A very different 1st

30 Jul

Just a short little thing for the moment, offering a further extract from a book I mentioned in my previous post (that is, Palmer and Wallis’ Intimate Voices from the First World War, 2003).

The First Day on the Somme (July 1st, 1916) has become a byword for catastrophe, nightmare and grim, pointless death.  It is the very avatar of suffering, and this conception of it — though incredibly oversimplified — is more or less impossible to escape when discussing the date in question.

Still, it’s interesting to consider what the day meant for other people.  John Terraine astutely noted in The Smoke and the Fire (1980) that the 1st day on the Somme was also the 132nd day on Verdun — a thing well worth remembering.  But what about experiences still further removed?

What follows is a very short passage from the wartime journal of Capt. Douglas “Duggie” Lyall Grant, a 28-year-old London man of Scottish extraction.  He had served for the first two years of the war as an embarkation officer in Bolougne — a relatively benign position not likely to see him end up on the Somme, but work with me here — but unhappily found himself captured by the Germans in June of 1916.  He ended up, initially, at the POW camp at Gütersloh in German Westphalia, and very quickly found it to his liking.  His companions were congenial, there were plenty of activities, and he no longer had to worry very much about taking care of himself.

This leads us to his journal entry for July 1st, 1916.  Contrast this with the Opening of the Somme:

1st July: Dominion Day, which was celebrated by the Canadians by a game of baseball in the morning and a dinner at night, both very noisy entertainments.  The French lesson got a miss for tennis and in the afternoon I watched our Hockey Team defeat the Russians’ 1st by 15-12, the 12 being their handicap.

I… yeah.

It would be worth also examining his next entry.

3rd July: This afternoon, in the company of thirty-nine others, I went for a walk.  This is a new idea, mutual arrangement between British, French and German Governments, by which officers give their parole not to escape while out walking, and in return no guard is sent with them but only one man as a guide.  We have parole cards which we sign and give up on our return.  We go out in batches of forty twice a week.  The crops looked to be good but we saw practically no men and certainly no young ones, while the ladies of the district must be noted more for their rotundity than their beauty.

The journal goes on in much the same vein until his release in April of 1918.


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