In a morning of painfully bizarre conflicting images, 10,000 members of the public from across the participant nations gathered at the Lutyens memorial to the 72,000 British dead in the World War II Battle of the Somme whose bodies were never found.
The purpose is to commemorate the centenary of the first day of that battle on 1st July 1916 – an Anglo-French offensive, a day in which the Tyneside Scots lost 2,500 men and the Ulster Volunteer Force [the 36th Division] lost 2,000; a day in which France and Britain together lost so many semi-trained, terrified young men who went bravely to what quickly became their certain death.
The Accrington Pals fought on the first day of Somme, with their 700 men taking 585 casualties of whom 235 were killed and 350 wounded in 30 minutes. The Accington Pals, the 11th battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, was, like the Tyneside Scots and the Ulster Volunteer Force, another of the local ‘pals’ battalions recruited solely from the volunteers of specific localities capable of active service. The recruits volunteered to fight together and of course died together, leaving communities virtually bereft of all their males between babies and the elderly.
On that day, the British 4th Army took 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 men were killed. The French 6th Army took 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army lost 10,000–12,000 men.
There are now no British veterans still living of that conflict, one whose nature and cost still compels pause in the contemplation of war, particularly so for the British Commonwealth whose losses were so immense. While French casualties at the Somme were much fewer, this was because the French 2nd Army was already engaged with the German 5th Army at Verdun, one of the biggest and longest battles fought on the Western Front between France and Germany. Verdun was fought between 21st February and 18th December 1916 – embracing the full period of the Battle of the Somme.
These first world war battles were like nothing we know. The Somme ran from 1st July to 18th November 1916, with Allied casualties totalling 623,907, 146,431 of whom were immediate mortalities. German casualties were 465,000, with 164,055 immediate mortalities. The total casualties of both sides at Verdun are now estimated to have been just short of one million, with the French 2nd Army taking a little more than the German 5th Army.
As the ceremony began to remember that particular 1st July, back in London today, at the same time, Michael Gove, who has destroyed only his unsuspecting friends, began his self-serving address to validate his actions and to support his ambitious candidacy for the Leadership of the Conservative party – to become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
The contrast was painful.
It was of course the contradiction of a one hundred year old blood bond in defence of democratic freedoms denied by an opportunist retreat from the complexities of such partnerships to a Britain hugging itself to itself.
It was also a contrast of the nobility of an ungraspable scale of sacrifice in a common cause with small scale national pettiness and cheapskate snipes at the latest corpse Mr Gove has buried alive. Where Thiepval was about ‘they’, Gove was all ‘me’ and ‘I’.
Gove opened by remarking in defence of Brexit that Britain’s economy had come to ‘rest upon foreign foundations’. [This too flatters to deceive. In or out of the EU, that will continue to be the case.]
In attempting to validate his own behaviours, Gove sniped continually, unnecessarily and gracelessly at Boris Johnson, mentioning quickly how he himself was not a man for ‘muddling through’, and later [it was a very long speech with so many false endings we lost count], my plan is ‘not to make do and mend’.
The tedium and narrowness of focus of this interminable speech was depressing and particularly so against the very different mood of the international commemoration across the channel.
When the Gove address finally came to an end, it was met by a very obviously pre-planned and prolonged – but flat – clapped acclaim.
All very hollow but somehow emblematic of what Britain has made of itself.