Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

July 1st marks one hundred years since the whistles blew on the offensive that would start the battle that would later become known as the Battle of the Somme.

This campaign has become indelibly etched on the consciousness of the country. The Somme has come to stand for the horrors of trench warfare, for the Sheer awfulness of the Western Front and for the First World War as a whole.

In fact, so large is the shadow of the Somme, you could be forgiven for believing it was the only thing that happened in the entire war.

Sadly, for all the unimaginable scale of the Somme and everything it entailed, this is not the case. Service personnel were in harm’s way and paying the ultimate price long before July 1st 1916 and long after November 18th.

In spite of banging the drum for widening consciousness of the war beyond the Somme, its shadow is just too big not to commemorate.

A single person losing their life is tragic enough, fifty-seven thousand casualties is beyond imagining.

Fifty-seven thousand men killed or injured.

In one day.

And then the campaign went on for four and a half months.

Adding to the clamour

Much has been said on the horror of the Somme. Writers, poets and commentators far more eloquent than I have created a huge canon of judgements, commentaries and moving tributes about the battle and its impact.

I will not muddy the waters.

Instead, as I have done before, I will clear the stage and move aside to let someone else have the spotlight. Allow me to introduce you to William Charles Brown RMLI.

William Charles Brown

William Brown Joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in November 1914. In April 1915 he was given a sun hat shipped out for Gallipoli.

No words can describe it. The conditions were horrible, lack of water, disease, stench, heat and most horrible of all: the flies and lice!


He was a man who very quickly became used to the discomforts of the field. Then, on the second Sunday in July he was

Up to the line once more trench digging. I was carrying a pick…and I was hit by a shrapnel bullet through my right thumb, it didn’t break or remove it…


He was offered medical leave but chose to remain to look after an old friend who had contracted dysentery. Eventually the wound became infected and he was invalided to Egypt.

At hospital he was offered a medical discharge but thought he had recovered enough and opted instead to return to active service

Probably the biggest regret and mistake of my whole life.


He was instead sent to the Western Front to join the Royal Naval Division.


And we finished up on the Somme.

By Autumn 1916 he was in the Somme as a Vickers machine-gunner in the Royal Naval Division. He seems relatively sanguine about the conditions:

Autumn had set in and we had a lot of rain and the trenches and land had become a quagmire. To make matters worse it had turned bitterly cold. From now on we were invariably soaked to the skin and often up to our waist in mud and water. Its most amazing that anyone could possibly survive such conditions.


This is without the enemy even getting a mention.

His moment came with the Battle of Ancre, at the end of the Somme.

We took up our positions and waited for zero hour at 5.45am. The Res had mined …Jerry’s trenches and these mines were being sprung at zero…Bang on the dot up went the mines and every machine gun along the front opened up, the attack was under way.
From the brow of the hill…was a quagmire and unoccupied….I shared a shell hole with 2 or 3 mates. We had suffered pretty heavily by this time but the attack was going very well all along the line.
When we got the order to advance I heaved my gun up on to my shoulder and climbed out of the shell hole pulling myself up with my right hand. As I put my hand on the rim to get to the top I had a bullet through it. I stopped and looked at it; then had a good mutter as it didn’t look like enough to go back with yet it would be damned inconvenient to carry on with.


This seems bad enough but then he had a proper look at it:

The bullet had gone through my knuckles in front of my little finger and it appeared to have split my thumb.


Bear that in mind when he decided to carry on rather than getting it seen to. However pretty soon it seemed he had underestimated it.

…so I had another look at my hand. The two middle fingers were hanging down there was a gaping hole through the palm. I could have poke four fingers through, and instead of the thumb being split it was gone. And when I lifted it up for a better view the two fingers hung down the back of my wrist and a slab of meat flopped down the front of my wrist from where my thumb had been.


Ouch. So he carried out a little first aid on the wound.

I lifted the fingers back up and over into the palm, and slipped my fingers under the slab back over the stump and held it in place.


It was all up for him so he handed off his gun to a member of the Honourable Artillery Company called Beresford and set off for the field station. Just then a shell exploded right behind him.

When the smoke cleared both Beresford and the gun had vanished.


He then began a long and fruitless quest for a dressing station. When he eventually found one..

I poked my head round the entrance, saw a table and a form so I sat on the form and promptly passed out.


William Brown’s involvement in the offensive had lasted about two and a half hours.

The tale of his treatment and recovery is one for another day, but he lived until March 1971.

The numbers game

I know this is a graphic account but there is a reason. William Brown sustained a relatively minor injury. This graphic tale was repeated nearly half a million times over the course of the Somme. Half a million tales, all as bloody as this one. Half a million men, each of whom had to experience the kind of injury and pain that, thankfully, few of us have to face now.

When I think about the Somme, it’s not the numbers that get me. It’s the fact that even a single one is too tragic to bear. It’s too tragic and yet, in the scheme of the war, insignificant.

That’s the power of the Somme: to make something as traumatic as this insignificant.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments