I ONCE met an old lady in a parish in Sheffield who had been a schoolgirl in that city when the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. She remembered playing in the street with other children a few days later, when the postman delivered to almost all the houses letters saying that a father, husband, or son serving in a local Pals’ Battalion had been killed on the Somme (only officers’ families received telegrams; the families of all other casualties were sent standardised letters). One by one, the playing children were fetched indoors by weeping women, until the street was empty and silent.
Some years later, I found myself walking along part of the old Somme battlefield. To my surprise, it didn’t feel creepy; but it certainly felt poignant. I was frequently surprised to realise how close the British and German trenches had been: the troops must have heard and smelled each other. All around were beautifully tended military cemeteries, some containing thousands of graves, others just a handful in a field where a casualty clearing station had once stood. I remember returning home, closing my front door, and bursting into tears.
THE Somme was a long and very complicated battle, and we have sometimes done its history a disservice with over-simplistic accounts and images. A century later, it is still yielding up its secrets to historians.
General Sir Douglas Haig had not really wanted to fight a battle over the Somme in July 1916: he would have preferred an offensive in Flanders on a different date. Allied strategy, however, called for concerted Russian, Italian, and Anglo-French attacks upon three fronts, and Haig had to do as he was ordered.
The 1916 German attack on the French at Verdun threw the Allied planning into chaos. As more and more French divisions were sent to protect Verdun, it became necessary for Haig to launch an offensive to relieve the pressure on the French army. What had been conceived as an Anglo-French action turned into a predominantly British one, largely fought by the young men who had volunteered in 1914-15.
Haig’s ambitions for the Somme varied: at times he hoped for a breakthrough, and the return of a war of movement; on other occasions he hoped that the battle would wear down the German army, re-
lieving the pressure on the French, and softening up the Germans for another offensive that would end trench warfare.
With the benefit of hindsight, various aspects of the British plans for the Somme may fairly be criticised: for example, the battle was probably fought over too wide a front. At times, Haig was let down by some of his junior generals, and over the past century he has carried the can for some of their mistakes as well as his own.
By the time the battle finally ended on 18 November 1916, there had been 419,654 British casualties. Quite a high proportion of these were practising Christians, including ordinands, choirmen, Sunday-school teachers, servers, and so on. The clergy of the Church of England tried to visit the families of those from their parishes who had been killed and wounded, whether or not they attended church. Sometimes they had the melancholy task of visiting the same house several times, if more than one man from the family was killed.
At one point in 1916, it was estimated that 30 per cent of army officers were the non-ordained sons of the clergy — and their casualty rates were proportionally high. The clergy had to shoulder their own burdens as well as help other people with theirs.
FOR a variety of reasons, I have become convinced that 1916 was the crucial year in the British war effort, after which everything changed. I certainly believe that this was true for the Church of England.
The Great War in general, and the Battle of the Somme in particular, made an impact on the life and witness of the Church in two significant ways. One of these concerned the eucharist. In the early 20th century, although many Anglicans received communion every Sunday, other communicants received the sacrament no more than once a month. Some British soldiers in France began to derive great comfort from the eucharist: we know, for example, that, as they contemplated the possibility of death or disfigurement, the words of administration from the 1662 Prayer Book started to mean much to them: “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.”
Those men brought that insight home with them after the war. Some turned towards Anglo-Catholicism; those of other churchmanship attended eight-o’clock communion services before matins at 11, or evensong, but with the difference that this now meant much more to them than it had done before the war.
Something similar happened on the Home Front: reservation of the Blessed Sacrament increased greatly during this period, so that communion could be administered in a hurry to the sick, dying, and those injured in air raids. Significantly, more and more lay people, suffering from unparalleled stress, found solace in the peace and stillness that arises in places where the sacrament is reserved, and this came to be used and appreciated as an aid to prayer and devotion.
THE second impact arose from the fact that the Battle of the Somme saw unparalleled casualties. This was the moment, I believe, for many people when patterns of mourning which had their origins in the Reformation finally broke down. For Evangelical Anglicans, not praying for the dead had been an article of faith: they associated it with late-medieval abuses, and it appeared to them unnecessary. They would pray for those who were unwell, but not once they had died.
Before 1914, this was true of many non-Evangelical Anglicans also. A few, however, had begun praying for the dead, led by Anglo-Catholics who celebrated requiem masses as well as prayed for the dead at other services. Anglo-Catholics understood this not as some sort of bribe to persuade God to squeeze into heaven someone who would otherwise have gone to hell, but rather as a loving and prayerful way of supporting a departed brother or sister who was undergoing purification and healing after death, before attaining the Beatific Vision. They might have retorted to critics that, just because something had been badly misunderstood or horribly abused, it wasn’t necessarily wrong.
As the casualties mounted on the Somme in 1916, many Anglicans started to feel that the practice of deliberately not praying for the dead was inadequate. Street shrines began to be erected, bearing the names of those who had died. It was known that Anglo-Catholics prayed for the dead, and such prayers began to spread into other parishes.
Although the average middle-of-the-road parish would not have referred to a service as a requiem mass, nevertheless they began praying for the dead at communion services, and also at matins and evensong. In 1917, the Church of England recognised this trend by issuing official forms of liturgy, containing explicit prayers for the dead.
AS WE mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, I hope that stories of incompetent chateau generals, lions led by donkeys, and images derived from Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder Goes Forth may finally be laid to rest, and that a more nuanced and balanced understanding may emerge. Douglas Haig richly deserves some of the blame levelled at him, but certainly not all of it. His considerable achievements have been unfairly overlooked.
The Somme was not a victory, but neither was it was a defeat; overall, it was probably a British strategic success, leading the Germans to retreat to the Hindenburg Line, and to begin unrestricted submarine warfare, despite the knowledge that this might bring the US into the war.
The British army may be said to have spent 1917 learning the lessons of the Somme, and to have used those lessons in 1918 to achieve victory. The tragedy was that all this was accomplished with such great and wrenching human loss. I find myself thinking of those children in Sheffield, who never saw their fathers or brothers again.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, and the author of The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918 (Boydell Press).