The Somme. For a long while, centuries, it was just the name of a place in northern France. Somewhere in Flanders, a river running through a quiet valley. One hundred years ago today, on July 1, 1916 that all changed in a day that marked the start of the bloodiest battle of the First World War. The Somme became, and remains, a phrase that shouts out with death and destruction at the highest level.
That first of July was the worst day for casualties in British military history. A day when almost 20,000 young men lost their lives in the first waves of a battle that would struggle along for more than four months until November 18, 1916. And the result? Not a lot, really. A small shift in the positions and control over trench lines between the Allied and German forces. A realization amongst British strategists, that mechanized warfare, using more machine guns and other means of mass destruction, was superior to attacks based on bayonet and rifle. More than a million men were wounded or killed in this largest battle of WWI. That war would rage on for another two years and more until the day that we, in Canada and elsewhere across the Commonwealth, mark as Remembrance Day, November 11, 1918.
On that day a century ago, the front line trenches were filled with young men, eager, maybe, to fight for their country yet unaccustomed to any form of warfare. They were just boys and lads from farm and factory, village and city across Britain. Leeds, like many places, had responded patriotically to Lord Kitchener’s call to enlist. A local regiment was formed, the 15th Battalion Prince of Wales Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment, commonly known to this day as the Leeds Pals. 900 of them signed up, put on their khaki uniform and left Yorkshire for France. On the night on June 30, they had a celebratory meal together. For most, it was to be their last supper. The following morning, officers in the trenches blew their whistles and as day was dawning, the lads went up and “Over the Top”. The nearby adjacent German forces, supplemented with intelligence gained from listening posts dug deep underground, knew exactly when they were coming. Aiming their huge arsenal of Maschinengewehr 08 (MG 08) machine guns at their unknowing on-comers, they fired. As much as 500 rounds per minute came out of those hand cranked death machines. Wave after wave was felled. By the end of that darkest of days, 750 of the 900 Leeds Pals were dead. 18,490 more British soldiers went down with them.
The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace
To mark the start of the Battle of the Somme, Leeds City Council sponsored a musical concert last night at the Leeds Town Hall, a majestic building that formed the official starting point for that fateful march to France for the Leeds Pals a hundred years ago. The program was a moving and appropriate tribute, solemnly appreciated by a full house, many of them wearing their military berets and medals out of respect for their fallen comrades in arms.
The finale was a heartfelt and, for many, tearful tribute: a magnificent performance of Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Under the direction of conductor, Ben Gernon, this powerful, epic piece of music commissioned by The Royal Armouries museum, was played and sung by the combined forces of the Manchester Camerata, Leeds Festival Chorus, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and St Peter’s Singers. Ailish Tynan sang solo soprano from the front. Mohammed Adam Aslam (muezzin), high up in the terraces of the auditorium, gave a resonant Moslem Call to Prayer.
The Manchester Camerata, the only orchestra to bear the name of that city, had a string section of some 42 players, a brass and woodwind section 23 strong and a percussive team of five that drove powerful, emotive military themes in and out of the orchestration. Around them, and below the huge pipes of the concert organ, stood and sung the combined choir with around 180 voices. Their rendition (to my imagination) of those first moments of contact, a cacophony of screams of anger and agony as armies confronted one another in trench warfare was a musical masterpiece, the likes of which I have never heard of before.
Lest We Forget. Peace not War.