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When the Somme Ran Red

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When the Somme Ran Red
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Author(s): Arthur Radclyffe Dugmore
Date Published: 2011/03
Page Count: 164
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-506-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-505-6

The 'Tykes' of the light infantry during the Great War

This book was written during wartime by a gassed British infantry officer incapacitated and no longer fit for service in the trenches. Dugmore was an unusual soldier who would normally have been considered too old for front line duties from the outset. He was already well into middle age at the outbreak of hostilities having spent a career as a naturalist and sportsman and it was only due to influential friends that he managed to obtain a commission in an infantry regiment—the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Yet this was not his first experience of the Western Front. As the German Army swept into Belgium, the civilian Dugmore—armed only with a cine camera—travelled to the front as the small Belgian Army vainly attempted to stem the advance, to experience the war at first hand. His account of this early stage of the war makes unusual and fascinating reading. After joining the army, the author joined his regiment serving in the trenches during the period leading towards the First Battle of the Somme in 1916 and it is this and his time during the battle itself that are the principal subjects in this account. Dugmore's book is, of course, full of admiration for the Yorkshiremen with whom he served and he gives much detail about trench warfare as well as valuable insights into the Somme attack, its consequences and dreadful aftermath. Available in softcover and hardcover with dustjacket.

Our brigade was on the left of Fricourt, and the two battalions of my regiment, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, were side by side on the front line of the assault while the Durhams and East Yorkshires followed in support. We were unfortunately unable to reach our more advanced objectives owing to the heavy fire, and to our great number of casualties, but we got as far as the sunken road within an hour or so. This point is on the immediate left of Fricourt, which we eventually expected to surround. The defensive works of the village were so powerful that it was not considered wise to take it by assault, but to force its evacuation by threatening to cut off the garrison. Along most of the total line of attack, about twenty miles all told, things were going well.<br>
At La Boisselle the enemy offered a very stiff resistance and at one place the assaulting troops had gone rather too far, and had omitted to clear the first and second line trenches; this unfortunately resulted in very troublesome conditions a little later that day. At Thièpval our line was unable to advance against the steep hill side and very powerfully fortified positions, but elsewhere we were succeeding splendidly as was shown by the reports which were continually coming in by telephone and runners.<br>
At about nine o’clock our brigadier decided to go forward with the brigade major to see personally how we were doing, as we had lost so heavily in officers that it was hard to get reliable information through the many field telephones which had been carried forward and whose wires were constantly cut. I was sent with certain instructions to the Headquarters’ Staff and told to rejoin the brigadier as soon as possible. He, however, had vanished when I returned some ten minutes later, and though I hunted through every trench and inquired from the men who were moving forward, and the wounded who were returning, I could get no trace of him, and so, after half an hour, I returned to the dugout, for it had suddenly occurred to me that by some oversight no officer had been left in charge and important messages might be coming in at any moment.<br>
On my way back I had to leave the trench as it was entirely blocked with wounded men who were trying to make their way back to the dressing station. It was remarkable how cheerful they were, smiling and joking about their wounds, in the most extraordinary way, and nearly all of them were smoking.<br>
The men I passed were of many different regiments, a ghastly, bleeding, battle-marked lot. Some of my own fellows would recognise me and would laughingly ask what I thought of the regiment, how it had behaved, all so glad to have actually started the Germans on their backward path. Some would give the sad news of so-and-so’s death, how he had died “grandly,” as they expressed it. We had had a little reverse at Loos the previous year, which, through no fault of the men or officers, had given the whole division a slight bad mark. The men had always deeply felt and resented this and one chap who passed me managed to smile, in spite of several ghastly wounds, as he said, “Well, sir, I guess they won’t hold Loos up against us now, will they?” It was rather pathetic, that he with all that suffering should have so keenly at heart the honour of the regiment, and it shows what a wonderful thing is the regimental esprit de corps. It leads men on to doing not only their best, but even more than their best.<br>
In watching that gory procession it struck me what a terrible price is paid for the success of all military enterprises. Here was this line of men, who little more than an hour ago were normal men in the finest of health and strength, and now maimed, and with every degree of injury, they painfully made their way back to the human repair department. The well men were rapidly moving eastward in countless numbers, going forward to the assistance of their comrades, while the injured so laboriously dragged their way back, two human streams, the sound and the unsound. Before us, all energies were devoted to destruction; behind us, all human power and skill tried to repair the damage.<br>
It was a severe test on the nerves of the younger and less experienced men who were going forward, for was not this returning stream a terrible object lesson of what lay before them, and each much have wondered, perhaps subconsciously, whether or not he would have the good luck to be able to form a link in the endless human chain of walking cases, or whether he would be disabled and doomed to remain out on the ground to await the kind help of the stretcher bearer; perhaps fortune would be still less kind and he might become one of those pathetic khaki figures that would never again move.<br>
Yet there was no evidence that any one suffered in spirits by the scenes. Jokes passed between the wounded and the well, and the phrase was constantly heard, “Oh, you lucky beggar, you’ve got a cushy Blighty (i.e., a “soft” wound which will take you to Blighty, the Indian word meaning England or home) or “Cheero, lad, y’re going back home, give ’em my love when you get there.”