I decided, sometime in late June, that I did not know enough about the Battle of the Somme. I started in, what, July of 1916? And it rumbled on into November? The opening day was the worst disaster in British military history. Oh, and the men who fought in it were primarily those from the ‘Pals Battalions’ – is that right?
That was about the extent of my knowledge. In my defence, the Great War is not my period. I studied it at school, then again and college, and once again, briefly, at university. But I own fewer than half-a-dozens books on the subject, and would quickly run out of ammunition if I had to debate any aspects of the war in any great detail with a real buff. I could dimly recall the Fisher Thesis, and the arguments of some of his detractors, but from a historiographical perspective, that was about it.
With this glaring ignorance in mind, I set out to learn more. A brief bit of searching in the library and online, turned up a number of promising places to start. Middlebrook’s First Day of the Somme (1971) is, from a historiographical point of view, an old piece, but one that seems well liked, and so it took it as my ‘jumping on point’. It was a well written, albeit sparsely sourced (at times, he makes sweeping statements which he never bothers to substantiate) account from the soldiers’ perspective. I enjoyed it, and moved on from there to some works dating from the last five years or so. All proved interesting reads in different ways. Having refreshed my memory of things I knew but had forgotten, and learnt a great many new things along the way, I moved from fact into the realms of fiction. I picked up and re-read Pat Barker’s very clever Regeneration and Faulk’s Birdsong. Then I stumbled, almost by accident, upon a second-hand copy of a novel in a charity bookshop. The book was by a man I had never heard of named John Harris and was called Covenant with Death.
The back-cover synopsis led me to believe that it would be a sermonizing, Sixties dramatization of the lions-led-by-lambs interpretation of the war. A great deal of recent historical research gone into correcting this orthodoxy, and I’ll admit to a great deal of cynicism when taking the book to the register.
I was wrong. Covenant with Death is an extraordinary novel, and deserves to be much more widely read than I think it is. So moved and mesmerized was I by the climatic chapters that I read certain passages several times over; I think I may well have groaned aloud in dismay at various events that occur towards the novel’s dreadful climax.
First published in 1961, the story follows the fortunes of a group of young work colleagues who volunteer with boyish enthusiasm for the British Army in the late summer and autumn of 1914 – thereby becoming part of Kitchener’s so called, civilian ‘New Army’. Harris claims to have conducted interviews with some of these men’s real-life counterparts, and it was their accounts of the war – of recruitment, of training, of life at the front, and of course of the actual Battle of the Somme itself – that Harris used to form the backbone of his dramatization. The result is as vivid, distressing and visceral an account of those awful years as anyone could hope for. It is not a comfortable read. The men are much like men I have known and met – albeit shaped by a world that has now long vanished – and Harris brings their enormous sacrifice to mind in a way that perhaps non-fictional histories sometimes struggle to achieve.
In a book with many memorable scenes, a few stand out above the rest, most of them from the novels awful climactic chapters: the death of the professional and aptly named Sergeant Bold; and for me, above all, the horrible moment of realization when the handsome young Murray becomes caught on the wire like a fly in a web. The description of him struggling feebly against the mantrap, and his hysterical cries of disbelief as he faces his own imminent and inevitable death have haunted my imagination since first I read them. Even now I find it difficult to summon them to mind without discomfort. None of the characters escapes unscathed. All are altered. Few of them escape with their lives. Reading it is and was a thought-provoking experiencing. And if you haven’t read it, you should.
When I had finished the book, I thought back to the more recent pieces of historiography and their calculated accounts of the Somme as the forging ground for the professional army that would one day drive the Germans back across the Rhine. Can it really have been worth it, I wondered? Was the blood sacrifice of worth the well-oiled fighting machine that emerged in the spring of 1917? I remain unconvinced. German was a menace and needed to be beaten. Yet throwing the bravest and most patriotic of Britain’s young men, often half-trained, into battle on that day and in that way cannot have been the optimal approach to victory. The unforeseen always occurs in war, and a general cannot see all ends. But the objectives that day were unclear, and the mistakes made unforgivable. Most of the men went over the top toiling under unnecessarily heavy packs, many were told to walk and not run towards the enemy guns (though these commands supposedly came from company or battalion commanders, and not from on high), reports of uncut wire were ignored, successful attacks were not followed up, disastrous attacks were reinforced resulting in slaughter, and the effects of the massive pre-assault bombardment (which the French knew wouldn’t work from experience – and told the British top brass it would be so) were hopelessly over estimated. The result was more than sixty thousand young men dying within the first twenty-four hours of the battle. Their deaths were often protracted and unpleasant. Their bravery was breath-taking.
Hindsight can be a terribly smug thing, but there must have been another way.