Just about this time a hundred years ago, my father, Private Eric Linklater, posed for a photograph in the uniform of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. He was 16, and was about to leave for the front. Like so many others he had faked his age to be accepted. He had also altered the medical report on his eyesight which, without glasses, was not great. Four months later he would be in a salient trench at Ypres, a sniper.
Last week I was in France to commemorate an action which he missed – just – but which he would have known all about: Beaumont Hamel, the last great battle of the Somme, when the 51st Highland Division took a seemingly impregnable German position in the village on 13 November, 1916. We have, over the past three years, seen many of these events, and learned much about a war one hundred years ago that never ceases to shock and move us in equal measure. But each one tells us just a little more about its history.
A crowd of around 200 turned out, with a small detachment of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, with pipes and drums, and a wee French boy dressed in khaki, also playing the pipes. We had speeches, there were welcomes from the mayor and the local MP, the Last Post and Flowers of the Forest were played around a Scottish flagpole in the centre of the village, and we all sang the national anthems of Britain and France.
Afterwards we tucked into champagne, provided by the French, malt whisky and shortbread, donated by the Scots. There was great enthusiasm from the locals, who still recognise the sacrifice that was made on their behalf. The village – a scattering of houses, and a church – was entirely destroyed in the course of the Somme campaign, and has been rebuilt.
Afterwards, we walked over the site of the trenches on both sides. You could see immediately the difference between the relatively shallow British lines, and the deep, dug-in German trenches. The action at Beaumont Hamel meant storming a notorious German-held trench in what is known as Y Ravine, a deep cleft in the ground, in which they had created underground bunkers, with stairways, concrete shelters and complete living quarters.
What one learned, of course, was that the British trenches were temporary because they were attacking. The German trenches were deep and well-made because they were defensive. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there had been a combined allied attack, preceded by the most massive explosion, when the Royal Engineers, who had tunnelled to within yards of the German lines, laid 40,000 lbs of explosive, and blew it up just before the allied advance. It didn’t work – merely announced the impending attack. It created a huge crater, killed 800 Germans, but allowed the German soldiers to occupy it as a defensive position.
The attack was driven back with appalling losses. The Newfoundland regiment was virtually wiped out – they lost 86% of their men. We went and visited the memorial park, which has been created by the Canadians, with a huge statue of a Caribou deer dominating it. It was heartbreaking. You could see the ground that the Newfoundlanders had to cross, and it was entirely exposed. We were told that the barbed wire had only been cut in three or four places, and the German machine gunners had the gaps covered from every angle, so that almost every soldier charging through was killed.
There is a tree still standing in a place known as Danger Tree (the original one is pictured above), marking the place where most of them died. So terrible were the losses that it effectively ended Newfoundland’s ambition to be independent of Canada. We were taken round by a guide who said that this – and next year’s commemoration of Vimy Ridge at Arras, which was a Canadian battle – were formative events in the creation of Canada.
There is also a huge monument to the 51st Division, topped by a massive statue of a Highland soldier, and we followed a detachment of the Royal Regiment of Scotland who played the pipes in front of it. They took the whole thing very seriously, and we were moved by their devotion to the task.
The attack by the 51st Division on 13 November was also preceded by a massive explosion. But by this stage they had far better intelligence about the ground and the German defences. They went in on two fronts, and in two stages, through mud that was occasionally waist-deep (one runner got so embedded that he could not move for five hours). They were helped however by the early darkness, and a low mist, and the Seaforth Highlanders got up the edge of the village before they came under fire.
Y Ravine took all day to capture. Two caves, held by the Germans, were captured by an astonishingly small company of jocks. Here is the official account:
In the northern sector of the division's front were two large caves, and 'A' Company was detailed to provide parties to capture them. Closely following the barrage the party led by Second Lieutenant McVicar captured the northern cave, and that led by Second Lieutenant George Edwards captured the southern one. Edwards arrived at the entrance having passed through part of the British artillery barrage and with the support of just a few men, some of them already wounded. Calling on the occupants to surrender the Germans agreed, not realising how few Highlanders there were outside, and the gallant little band took charge of a large group of prisoners; some reports say as many as 400. Some minutes later a German bombing party appeared at the cave mouth, put most of the Seaforth party out of action, and forced George Edwards to surrender to his former prisoners. He was taken to a nearby dug-out which was in fact a battalion headquarters, where he was questioned by a German battalion commander and his staff. After a short time the sounds of rifle fire and bomb indicated that the situation outside had changed again. Edwards then suggested to the German that as they were probably now surrounded it would be prudent for them to surrender which, after a brief discussion they did. Second Lieutenant Edwards therefore took charge of his high-ranking prisoners and marched them back to the 6th Seaforth HQ where he handed them over to Lieutenant-Colonel Graham. For his bravery, and indeed audacity, Second Lieutenant Edwards was awarded the DSO.
