1 July 2016

At 07:28 last Friday, 1 July, I was standing with hundreds of others on the edge of the Lochnagar Crater, near La Boisselle in the valley of the Somme, scattering the petals of poppies into the wind. It was at this place, and at this time, 100 years earlier, that the Battle of the Somme commenced. A vast mine had been laid by the Royal Engineers, and it was the detonation of the mine that acted as the signal for this part of the British offensive.  

It was to be a battle of a million casualties, and of no decisive outcome.

The First World War arouses the most intense of emotions in Britain, and they do not seem to have diminished as the years have passed. The Somme offensive is perhaps the greatest single touchstone for those emotions. Personally, I feel myself caught in the crossfire.

People of my age in Britain never learned about the First World War in school. It may have been history to us, but it was current affairs to many of those who taught us and who set the syllabuses. We had to find out about it for ourselves. I started to do that in my 20s and, to some extent, have been doing it ever since.

We can probably all agree that, had they known what was to happen, every single nation, every single politician and monarch, every single combatant in that war, would have striven to avoid it, and would surely have succeeded. But the same can be said about the Iraq war, and about many wars, and it isn’t much help. There is never hindsight. And attitudes are always what they are, not what they later become.

So, while it is impossible not to regard the First World War as an unmitigated catastrophe for European civilisation, not least for the disastrous peace treaty that followed it, and the rise of Nazism that followed that, I cannot yet persuade myself that I would have felt any different from most other people, and from all politicians, in the circumstances of 1914.

It is also hard to be unaffected by the fact that both my grandfathers fought in the war, and that they didn’t consider (or, if they did, would never have admitted it) that the war should not have been fought, or that their friends and family died in vain. This in turn seems to give me a personal stake in the war, which means I cannot regard it with objectivity, as an historical event alone.

That is why I wanted to be on the Somme for the centenary. To remember my grandfathers, James Powell and “Micky” Michell Clarke, who both survived the war. To remember two great-uncles, Rolf Neill and William Michell Clarke, who did not. To remember a great-grandfather, John Michell Clarke, a distinguished physician and academic in civilian life who, at the age of nearly 60, tended to the wounded of France, and eventually died of his own wounds. To remember another relative, James Dermot Neill, a Lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps, who died on the first day of the offensive, 1 July 1916, and who is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. And, by extension, to remember a generation of my fellow countrymen, and a world that was lost for ever in 1914.

This would have been a poignant weekend in any event. But there is no denying that it was given added poignancy by the referendum result. With the exception of the Crimean War, Britain spent the hundred years after 1815 having as little as possible to do with Europe. On one view of history, the First World War was to some extent the product of that policy. On that view, one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths on the Somme was the death of the idea that Britain could remain aloof from continental Europe.

The crater at Lochnagar is deep, but the land around it is high. I stood on the rim of the crater, fields of ripening corn stretched in all directions, and tried to imagine that landscape a hundred years earlier: scarred by trenches, deafened by the sound of gunfire, blanketed with the smoke of the artillery, and with not a single thing growing. Not for the first time, I felt grateful that, unlike my father and my grandfathers, I have not needed to fight a war. Not for the first time recently, I felt how easy it has become for all of us to take the lotus-eating life for granted.

It has been a privilege to be here and, up to a point, it has felt a duty. These personal links will not endure for a great deal longer, and they need to be protected while they do. I once knew someone whose grandfather had known a soldier who had fought at Waterloo. I had an elderly relative, whom I never met but could have done, who heard some of the first shots fired in the American Civil War.

In 60 years’ time, my step-grandchildren might say they remember having a grandfather whose grandfathers fought in the First World War. And I expect they will still be trying to make sense of that war, and others, just as I am.