“Long dollops of liquid mud surrounded them in the air. Like black pancakes being tossed. He thought: `Thank God I did not write to her. We are being blown up!’ The earth turned like a weary hippopotamus. It settled down slowly over the face of Lance-Corporal Duckett who lay on his side, and went on in a slow wave.”
No blood, no severed limbs, but the prose lends a sense of unreality, of a mind unable to comprehend what is happening to it. Perceptions come rapidly but without linkage, like the pulses of a strobe light. “We are being blown up!” echoes the pathetic cry of Macduff’s son: “He has kill’d me, mother.” The German artillery attack, as perceived by Christopher Tietjens, has literally turned the world upside down. Ford Madox Ford, a shellshocked veteran of the Somme, describes experiences he knew first-hand in A Man Could Stand Up (1926), the third novel in his Great War tetralogy Parade’s End (1924-28):
“The earth sucked slowly and composedly at his feet.
“It assimilated his calves, his thighs. It imprisoned him above the waist. His arms being free, he resembled a man in a life-buoy. The earth moved him slowly. It was solidish.”
In July 1915, at age forty-two, Ford enlisted in the Welch Regiment. A year later, twelve days after the start of the battle, he was sent to the Somme in northeastern France in time for the bloodiest one-day engagement in English military history. Ford was blown into the air by the explosion of a German shell. He suffered memory loss and for three weeks remained incapacitated. Near the end of 1916, Ford wrote to Joseph Conrad: “I began to take a literary view of the war.” He was hospitalized again with lung problems exacerbated by exposure to poison gas, and in March 1917 was sent home as an invalid. For the rest of the war he was stationed at Redcar on the North Yorkshire coast, where he helped train troops. He was promoted to lieutenant and then to captain, and in 1918 held the temporary rank of brevet major. On Armistice Day, Ford was still at Redcar. He was discharged from the army on Jan. 7, 1919.
The 141-day Battle of the Somme started a century ago, on July 1, 1916. British forces that first day suffered more than 57,000 killed or wounded. The dead numbered 19,240. In four months of fighting, more than one million men were killed or wounded at the Somme. Sir John Keegan writes of the Somme in The Face of Battle (1976):
“Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences much the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Auschwitz—guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger—and not only from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly toward the foot of the page; but also from professional soldiers. Anger is the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why did they let the attack go on? Why did they not stop one battalion following in the wake of another to join it in death?”