Finding what’s still unburied on World War I battlefields.
I’m gazing into one of the deepest holes I’ve ever seen.
On July 1, 1916, British soldiers made this hole in the ground as they bombarded the German defense line in the beginning moments of the Battle of La Somme. Today, it’s known as Lochnagar Crater. It’s grassy, with a circle of small wooden crosses at the bottom, about a hundred feet deep, maybe equally wide.
After the bombardment, the British forces had expected to find nothing more than bodies blown to bits. They’d raced across the fields towards the supposedly empty enemy trenches. But somehow (and when you look at this crater, that becomes a big “somehow”), German troops still waited in the smoking holes, machine guns aimed at the charging men. It was the bloodiest day in British military history.
After we’ve stared our fill at the Crater, we return to the car, our backs to the sign “Enter at your Own Risk”. After all, to make a hole that big requires a lot of bombs. Some remain in the ground, still active.
La Somme is a place of green fields and small towns and villages. The landscape is hilly at times, with those hills gently descending into flat valleys. Part of the Picardie region, the area is more or less your idyllic image of the French countryside, and at just an hour and a half’s drive from Paris, it’s fairly accessible to any visitor to the capitol who might want to take an interesting day trip.
Our guide is Gilles, an old college pal of my fiancé’s. Gilles is a slight, small fellow, who might be mistaken for a kid in high school. But, thirty-one years old and a father and successful career man, he’s all business, our Gilles. He rarely cracks a smile, and he always sticks to his schedule.
You could say, though, that no matter what kind of a guide you had here, you’d be sure to come upon a monument of some kind. The region is verdant, lovely, and full of graveyards. Looking over the wide valleys, white stones and crosses come like specks of dust to the eye.
When he chose to stop at Delville Wood, Gilles was only showing us one of the area’s larger, prettier necropoli.
Here, following the paths between the old trenches, we came upon a stone marker. It was inscribed with the name soldiers had given to one of these paths, which was then a muddy, close-packed ditch: “Rotten Row.” The First World War was horrific, with its barbed wire, poison gas, and deadly weaponry. But its troops, being human, weren’t without a sense of humor.
Today the Wood (where more than 3,000 South African soldiers lost their lives), is peaceful and silent. Sunlight filters through the trees and falls on a fairylike landscape. The eroding trenches’ mossy banks are dotted here and there with small, fragile white flowers. The air feels heavy and eternal.
The monument’s larger dirt paths follow the lines of the front. To the side of one of them stands a maker informing the visitor that the sinewy tree before them was the only one left standing here after the Battle of La Somme ended in November 1916.
“That’s hard to believe,” I remark as we leave the thick glade.
Ever prepared, Gilles opens one of the books he’s brought along.
An old photo shows a wasteland in the place of the forest we’d just seen. Fallen branches and metal and bodies are a series of tangled lines on the ground. There’s nothing in the blank white sky, except, in a corner, the branches of that single tree.
Gilles makes this trip to La Somme every year. When we’d accepted his offer to come along, he’d emailed us a schedule for the day. “And bring rubber boots,” he’d added.
An engineer by education, and a government insurance claims adjuster by trade, Gilles loves history with a deep, unwavering passion. Maybe that’s because history is something you can scrutinize. The annual trip is also, consciously or subconsciously, a sort of pilgrimage for him. Gilles’ great-granduncle was reported missing during the fighting here. His body, like that of hundreds of thousands of other soldiers, was never identified or found.
In the car, we drive between fields and valleys, houses and small villages. There are signs marking cemeteries and monuments.
Most of these signs are in English. La Somme was mainly a battle between the British and the Germans, while the French took on their foes at Verdun. Today, a huge number of visitors are Anglophones, often being carried from site to site on tour buses.
As with the Americans in Normandy, these tourists seem generally well-liked and respected in Picardie, especially because of their ancestors’ role in the First World War: here in France, memories die hard.
In a café where we’ve stopped for pommes frites (reputed to be among the best in France), a group of English tourists laughingly sits down at a table. It’s strange to think that at some point, at some cemetery, they’ll look for and find the name of one of their former relatives, a severed branch of the family tree, like the branches that littered the ground long ago at Delville Wood.