Here is another citation from the same day:
In the raid of the seventh Gordon Highlanders, Lance Sgt Morrison killed four Germans and disarmed 50, who were taken prisoner. At this point Morrison had expended all ammunition and bombs and was faced by two more Germans with fixed bayonets. Appreciating the situation, Private Louis Thompson rushed past sergeant Morrison and killed the first German with his entrenching tool. He then picked up the fallen German’s rifle and with it killed the second. For this exploit both Simon Morrison and Private Thompson were awarded the military medal.
The capture of Beaumont Hamel, against all the odds, is described by the division’s historian, as 'the foundation stone on which the reputation of the 51st Highland Division is built.'
Next day we went to the massive memorial at Thiepval, designed by Lutyens. As with all Lutyens' buildings, it had a certain imperialist splendour, but seemed to us entirely soulless. It was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1932. The names of all the allied soldiers who died in the course of the Battle of the Somme are inscribed there, including that of H H Munro – ‘Saki’ – of the Royal Fusiliers, who was killed on 13 November 1916. We attended the small daily service that takes place every morning on the steps of the monument. They read out the names of any relatives of those attending, so we had my father’s name read out – wounded in action at Ypres, and the names of my wife Veronica’s uncles, who died in the second world war at Arnhem and Normandy. There were only about half a dozen people attending, and I think we found that more moving than almost anything else.
Finally, we went to Amiens, and its superb cathedral. Protected during the war from the shellfire, which was only few miles from the city limits, by great palisades erected round its base, it survived more or less, with windows and masonry broken, but the structure surviving. Inside there was the sculpture of a weeping angel, which troops used to send back as a postcard, and a small memorial to Raymond Asquith, the prime minister’s son, who insisted on serving at the front with the Grenadiers, and was killed in action in September 1916. There are two famous stories about his death. One, that his last words were 'Put that bloody fag out' and two that, after being shot in the chest, he asked for a cigarette, to disguise the seriousness of his injury so that the attack would not be held up. He died as a result of not being taken back for treatment sooner. The memorial, on one of the pillars of the cathedral, quotes the line from Henry V: 'Small time, but in that small most greatly lived this star of England.'
Snippets of history. All worth remembering.
Destined for public ownership?
Bill Mitchell (17 November) doesn't boast about his academic credentials in his article ‘The nightmarish world of ridicule’; which is just as well. He twice undermines the thesis he is propounding about analysis, which he describes as 'the ability to take a subject and address it from all angles, to provide an evaluation of the facts as presented to me, not only from the source material, but from commentators on that subject.'
He acknowledges that his views on UKIP are in direct contradiction to his argument in favour of analysis because he finds UKIP 'intolerable and offensive on all levels'. Later he compounds this by saying he can’t understand what Willie Rennie’s purpose is.
I think he should try a bit harder. UKIP represents a very powerful element in the current British political scene. It is UKIP, with help from a large section of the Conservative party, that has set the agenda that the rest of us are now struggling to understand, come to terms with, or confront. To say that he finds them ‘intolerable and offensive on all levels’ doesn’t get us very far. He may remember that Hillary Clinton's reference to some Republican supporters as ‘deplorable’ did not help them to take stock of themselves and change their views.
Let's move on to Willie Rennie. He is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. If you are looking for the polar opposite to UKIP then you find it in the Liberal party. The old values of the Liberal party were diluted when it combined with the Social Democrats in 1988. Social Democrats often described themselves as 'centrists’ which is not a Liberal position. But the evidence these days is that liberalism, not social democracy, is the stance of the Liberal Democrats. Witness Vince Cable’s relentless criticisms of the Conservative’s anti-immigration policies, the party’s unified support for the European Union, and its opposition to nationalism in any guise.
There is a great gulf between these two ideologies, nationalism (UKIP’s principal belief) and liberalism. They are very clearly differentiated. I wish Bill Mitchell had used his analytical skills to evaluate these important opposites rather than abusing the one and ignoring the other.