‘A slightly amended version of this article first appeared in the Church Times'.
I once met an old lady in a parish in Sheffield who had been a schoolgirl in that city at the beginning of the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. She remembered playing in the street with other children a few days later when the postman arrived and delivered letters to almost all the houses 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 everyone else were sent standardised letters). One by one, the playing children were fetched indoors by weeping women until the street was left 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 at how close the British and German trenches were: 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, the Somme is still yielding up its secrets to historians.
General Sir Douglas Haig did not really want to fight a battle over the Somme in July 1916: he would have preferred an offensive in Flanders on a different date. Allied strategy for 1916, 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; and 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 a good deal: at times he hoped for a break-through and the return of a war of movement, whilst on other occasions he hoped that the battle would wear down the German army, relieving 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 he has carried the can over the past century 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 them were practising Christians, including ordinands, choirmen, Sunday School teachers, servers, etc. The clergy of the Church of England tried to visit the families of those killed and wounded from their parishes, whether they attended church or not. 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, impacted upon the life and witness of the Church in two noticeable ways. One of these concerned the Eucharist. Some British soldiers in France began to derive great comfort from Holy Communion. 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.’ The troops sometimes brought this insight home with them after the war. Some were led to move in an Anglo-Catholic direction. Troops of other churchmanships carried on attending 8 o’clock Holy Communion before Mattins at 11.00am; but the difference was that Holy Communion now meant much more to them than it did before the war. Something similar happened on the home front. We know that Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament took off in this period, so that Holy Communion might be administered in a hurry to the sick, dying and people injured in air raids. Significantly, more and more laypeople, suffering from unparalleled stress, found solace in the peace and stillness that arises wherever the Sacrament is reserved. The Sacrament came to be used and appreciated as an aid to prayer and devotion.
Secondly, the battle of the Somme saw unparalleled casualties. This was the moment, I believe, when patterns of mourning which had their origins in the Reformation, finally broke down for many people. For evangelical Anglicans, not praying for the dead was an article of faith: they associated it with late medieval abuses, and it appeared unnecessary. They would pray for someone whilst they were unwell, but not once they had died. Before 1914 many other non-evangelical Anglicans also did not pray for the dead. A few Anglicans had begun praying for the dead, led by Anglo-Catholics who celebrated Requiem Masses and prayed for the dead at other services. Anglo-Catholics understood prayer for the dead not as some sort of bribe to persuade God to squeeze someone into Heaven who would otherwise have gone to Hell, but 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 has been badly misunderstood or horribly abused, doesn’t mean that it is wrong.
As the casualties mounted on the Somme in 1916, many Anglicans began 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. The average middle-of-the-road parish would not have referred to a service as a Requiem Mass, but the dead began to be prayed for at Holy Communion, and also Mattins and Evensong. In 1917 the Church of England recognised this trend by issuing official forms of prayer containing explicit prayers for the dead for the first time.
As we approach the centenary of the battle of the Somme, I hope that various silly 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 unfairly been 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 begin unrestricted submarine warfare in the full knowledge that this might bring the USA into the war. The British army may be said to have spent 1917 learning the lessons of the Somme and in 1918 used them 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.
Rummaging around in a chest in St Katharine’s church, Little Bardfield (a country parish, incidentally, where 12 men went off to the Great War and only one returned), I found a damp and musty Bible. When I opened it, I found a moving inscription written by the Rector’s wife: ‘Presented to Little Bardfield Church for use in the Pulpit by Mary Florence Mears in memory of her son Edward de Quincey Mears, 2nd Lieut. 10th Battalion, Essex Regiment: Killed in the Battle of the Somme, France, July 14th, 1916. He “left all and followed Him”’. I dried out the Bible and put it back in the pulpit.
What, I wondered, would I say to that young officer if I could somehow be brought face to face with him? I don’t think, in my heart of hearts, I could bring myself to tell him that his life had somehow uselessly been thrown away. He had volunteered for high and noble motives, to protect French and Belgian civilians from German aggression. We know that British troops in France were often struck by the wayside Calvaries they encountered beside roads. I think my gut reaction would simply be to invite Lieutenant Mears to kneel with me in front of the Cross, and silently to offer up all the pain and suffering of the Somme and of Great War to Jesus who died and rose on the third day, and to ask him to sort it all out as best may be.
Rev. Dr Robert Beaken
'The Rev. Dr Robert Beaken is the author of The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester'.