Wednesday 4 October 2017

At the Fault Line of Life and Death

I visited the Somme last year as part of a school trip. This piece was written shortly after, but I didn't post it at the time, for some reason. Before we left, our school chaplain, Father Jonathan, told us the story of his great grandfather. It is, in part, the story of this man that follows.

Arthur Robert Carpenter looks at us, on his wedding day, in April 1912. Beside him, his bride wears a remarkable hat and a blank, even downcast, expression. Flanking them are two parents; we can’t be sure whose. No one in this photograph looks very pleased on this special day. It might be because of the lengthy process involved in taking such a picture 104 years ago, though it could also be because Arthur’s new wife was already three months pregnant.

There isn’t much to be said about their lives at this point in time, not because they didn’t have lives, but because very little of them has reached us. There are, however, clues. The simple house at the back of the photograph is probably a farm cottage, and while Arthur wears a suit on his wedding day, his boots reveal his trade: they are the well-worn footwear of a farm labourer. But then something changes. After November 1914, records exist that tell us where Arthur was, and the detail becomes clearer as Arthur approached the summer of 1916. And then, at the moment of greatest clarity, it stops, because Arthur Carpenter was one of 19,240 known British fatalities of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.


100 years later, our school party is travelling to the site of the battle, getting out of the classroom and standing on the claggy, windswept fields where it all happened. The second stop of the first day of our Somme is one of the key parts of this 13-mile front, a kind of ground zero on this fault line between life and death – Beaumont Hamel, the Sunken Lane, and the site of the Hawthorn mine. I’ve taught the events that occurred in this little valley for some years now, but being here changes everything. I realise that I’ve got the scale all wrong. All the action which in my mind’s eye plays out on a vast stretch of land was, in fact, concentrated into a small natural theatre, hemmed in by barren rolling hills that bring the horizon to within little more than 500 metres in any direction. The men who climbed through the bushes from the Sunken Lane, whose ashen faces stare back at us in contemporary photographs, knew that they were the first wave, well in advance of the British front lines. Where I envisage the battlefield from a distance of 10,000 metres and 100 years, their view of this unfolding tragedy must have been localised to an almost absurd degree. German lines stretched left-to-right only 200 metres before them. Clods of earth, thrown up by the mine, would have pelted their position at 7.20 in the morning, a full ten minutes before their attack began. It threw debris thousands of feet into the air and flung back the British camera crew filming from the base of the lane. The tremor travelled along the front, a high-explosive alarm clock signalling impending attack and, as we now know, mounting disaster.

It wasn’t meant to be this way. After almost two years of war, the German lines that stretched from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland looked immovable.  Pressure from the embattled French led to a British plan, an attack of such staggering force that German lines would simply fall away. The plan would also bring into play Kitchener’s volunteers, those million-plus men who’d answered the call-to-arms in 1914. Arthur Carpenter was among them, his having volunteered in around November 1914. We might infer a little reticence in his relatively late enrolment, but in truth, his feelings and motives remain unknown. It’s just as possible that the late-summer harvest was a more pressing concern than playing war.

From here, the plan is well known. An artillery bombardment of apocalyptic proportions would rain molten hell on German trenches along the 13-mile front for more than a week. Nothing, surely, would be left. Then, on July 1st, a series of huge explosions would disintegrate the more heavily fortified German positions and, as the dust cleared, the first wave of British infantry would walk across no-man’s land and occupy the deserted German lines. With machine-gun-spattered hindsight, walking would seem the last thing anyone would wish to do across the Somme, but these were inexperienced and heavily laden men. Walking would be the simplest option.

A while after our visit to Beaumont Hamel, we stare in awe into the carefully-preserved crater at Lochnagar, several miles south of the Hawthorn mine. While the Hawthorn has grown its own dense carpet of vegetation and other craters filled in, Lochnagar has been kept as a huge, gaping memorial to the men who tried to cross the expanse of ground to its west. And at 7.28 in the morning, as the force of the blast lifted the ground into the air, those standing within sight of it – warned in their orders that “the concussion will be considerable” – would have never suspected that even before a single British company had left their trench, the plan was already unravelling.

While British shells pummelled the ground along the front, German personnel were, unknown to the British, cocooned in deep bunkers, carved out of the chalk beneath the battlefield. After a week of constant noise and shaking earth, the barrage came to an end when, at 7.20, the Hawthorn mine exploded, alerting the German army that something new was coming. By the time British infantry left their lines at 7.30, German machine gun crews the length of the front were in position, ready to reap a bloody, unsuspecting harvest of men. At some point after 7.30, probably within the first ten minutes, Arthur Carpenter followed his company and others of the 11th Battalion of the Suffolk’s over the top. As they traipsed towards the Lochnagar crater, the Suffolk’s took immediate and heavy casualties. Bullets from German machine guns did carve through the advancing men, but as many were killed by German shells, now returning the pounding of the preceding week. Private WJ Senescall of the neighbouring Cambridgeshire Regiment later wrote about the appalling effects of this fresh barrage: “A very large shell fell some yards to my left. With all the bits and pieces flying up was a body. The legs had been blown off right to the crutch. I have never seen a body lifted so high. It sailed up and towards me. I can still see the deadpan look on his face under the tin hat, which was still held on by the chin strap. He kept coming and landed with a bonk behind me”.

Some accounts, such as that of 11th Suffolk Battalion’s Corporal R Harley, were able to recall the scene with a sardonic tinge: “A great many of our Brigade not being bulletproof fell before they reached the German line, for the Germans were mowing the grass with machine gun fire. I managed to cross the enemy's front line, when I halted and looked around for my comrades. The nearest of them were about 50 yards away, so I thought I would wait for the reserves to come up. As I was standing there I felt something hit my left-hand top pocket, which reminded me I'd better move. I did so and a few minutes later a bullet passed through my left wrist.”

It is likely that Arthur Carpenter joined the fatalities in these opening moments. His body was never recovered.


As we criss-cross the battle field over the next two days, it becomes easy to lose track of the once-immovable axis of rival front lines. I often have to refer to a map to pick out the now-invisible path of the conflict, though the scattering of submerged shrapnel makes the line of battle clear enough to farmers and their reinforced ploughs. And danger still lurks: when we arrive at Mametz Wood, scene of horrendous casualties in Welsh divisions in the weeks following July 1st, an unexploded shell lies perilously close to the roadside. Local farmers are still killed by the munitions that failed to do their work a century ago.

Instead of trenches, long since filled by locals keen to return the land to productivity, cemeteries trace the edges of the killing fields. The rows of white gravestones give some small visual record of the inconceivable loses, but they also mark the process that all such seismic events undergo, as hot war solidifies into cold history. Already, in 1919, that process was underway. As both sides were still counting their casualties, the Treaty of Versailles set out the manner in which German war dead would be commemorated here. As we stand at Fricourt, one of only two German cemeteries in the area, we’re lashed by an icy downpour. I can’t help but imagine it’s a small punishment for the indignity done by our own antecedents to those buried within, crammed four-to-a-cross in this meagre corner of the Somme.

At the same time as the Germans were suffering the humiliation of Versailles, British mourning was being standardised and filtered through the concerns of the day. Across the Somme, we find a particular a kind of language with which we are all perhaps unknowingly familiar, hewn into memorials and graves. “A soldier of the Great War known unto God” is a phrase seen again and again in British cemeteries across France and Belgium, words that resound with a kind of biblical portent and elegance found in the poetry of this post-Edwardian era. We see it again in the small cemetery dedicated to the men of the Devonshire Regiment, cut down on July 1st by a machine gun that sliced through their advance to the south of Mametz village: “The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.” It conditions us, once a year, into a sombre, reverent remembrance; when else would we hear people use a phrase like “Lest we forget”?

The evening before we reach the Somme, we visit the vast British cemetery at Tyne Cot. On the ground of Passchendale, where men once died in deep mud, we’re greeted by the most golden sunset imaginable, the ribbon of stone that encircles the top of the hill bathed in orange evening light. Usually, the crowds throng here. Tonight, we’re alone at this site of pilgrimage. Yet, with no ancestor to find or namesake to seek out, this seems to me a vacant panorama of loss, the anonymity of its scale deadening, rather than consoling. Are there people here, or only names? Must we check our displays of grief in the face of the good taste of its classical elegance? I feel as uneasy here as I did as a child, expected to bow my head in silence for an enforced remembrance. I feel, standing here, like we are all Rudyard Kipling, our view of this war caught between two quite different impulses: the regimented displays of respect that Kipling’s propagandist poetry wreathed in the language of duty, and our modern repulsion at the horror and the waste, which too overtook Kipling after the loss of his son. If we’re going to find meaning here, surely it has to be in the lives, and not in the architecture.


And so, I’ve borrowed a life. Before our visit, our school chaplain, Father Jonathan Beach, speaks to my students about his great grandfather, Arthur Robert Carpenter. Arthur’s life is a thread of family history that connects Father Jonathan vividly to July 1st 1916. He recalls his great grandmother never being without Arthur’s picture within a locket around her neck, even though she remarried and had eight more children. When Arthur died, she received a standardised notification, the gaps in which were filled with the scant detail of his death. She asked again, in 1919, if anything more could be known. It could not.

Our final stop is to the imposing monument at Thiepval, the great red-brick and Portland-stone tower memorialising the British victims of the Somme with no known grave. I go straight away to find the wall on which Arthur’s name is inscribed. As I’d expected, it’s positioned, frustratingly, high up on one of the internal piers, but it’s there: CARPENTER AR. Suddenly, the whole monumental structure is invested with meaning for me: I can’t imagine the lives and deaths of 19,000 people, but I can imagine something of the life and death of this one, whose face looked out at me from his wedding photograph.

I say a few inadequate words about Arthur to our gathered pupils, and our guide Alain, an ex-military man, tells us what he feels at this place. “I feel three things. The first is tremendous sadness. The second is unbelievable gratitude. The third is great pride.” Earlier in the day, Alain had asked me what this trip had made me feel. I’d said something about my appreciation of the geography and how I saw the landscape differently, but at Thiepval, I realise I’d misunderstood what he was asking me. In the minute’s silence we share after Alain’s words, I think about the men, who came from so many different places, in every sense. As we leave, I tell Alain that my feelings about the war itself are so complicated and conflicted. I feel I don’t know what this war was really about, ultimately. But what I really see in the moment of silence is the faces of those men in so many photographs, like Arthur, who seem so far from us in so many ways, and yet are right there, looking at us. In the end, it need be no more complicated than that.

Images in this post have been used with the permission of Jonathan Beach, great grandson of Arthur Carpeneter.


Sue Totterdell said...

A really good read, Andrew! My Dad's (much) older brother died at "Hill 60" (Ypres?), and this article has inspired me to put a trip there much higher up on my bucket list.
Thanks, Sue

Andrew Morris said...

Thanks Sue - we're going to Ypres soon so I'll be able to tell you more.