A hidden side of the Somme

Noticing via this Low Life column that I had trench fever, the Western Front Association treated me to a year’s membership and subscription to their excellent quarterly magazine Stand To!. And if that wasn’t enough, they also offered me a place in their contingent at this year’s Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph — a dream come true. ‘It’ll make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck,’ promised WFA legal trustee Richard Hughes in an email. My torch might be sputtering but my trench fever burns still brightly. ‘Not another book about the first world war!’ says Catriona as she hobbles up the path with yet another

A very annoying guide to the Somme battlefields

We arranged to meet the second, more expensive, guide of our Somme battlefield visit at the Thiepval Memorial visitor centre car park. He arrived punctually. The foreign correspondent climbed in the back of his car and I got in the front. As he drove us past Lutyens’ masterpiece, instead of genuflecting towards it, the guide launched tunelessly into a repetitive mumbled refrain while thumping an imaginary bass drum with an imaginary foot pedal. ‘What’s that you’re singing?’ I asked. ‘Oh, nothing really. I’m just enjoying myself,’ he said. ‘Go on,’ I said. ‘What’s the song?’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he replied tetchily. After a brief respite, the tempo and indistinct vocal

Walking the Somme

Where the 36th (Ulster) Division attacked at 7.30 a.m. on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, I ate a cheese and onion sandwich and a KitKat. What happened was this. Charging forward from saps dug out into no man’s land from the frontline trenches in Thiepval Wood, the Ulsters overran the enemy’s first, second, third and fourth lines and the formidable Schwaben Redoubt. But the Germans quickly put down a barrage of machine-gun fire across no man’s land preventing reinforcements getting through. Hand-to-hand scrapping in the German trenches continued all day until a weary remnant was pushed back to the original German front line. The

Jam and Opium on the Somme

Phone calls aside, the only human contact I had on my ten-day Somme battlefield tour was with the lady who ran the bed and breakfast establishment. My bed was on the upper storey of a disused light railway station in a clearing in a beech wood. Madame lived with her husband in a modern bungalow 100 yards down the line, but came along each morning to cook my bacon and eggs. The greater part of her clientele consists of British Great War buffs. But Covid-19 had kept them away and I had the breakfast table, the old station and indeed the Somme battlefield entirely to myself. The dining room was

The beauty of military cemeteries

They are starting to cut the corn. But apart from combine harvesters and tractors, the roads up here on the Somme ridges are empty, the villages more or less deserted. It’s been just me and my bike, the wind, the skylarks, the familiar English sky, the chalk ground, the strange flints, the green and famous woods, and the thousands of British dead lying under Portland headstones in these beautifully kept military cemeteries, the grander ones designed by Sir Herbert Baker. They dot the hillsides all around like defensive outposts of a lost civilisation of warrior gardeners. Airport bookshops a few years ago were selling a paperback called Is it Just

My Great War obsession

Bernafay Wood B&B, Somme, France I came up on the TGV yesterday from the Midi to northern France and it went like the clappers. I fell asleep zipping through stony, sun-baked vineyards and olive groves and woke an hour later in dairy country obscured by rain. What I had hoped for was an empty carriage or at least a socially distanced one, but this particular Sunday train was packed to the rafters. A woman behind me sneezed at my head from one end of France to the other. A bloke across the aisle was soaked in sweat, his head lolling this way and that on the bends and he looked