In memoriam: A trip to pay tribute on the Somme

Peter Simpson drags his teenager away from the comfort of the fighting computer game Fortnite to show him the stage of real war.

We in Britain have been true to our word, making great efforts to remember those who laid down their lives.

But time passes, memories fade, priorities change and life goes on.  All living connections to the Great War have been severed, and survivors of the Second World War, which actually suffered three times as many casualties as the First, are also getting older.

How can we future-proof the act of remembrance for the next 100 years and beyond?

How can we upgrade the signposts of remembrance – the monuments in most British towns and the stained-glass windows in churches? What constant, impactful symbols must we construct so future generations never forget?

Or do we, as some suggest, let history and memory find their natural paths, and let, so to speak, World War One go?

After all, we hardly remember the Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory in the Hundred Years’ War, that took place in October 1415, south of Calais. It was a pivotal battle in our island’s history – as was the sea battle of 1805, when Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, and so on.

Can we expect successive generations raised in the current dynamic digital age to carry on remembering the Great War in the same way as we have done over the past 100 years?

The Caribou Memorial at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel, just above the remains of one of the notorious trenches

 

My son’s generation – he is 13 – has as much emotional investment in World War One as they have in Agincourt. They cannot see the relevance to their lives.

Indeed, online Xbox war games such as Call of Duty, history lessons or trips to museums or the battlefields are their only links. They make for excellent learning experiences but ultimately, for most of that generation, they offer entertainment or just enough interest to pass an exam.

“What we choose to remember helps tell us a lot with who we are, or who we would like to be,” says History Professor Sam Edwards from Manchester Metropolitan University.

“To keep the great wars of the 20th century relevant to a younger generation thus demands that our commemorations speak to them of the ways in which their world has been shaped by the actions and activities of those in the past.

“There’s no one way to do this, but it does mean that those planning commemorations should think about teasing out some of the specific past-present connections.”

A visit to the battlefields

Fearing my son, if left to his own devices, would spend his summer holidays in front of a computer screen playing war-themed video games online with his mates in separate houses in our Sussex town, I took him on a road trip to the battlefields that have shaped our present: a dose of reality away from digital wizardry and graphics.

We stayed at Battery Valley Farm and Homestay on the Somme, which is, according to war maps, located between the third and fourth German trenches, a mile and half away from the British front lines and Theivpal Memorial to the Missing.

The Somme is back to its pre-war bucolic, peaceful beauty.

What strikes the 21st-century visitor is the abundant birdsong and gentle folds of the fields and woods, stitched together by winding country roads boarded by hedgerows and ditches festooned with wild flowers.

We visited the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial to pay homage to the Danger Tree, a preserved trunk that marks the point in no-man’s land where, if you were lucky enough to have reached it, you knew you were likely to die because heading forward towards the enemy or back to your trench almost certainly meant being gunned to death.

The 74-acre preserved battlefield is where the Newfoundland Regiment made its unsuccessful attack on 1 July 1916, during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Its first major engagement lasted approximately 30 minutes and most of the regiment was wiped out.

Along with preserved trench lines, there are a number of memorials.

Although today the trenches are covered with wild flowers and bees, pieces of iron trench supports and stakes, once wrapped in barbed wire, brought the war closer to our senses.

We walked quietly through several cemeteries and my son noted that many Simpsons fought, their names engraved on the memorials alongside the band of brothers lost to the war.

“They were quite young, some of them,” he said, looking at the grave of 18-year-old privates wiped out in the early September of 1916. “It’s quite depressing,” he said, before exclaiming how heavy and menacing the spent ordinance, still being collected by farmers, was in his hands.

We drove on from the Somme to the Normandy coast, where we walked through the bunkers of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, and along the beaches of D-Day – Gold, Sword, Juno, Omaha and Utah. He jumped over the old Mullberry piers left over from the so-called Winston Harbour, the temporary piers that were the brainchild of Britain’s wartime prime minister.

“I can see how they designed the graphics for Call of Duty. It’s very lifelike,” he noted as he clambered in and out of a bunker, and I thought it best not to ask if he meant the game or the large barrels of the German guns at Longues Sur Mar.

At the American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, on a bluff overlooking Omaha beach, we found the grave of Captain John H. Miller, the protagonist of the epic war film Saving Private Ryan. “Oh, he was actually a real person!” exclaimed my son.

I am 52 years old and the world wars of the 20th century have been a running narrative in my life thanks to my grandparents and some of my teachers, who lived through the Second World War (my headmaster had our school changed to Montgomery of Alamein and my grandmother forbade a German girlfriend of mine from entering her house because she was bombed out during the Blitz). They regularly recalled that harrowing time. They have all since passed, but they left a sense of duty to remember and to always wear a poppy for a week each year in early November, no matter where I was.

Will my son do the same? What about his children?  At my son’s request we found the landing zone depicted in Call of Duty, and from the sands he looked for where the bunkers might have been on the dunes.

I have played such games with him and am struck by the attention to detail and attempts to personalise the gaming experience and make it mean something more than just a gratuitous shooting game; whether they serve as effective commemorative tools is not clear but they certainly engage more with the historical context than the plastic soldiers I played with as a boy.

After our road trip, I felt he did get a sense that war is not a novelty, that it’s real, there are reasons why they are fought and why we should – why we must – mark, remember or commemorate those who fight and die on our behalf.

I told him global wars of the 20th century are crucial to us understanding the current situation of the world and especially that of our country as we prepare to leave the European Union, a concept itself born out of the ruinous conflicts of both World Wars. And we should, therefore – indeed must – continue to commemorate them.

“We need to be willing to revisit and rethink the nature of the wars, about how they were experienced, and what they meant and still mean for our world today,” says Edwards.

We need to – but how, is the question.

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