As we approach the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, it becomes more important than ever to recognise the sacrifices that were being made by the troops fighting at the Front. There were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and whilst researching Shell Shocked Britain, it became clear that post war estimates of approximately 60, 000 shell shock victims in that offensive alone, is still a significant underestimate. Many survived the battle only to return home undiagnosed, and mentally shattered. I am always interested in hearing stories from those who know something of the war-time experience of the men and women in their family, and here is a particularly interesting piece by No wriggling favourite Pamela Davenport, who has sought to understand her ancestor’s experience the better by studying art works of the period.
To his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren Albert Edward Davenport was a distant and cold person, preferring to spend the time after work in his local public house rather than at home. Little is known about Albert, except that he had joined the army in 1908, but never completed his 7 years’ service. Instead he was “bought out” of the army by his mother Emma two years later and returned to his family’s terraced home in Bury Lancashire. Four years later the world was turned upside down and Albert would be on the move again.
By August 1914 it had become inevitable that Britain would join forces with the Allies against a German Army that was determined to dominate Europe. When the war commenced, Britain was the only major European power not to have a mass conscripted army. In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men were encouraged to volunteer for service in Lord Kitchener’s new armies. With nationalistic feeling strong, many British soldiers departed for training with a copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems tucked into their kitbags. Military service and death was seen as both heroic and noble.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Meanwhile in Bury, Lancashire, Albert now aged 28, was a painter and decorator and a father of 4 children. He enlisted in October 1914, as a volunteer in the 2nd 5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Whether he was attracted by Kitchener’s recruitment strategies, the valiant words of Rupert Brooke, or the fact that soldiers serving overseas would be able to claim additional money for his wife and dependants, it is difficult to know. By 6th October 1914 he packed up all his troubles in his ‘old kit bag and smiled, smiled, smiled’, as he headed off into the unknown.
Albert, like other new recruits, would have had three months basic training, which was intended to build up physical fitness and confidence, instilling discipline and obedience, as well as teaching basic military skills. This image of the unknown Drummer and Bugler from the 2nd 5th battalion, provides a brief glimpse into the lives of young soldiers who were unprepared for the horrors to be faced on The Western Front. By May 1915 Private Albert Edward Davenport 200845, was on the way to France and possibly the greatest and most terrifying adventure of his life.
2016 marks the centenary of The Battle of The Somme, which was fought between 1st July and 1st November 1916 and was one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone Britain suffered more than 20,000 fatalities and over 57,000 casualties. It is difficult to imagine how the heroic sentiments, which had been displayed in 1914, could rest easily with the terrible devastation experienced on the Western Front. Although news would have reached Albert’s family about events in France, little is known of his life on the Western Front, as no letters or photographs survive. But Albert did survive this battle.
The overwhelming loss of life which was experienced in the Battle of the Somme was partly as a result of the German army proving to be more experienced in the tactics of defence against Allied offensives. This proved to be costly to the British and Allies on the Western Front and added significantly to the length of the campaign.
As they retreated in November 1916, the Germans left desolation in their wake. Not a shelter that might serve as a billet, not a road or a bridge, not a blade of grass or a wisp of hay that would feed horses; this was truly vandalism on a gargantuan scale. It is difficult to imagine how Albert coped with the havoc and destruction of both his battalion and the landscape.
To gain some insight into Albert’s experiences between 1915 – 1917, I have chosen the art of two of the most distinguished artists of this remarkable era of social and political change. In contrast to Brooke’s patriotic sonnets, as years of devastating losses and with no clear resolution to endless fighting, there was a general change in mood from idealism to realism. Many war artists offered a harsh realistic visual depictions of the death and destruction that resulted from combat. A current exhibition at The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester highlights some of the graphic images produced by C.R.W Nevinson and Paul Nash. The paintings convey the pathos at the plight and experience of the ordinary soldiers who became nameless heroes. Their “Visons of the Front 1916-1918” do not glorify war and were intended to shock public reaction to the losses in battle. These shocking images still resonate as much today as they did 100 years ago.
Both Nash and Nevinson emerged from a remarkable group of artists from the Slade School of Art and like many other artists, writers and poets ended up on the Western Front. Both saw themselves as messengers of the terrifying realism on the Western front. It must have been a sense of cruel irony that the destruction and depravity of the battle field fed the imagination of these incredible artists.
“I realise no one in England knows what the scene of the war is like. They cannot imagine the daily and nightly background of the fighter. If I can, I will show them…”
In Nevison’s painting Paths of Glory (above) the starkness and irony is apparent. The viewer is presented with the sight of two dead soldiers lying in the battlefield mud. It is difficult to identify or identify with these unnamed heroes, as their faces are obscured and their bodies merge with the murky earth. A death in a waste land, a dreadful sense of a loss of identity and a waste of young lives. It is little wonder the official censor of paintings and drawings, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee censored this painting, what type of message would the sight of rotting and bloated British soldiers convey to the British public? But these were the type of images which Albert would be faced with.
Nash’s experience as an officer on the Western Front and an official war artist completely transformed the way in which he painted. His early work was romantic and light hearted. By 1917, as he travelled towards Belgium, he began to note changes in the landscape. In one of his most famous paintings, The Menin Road (above) we are drawn into a completely ruined landscape with an apocalyptic sky, a wasteland of mud and standing water. This is really a strange disturbing and alienating place. The scene shows a place of chaos, irrevocable change and wreckage. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could survive physically, emotionally and psychologically from this experience. It is estimated that over 750,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed in the trenches surrounding Ypres, but Albert wasn’t one of them.
Albert was to see action at Hallencourt, the 4th phase of The Somme and the first phase of the third battle of Ypres, but this was not an enviable European tour. Having survived the Battle of the Somme Albert was promoted to corporal in March 1917, but six months later he received an honourable discharge under the category “No longer physically fit”, and awarded the Silver War Badge.
Although awarded 3 medals, the Star Medal, the Victory Medal, the British Medal, Albert, a weary but resolute British Tommy, did not return to a “Land for Heroes”. Instead Albert returned to a country which had lost a generation. Wilfred Owen’s haunting elegy Anthem for Doomed Youth is a judgement on the experience of war, the impact on the “sad shires” and those who were left to mourn.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Albert returned to his family a changed man, dying aged 71 years in 1953. He never mentioned his experiences in France and Belgium, post-traumatic stress syndrome was a condition which was not recognised in 1918. But Albert would ruefully reflect and contemplate on “each slow dusk a drawing- down of blinds” and the many young men who became doomed youths.
Sadly his war records and his medals are missing, but it is thanks to the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum in Bury that I have been able to provide some insight into Albert’s army life.