‘The aftermath of an earthquake!’ Do the words express the reality before us as we move along the mile of road between Albert and La Boisselle! Hardly. The earth-shudder that visits a volcanic district may topple towns and villages into ruins in a few minutes. It does not tear and grind and pound what it has overturned, through hour after hour, till there is nothing left but mud and dust. ‘TOWARDS THE GOAL’, MRS HUMPHRYWARD (JOHN MURRAY, 1917).
For obvious reasons, most people who visit the Crater and other parts of the Somme battlefield today tend to be preoccupied with the terrible carnage of July 1st, 1916, when the mines exploded and the British troops went ‘over the top’ into a whirlwind of steel.
It’s useful, though, to be reminded that the battle itself went on for more than four long months, and the battlefield was active well into 1917, before the Germans withdrew to their prepared positions along the Hindenburg Line.
One early witness to events in 1917, including in the area around La Boisselle, was an author called Mrs Humphry Ward, a well-established novelist and controversial campaigner, who wrote a series of articles for the former United States President Theodore Roosevelt, which resulted in three books – England’s Effort – Six Letters to an American Friend (1916), Towards the Goal (1917), and Fields ofVictory (1919).
Mrs Ward was effectively on what we would today call an ‘embed’ – an official visit to the battlefield, escorted and guided by British officers. She describes what she found in chapter 5 of Towards the Goal. We even know the precise date of her visit. It was March 3rd, 1917, little more than a month before the U.S.A. entered the war.
Her first stop is Albert. ‘No one who has seen it in war-time will ever forget the market-place of Albert – the colossal heaps of wreck that fill the centre of it.’
She’s uncomplimentary about the Basilica. She calls it ‘pretentious’, in ‘the worst neo-Catholic taste’.
She reports, though, that the church ‘has been so gashed and torn and broken, while still substantially intact, that all its mean and tawdry ornament has disappeared in a certain strange dignity of ruin; and last, the hanging Virgin, holding up the Babe above the devastation below, in dumb protest to God and man. The gilded statue, which now hangs at right angles to the tower, has, after its original collapse under shell-fire, been fixed in this position by the French engineers; and it is to be hoped that when the church comes to be rebuilt the figure will be left as it is’.
And then a remarkably perspicacious comment: ‘A few more minutes, and we are through the town, moving slowly along the Albert-Bapaume road, that famous road which will be a pilgrim’s way for generations to come’.
As Mrs Ward approaches La Boisselle, she notes that the natural surface of the ground has disappeared, as well as all vegetation. ‘Villages’, she writes, ‘are churned into the soil’.
There are no continuous shell-holes, just ‘raw tumbled earth, from which all the natural covering of grass and trees and all the handiwork of man have been stripped and torn and hammered away, so that it has become a dark wound on the countryside’. She passes the gaping remains of old trenches and dug-outs, and remarks on how cellars, pits and quarries had provided cover, and the Germans built strong redoubts, mine-fields and concrete gun emplacements.
At one point, she leaves the car ‘to look into the dug-outs which line the road’, and ‘then Captain F guides us a little further to a huge mine crater, and we sink into the mud which surrounds it, while my eyes look out over what was once Ovillers, northward towards Thiepval, and the slopes behind which runs the valley of the Ancre’.
She doesn’t name it, but it’s highly likely that at this point, she stood at the lip of Lochnagar Crater.
She and her party motor by the cemetery of La Boisselle – ‘this heaped confusion of sandbags, of broken and overturned crosses, of graves tossed into a common ruin’ -along the sunken road towards Contalmaison, which she describes as a ‘ruin’. With them on the road: ‘New troops coming up now go barging across in the most light-hearted way’.
On the way, she notes the ‘amazing amount of human energy, contrivance and endurance’ dedicated to clearing the battlefield, largely by the Royal Engineers and Labour Battalions. Burial parties cover ‘human fragments’ with chlorate of lime, and battlefield litter is brought back to salvage dumps.
‘Enough ground has to be levelled and shell-holes filled up for the driving through of new roads and railways, and the provision of places where tents, huts, dumps etc are to stand…There are hundreds of men, carts and horses at work on the roads, and everywhere one sees the signs of new railway lines, either of the normal breadth or the narrow gauge needed for the advanced carriage of food and ammunition. Here is a great encampment of Nissen huts; here fresh preparations for a food or ammun-ition dump. With one pair of eyes, one can only see a fraction of what is going on…’
For Mrs Humphry Ward in 1917, the battle had been a great success and victory was certain. She couldn’t, of course, have known that the battlefield she explored and described so well was to be fought over twice more in 1918 – during the German spring attack known as the Kaiserschlacht, and then during the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive which led to the Armistice.
Her writing on the First World War was a tiny part of her work. She was born Mary Augusta Arnold in Tasmania in 1851 – part of the famous Arnold dynasty. Her grandfather was Dr Thomas Arnold of Rugby and her uncle was the poet Matthew Arnold.
She began writing for magazines, and produced a highly-acclaimed but controversial novel called ‘Robert Elsmore’. She published no fewer than 24 other works of fiction between 1881 and 1919, as well as many other political and campaigning works.
She helped establish Somerville College, one of the first women’s colleges in Oxford, and masterminded the Passmore Edwards Settlement, which set up special schools for disabled children. She became increasingly conservative – anti-Boer, anti-Home Rule and anti-female suffrage. In 1908, she set up the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. She became an OBE in 1919 – the year before she died.
She’s buried at Aldbury in Hertfordshire, near her country home, Stocks, later owned by Playboy executive Victor Lownes and used as a training camp for Playboy bunnies.
To learn more about Mrs Humphry Ward, see: www.britannica.com/biography/Mrs-Humphry-Ward,