is the loudest recommended noise exposure, and short-term exposure at this level is likely to result in permanent damage. 
An experience of this kind alters reality: the poem asks, what did we know of birds, of flowers, of summer? Only the rain of shells and the engulfing noise are real: even a sense of time and of the season are lost in the barrage of death.

Most terrifying of all, the men lose themselves. While their outward appearance remains that of men under fire, they know that this is only a disguise.  Like actors in a drama gone horribly wrong, the soldiers feel themselves to be no more than small boys "funking"  overwhelmed by fear, paralyzed, unable to do what is demanded of them. 

Recent research reported in the New York Times on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (known during World War I as “shell shock”) has revealed startling changes in the brains of those who have survived blast sites. The researchers have concluded, “modern warfare destroys the brain.” 

It is nearly impossible to imagine what men experienced and endured in the trenches of the First World War.  In April of 1916, T.P Cameron Wilson wrote,

“War is about the most unclean thing on earth. There are certain big clean virtues about it – comradeship and a whittling away of non-essentials, and sheer stark triumphs of spirit over shrinking nerves, but it’s the calculated death, the deliberate tearing of young bodies – if you’ve once seen a bright-eyed fellow suddenly turned to a goggling idiot, with his own brains trickling down into his eyes from under his cap – as I’ve done, you’re either a peace-maker or a degenerate.”

T.P. Cameron Wilson did not live to see the peace; he was killed in the German spring offensive of 1918, his body never found.     
T.P. Cameron Wilson


  1. Hope I'm not double-posting. Tried to preview a post and it seemed to have disappeared.
    Due to personal issues I could not foresee, I have not been able to honor WWI as I'd wished. So glad you continue to keep vigil on this blog, especially on this anniversary of the Somme. LestWeForget

    1. Thanks for reading and remembering. LestWeForget.

  2. Thank you. Tried to recall this poem.

    1. Happy to have been able to help -- I know how maddening it can be to only remember a line and then not be able to locate the poem!

  3. Thinking very much of men lost in the 1918 Spring offensive - overwhelmed in poor defensive positions and absorbed into the soil of France. Their bravery was extraordinary but seldom witnessed or reported. Indeed many would have returned to the state of frightened small boys at the end and as is so often reported cried out for their mothers in their anguish - "Mother!" or "Mutter!" no difference.

    1. A beautiful response, Ian -- thank you so much for so poignantly reminding us of the individuals in the midst of a vast military operation.