Scar of the Somme
One hundred years ago tomorrow, a terrible event happened that would change the face of British warfare, forever robbing the lives of men and boys, not to mention sons, daughters, nieces and nephews who would never get the chance to be born. This week, we invite Westminster Guide Charlie Foreman of London War Walks to give us a taste of 1916.
At 7.30 am on 1st July 1916 tens of thousands of British troops left their trenches on the Somme and walked slowly into the greatest massacre ever experienced by the British army. Twenty thousand died.
Back in London, anyone reading the Sunday Pictorial over breakfast the next morning would have been delighted to read that 16 miles of the German front had been captured. Except it hadn’t – and the Sunday Pictorial was just typical of a programme of misinformation so complete that very few people back in Blighty had much idea of the enormity of the catastrophe.
Outside Charing Cross Station, July 1916. Casualties from the Battle of the Somme arriving in London” by J Hodgson Lobley (c)IWM
With those 20,000 dead came 37,000 wounded – their plight in many ways more urgent and immediate. Most of the twenty hospital trains, ordered up to the front in preparation for the offensive had not arrived. And in the delay more men died.
It was days before the hospital ships got them across the channel and a succession of further trains took them up to London. Troops had been leaving from the London railway termini and coming back wounded ever since the war started. So it was the scale of the arrivals in that first week of July, not the newspapers, that started to alert the London public that something was seriously wrong.
The relentlessness of these convoys didn’t go unnoticed. Crowds gathered at the station gates. The girls who – like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – used to sell flowers along the Strand and in Covent Garden threw them into the open back doors of the ambulances.
Turn left further down the Strand and you would soon reach Endell St, the site of one of London’s most remarkable military hospitals. It was run entirely by women. Flora Murray, the doctor in charge was on the pay of a lieutenant colonel – she wasn’t actually a lieutenant colonel as no woman could hold military rank. Assisted by Louisa Garrett Anderson – the daughter of Britain first female doctor– this hospital treated nearly 30,000 patients during the war; its surgeons carried out 7,000 operations.
Shocking and new, this was total war and London was central to it. City of Westminster guides are recreating the feel of London during that Somme offensive in a series of walks running through the summer. The first one will be at 7.30am on that fateful 1st July exactly 100 years after the first offensive. The walks run regularly through the summer and can be booked via http://tinyurl.com/somme100walk