Our next destination is, actually, nowhere in particular.
“We’re here?” I ask Gilles, who’s parked in the middle of some farmers’ tilled fields.
He nods. “Put your boots on.”
Our boots are in bags in the trunk. We’d needed them for some of the other sites we’d walked through. While La Somme’s thick, omnipresent mud had mercilessly plagued the lives of the soldiers who’d been camped out here, it will never find its way into Gilles’ pristine car. I take off my shoes and begin the struggle to slide on the high riding boots I’d bought for the trip.
Later we realize how much they resemble the boots the soldiers had on during the War. The strange resemblances don’t stop there. That evening, at the Newfoundland Memorial, I’ll stare at a coat worn by a soldier in 1918. My brown wool, wide-lapelled coat is modern, a recent buy. But the two garments swimming dizzyingly together there on the surface of the display glass look so much alike, they could have been made in the same factory, at the same time.
Back in the fields, Gilles has already started to move towards the closest stretch of tilled earth.
As I walk, I look down at the uneven ground to keep from falling. Among the flint and soil, broken bottles and shards of dishes litter the ground. What tour bus has this trash come from? Or was it drunken local kids?
Gilles stops. “See this?” In his hands is a large, rusted piece of metal, long, thin…half a mortar shell. A bomb.
Jules, my fiancé, bends down. “Look!” He stands up with something between his long fingers: a bullet, complete with its casing.
I slowly realize what I’ve been seeing: the dishes and broken bottles are what remain of the soldiers’ belongings when these fields were trenches.
Jules walks several paces, bends down again. “Another bullet.”
“Every year when the farmers till their fields, things like this come up,” Gilles explains to me.
That is the first thing that makes me realize the true enormity of this war: almost a century later, the soil is still impregnated with debris.
At first, I see a lot of things on the ground that aren’t actually there. What seems to be a bullet is a piece of flint, a magical stone that can mimic any shape. That day, there are times that we mistake flint for shrapnel, or bomb parts, or bone.
But within a few minutes, I notice an object so round, it’s unmistakably not from the earth. I pick up the little ball, surprised by its weight.
“Grapeshot,” Gilles tells us, “it used to be inside one of the bombs.”
Jules looks on, awed. “That piece you’re holding could have gone right through a man.”
It’s pleasant to the touch. I cradle it in the palm of my hand.
We walk on, finding almost as much shrapnel as rocks and clumps of dirt. At one point: “Gilles — a bomb!”
Gilles rushes over and expertly extracts Jules’s discovery from the ground. It’s complete, still active. We stand, so shocked we only half wonder if we should run, while Gilles steadily walks to a corner of the field and places the bomb with its detonator pointing to the sky.
“It’s good that you saw that,” he says, brushing off his hands. “I worked in La Somme a few years ago. Sometimes farmers ride their tractors over one of these and it goes off.”
When people find still-activated bombs like that, he explains, they put them on the sides of the fields. The same for still-active grenades, of which we’ll find two before the day is out. The farmers will notice the cleared objects, and call the proper authorities to dispose of them.
La Somme is a strange place. Each season yields its harvest, and each season when seeds are sown, more of the past comes to the surface.
We spread out from each other to cover more ground, even though the sheer amount of debris and flint makes it impossible to notice more than what’s right in front of us. Not long after, Jules calls “Come look!” There, in a slight depression, are an oxidized spoon and fork. They rest the way they might have been placed by their owner when he’d set them down to counter the bombardments from the German line.
My fiancé Jules is, among other things, a respected collector of historical weaponry. But that’s not what he’s most interested in finding in these fields.
After about an hour of searching, something round and green catches my eye. I bend down to look closer and then yell to him excitedly: “A button!”
Jules is at my side in seconds.
There are more buttons, scattered around my feet. Beside them are a buckle and a strap of a boot or belt, the leather as new-looking as a piece of leather on your clothes today. Remnants of a uniform.
