I have an almost-16 year old son. I can’t imagine him being at the First Day of the Somme. Yet my great grandmother was in that situation, on the 1st July, 1916. In fact, it’s likely both her sons were there – her eldest, barely 18, was in The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
My grandad, Billie, was only 15 when he ran away to join the Army. His first action was the first day of the Somme. He was a bugle boy, in the West Yorkshires Regiment. I can’t imagine a 15 year old child walking into the bloodiest battle in history – over 30,000 soldiers died that day. He was there. He came out alive. His brother was to die at Passchendaele, the following year.
Not long after, he was brought home but re-enlisted the first chance he got. When he returned home to Leeds, he was the only young man of his age for streets around, according to a younger brother.
My grandfather went on to live – and fight – through two World Wars. After the War, he was a sargeant in the TA so called up on the first day of WWII.
My favourite WW1 poem is by fellow Leeds lad, Isaac Rosenberg. Another one who didn’t make it out alive.
Break Of Day In The Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.