Somme Bodies. Somebodies Son
Somme Bodies Somebodies Son
In 2007 I travelled with my mother and sister to The Somme in northern France seeking the grave of a relative killed in WW1.
Alex Halkett had been a footballer and captain of Aberdeen FC and volunteered to fight, no doubt drafted into one of the many well intentioned but ill fated 'pals regiments'.
He was killed aged 35. Older than many whose bodies once scattered the fields and are now arranged with Capability Brown style symmetry.
We found the grave outside Sailly Au Bois a sleepy town between Arras and Amiens. He died on 22nd February 1917. A gunner, injured one day and died the next. Who knows what went through his mind in the time it took to die but like each of the gravestones in every one of the cemeteries, beneath, lies somebodies son.
We arrived on the first day at Vimy Ridge, a giant white limestone structure split in two and surrounded by sheep. The white of the sheep echoing the central white structure. A sentinel standing sentient and serene, benevolently overseeing a once bloodied landscape. It is set at the high point like a white singularity and in a strange irony the sheep maintain a patrol acting as unwitting sappers for a land where unexploded shells to this day are still lurking.
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” -Alexander the Great
Vimy Ridge is Canadian soil gifted by the French and tended by Canadian citizens. A distant hum of traffic drowned out by birds and the breeze. The sculpture is immense and powerful both in scale and the minimalist use of figures, heads hung in shame and despair. Beneath, lists and lists of names of the dead now fight for space, for recognition.
Ghosts of soldiers in an overcrowded parade whispering, "That's me".
On departures we saw a graveyard, the first we had seen and so stopped off. I wandered aimlessly looking at the rows of graves. Two names often appeared on a single head stone, the result of not being able to distinguish mangled body parts. More often, the simple phrase,
“A soldier of the Great War, Known unto God”was all that appeared.
The absence of dog tags meant identifying bodies torn apart by flying metal was often not possible. Now we have DNA analysis, then they did not.
Soldiers from the London Scottish Regiment made me think of my rugby playing days. My first day at London Scottish it was commented on how refreshing it was to hear a Scottish accent. Most players, either having lost theirs or never having had one. It was no longer a pre-requiste to have Scottish ancestry to play for the club. A pals regiment but under a sporting banner.
In the background my sister called out.
“Where did you live in Edinburgh? Your first flat.”
“Strathearn Road”, I replied.
“You’d better look at this.”
At the entrance to each graveyard is a book listing all of the soldiers buried there. The first page she turned to and the first name she looked at was that of William A Allan of 70 Strathearn Road Edinburgh. 20,000 people died on the first day alone of fighting in The Somme.
One day I will go back but if you have the chance I’d urge you to go. There is now a peace and calm to the area, as it should be and I have tried to capture this in these images. I hope you have time to take a minute and look at each one.