When WW1 started in 1914 Britain quickly built up its armed forces and assembled a huge volunteer army. For many of these citizen soldiers the Battle of the Somme was their first experience of war. They were told that the massive week long artillery bombardment on the enemy lines would kill all the Germans and all they needed to do was march forward and take the now undefended opposition trenches.
In reality, when the British barrage stopped, the Germans rushed from underground bunkers to man their trenches. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the offensive, 57,470 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing; most, cut down by machine-gun and rifle fire, died in the mud of No Man’s Land – or bunched up against the German’s barbed-wire defences. And hardly any of the expected aims were achieved, or targets taken.
If that was not bad enough, the Generals kept sending their soldiers over the top for the next five months. When winter weather finally ended the Battle of the Somme on 18th November over a million men, from all sides, were casualties – making it one of the bloodiest battles of all time. But some of the top brass still tried to claim it as a victory, because, within a small geographical area, a six-mile strip of shell-cratered mud had been captured.
The Somme came to represent the carnage of WW1 and later many books, films, poems and songs originated from it. Including this song, ‘1916’, from Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead.
Sixteen years old when I went to the war,
To fight for a land fit for heroes,
God on my side, and a gun in my hand,
Chasing my days down to zero.
And I marched and I fought and I bled
And I died and I never did get any older,
But I knew at the time,
that a year in the line,
Was a long enough life for a soldier.
We all volunteered,
And we wrote down our names,
And we added two years to our ages,
Eager for life and ahead of the game,
Ready for history’s pages.
And we brawled and we fought
And we whored ’til we stood,
Ten thousand shoulder to shoulder,
A thirst for the Hun,
We were food for the gun, and that’s
what you are when you’re soldiers.
I heard my friend cry,
And he sank to his knees, coughing blood
As he screamed for his mother
And I fell by his side,
And that’s how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other.
And I laid in the mud
And the guts and the blood,
And I wept as his body grew colder,
And I called for my mother
And she never came,
Though it wasn’t my fault
And I wasn’t to blame,
The day not half over
And ten thousand slain, and now
there’s nobody remembers our names.
This is a video of VFP at the Cenotaph in 2016, with Jim Radford, a veteran of the Normandy Landings of 1944, singing 1916:
Info by VFP member Aly Renwick, who served in the British Army from 1960-68.