In a hushed voice, Jules says to me, “This means there’s a dead man underneath us.”
Of course I understand that. I understand that we’re walking over the remains of hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers, the traces of tens of dozens of horses. It’s a staggering thing to think of, destabilizing, as though the ground isn’t solid. The whole day, I’ve tried only to focus on the objects, and on abstract history. But something white is there at the end of the button pile.
Curious and innocent as little children, we crouch over it.
We can’t be sure, and we never will, but what we’re looking at is probably a fragment of a human skull.
Unafraid, I pick up the flake of bone and see the fissures in it. They look like the fissures in other skulls I’ve seen, in the Catacombs of Paris.
And unexpectedly, after all the monuments and films and photographs I’ve ever visited or viewed, these little buttons and this small piece of bone are what make me weep. It will sound like a lie or some sort of cinematic cliché, but I find myself there, in the middle of a farmer’s field, with muddy riding boots and a jacket that looks like a period costume, sobbing. I don’t know who the soldier was, and I never will. They didn’t have indestructible dog tags at the time, I later read, which is why so many bodies have never been identified.
We are crushed by that small piece of bone. I hold against my fingers a part of a man who was maybe younger than I am, who’d maybe lived less of a life. I hold in my hand part of a head that had once been held by other hands, in boredom, in sorrow, in loneliness, maybe in agony, as the months and months had oozed by like thick mud.
I take a few breaths and my sobbing ceases. But I don’t I think I’m the one who started or stopped it. That confused mire in those fields is the visual echo of my crying and the crying of so many others.
We walk towards Gilles, who is examining a piece of shrapnel.
“We just found part of a body,” Jules says.
“Where are the bones?” Gilles asks us quickly. “We have to call someone and report that.”
“Over here.” Jules and I point to where we’d just been standing.
But the field is like a desert, and the bone fragment is like a mirage. We circle the area and find nothing. The pieces of flint seem to taunt us, their color the yellow-white of a piece of skull.
We stay searching in the fields, finding and seeking other things. There in the dirt is a rusted tank tread. A dormant bomb lies nearby.
Finally, Gilles looks up. “It’s time to go,” he announces. “We’ll want to see the cathedral at Amiens before dark.”
We follow him to the car in an obedient line, and remove our boots to get into the backseat.
I feel as though we’ve spent the afternoon walking among ghosts and graves. But maybe we’re the apparitions: The Young Father. The Couple in Love. Visions of what these men never had, or weren’t able to keep.
There are a lot of ways to teach people about history. The monuments and cemeteries we saw tried to do this, often admirably. At Thiepville and the Newfoundland Monument, there are small museums that clearly and concisely explain the Battle, the War, and the lives and experiences of the soldiers. The Newfoundland Monument, known for its impressive mound crowned by a statue of a caribou, also includes the largest preserved section of trenches in La Somme.
There are books in the monuments’ gift shops, there are photographs in all the region’s cafes and stores. There are even homemade museums, like the one behind the Café le Tommy, in Pozières, where found objects from the fields are combined with dummies and preserved artifacts to create a life-sized outdoor exhibit of German and British trenches.
But for me, the best lesson was walking through those fields. The shattered plates and bottles ankle-deep, the bombs still unexploded, all suspended in grasping mud that will never dry; these are broken things that, in their breaking and their brokenness, say more than any historian or museum ever could.
La Somme isn’t France’s most popular tourist destination. But a trip to the region makes for an experience you’ll probably never forget: Here, knowledge and sorrow are cradled in pastoral surroundings, as I’d cradled a piece of grapeshot in my smooth palm.
I returned to Paris with what can only be a small shard of understanding of World War I’s immense destruction. All thanks to a stroll through the some farmers’ fields, and a man I’ve touched but will never know.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Although the names of my fellow travelers have been changed, this is a true account of our visit to La Somme’s battlefields, monuments, and graveyards known and unknown. It’s an experience that still haunts me and reminds me of the true horror of war. I posted it today in honor of the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice (end of World War I).
If you liked reading this, please clap so that others can discover it.