Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Somme

The Somme--my dad talks about it all the time, the history, the bravery, the stupidity/futility of that great battle in the 'war to end all wars'.

Britain lost 19,000 men on the first day. Over 420,000 British & Commonwealth casualties by the time the campaign ended in Nov the same year. The numbers are incomprehensible.

Was it worth it?

That is a difficult question to answer, but I have to assume it was worth it, for the sake of those men who died. I certainly appreciate growing up and living in a place where I can speak my mind. Freedom of speech is something I place huge value on. Something we should guard with our lives. Doesn't mean we should be rude or argumentative (honest :), but it does mean everyone has the right to an opinion, and the right to voice that opinion. From our spouses, to our kids, to bloggers, to parents, readers, writers, even politicians (darn it).

Here's to my heritage and the men, and women, who sacrificed themselves to make it as proud as it is.

Britain's oldest veteran recalls WWI (from the BBC)

Henry Allingham
Henry Allingham is one of the last living links to World War I

It is 90 years since the battle of the Somme, the bloodiest in a world war that has all but passed out of living memory.

The oldest surviving British soldier from the period is Henry Allingham, aged 110 - one of the lucky ones.

When war broke out in August 1914, some one million men joined up in the first year of the conflict, as Britain strove to bolster its standing army.

The teenage Mr Allingham, however, did not rush to enlist.

"On 4 August I wasn't too troubled," he said. "I didn't realise what it really meant."

It was only later, when he realised how severe the situation was, that the young man who grew up in Clapton, east London, decided he wanted to join the fighting which, like many others, he regarded as "an adventure".

After joining up, Mr Allingham trained as a mechanic and served with the Royal Air Service, flying patrols of the North Sea as a navigator and repairing aircraft and engines at the battles of Ypres, and at the Somme itself.

"It was the first time I went near a plane," he said, pointing out that the world's first powered flight had only taken place a few years earlier.

His first experiences of flying were disarming.

"They didn't have much speed with them. Sometimes they'd be coming along and the force of the wind would have you standing still. Sometimes you'd be flying backwards," he said.

Stroke of luck

As well as the Somme, Mr Allingham also served as an airborne spotter at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in which the British Grand Fleet established dominance of the North Sea, despite losing a number of ships.

He said his own ship, the Kingfisher, faced disaster when a German shell ricocheted and was heading directly at the ship.

However, a stroke of luck saved the crew when the shell "bounced over the top of the ship".

"Where it went I don't know but it was a saviour for us. If it hadn't [bounced], who knows, the whole ship would have been gone."

Henry Allingham in his Royal Naval Air Service uniform
I've always said the men in the trenches were what won the war for us
Henry Allingham, World War I veteran

While Mr Allingham faced obvious dangers, he thinks he had an easy time compared to those who served in the infantry.

"On the western front, men in the trenches stood in water up to their knees. They had to eat and sleep in that water. How did they manage?" he said.

He was full of admiration for those men who, he said, regularly had to march for miles at a time, only to stop and dig trenches before marching on again.

"They were like hermit crabs. But I've always said the men in the trenches were what won the war for us."

Following his service at Ypres and the Somme, he was awarded France's highest military honour, the Legion d'Honneur in 2003.

And after losing two of his World War I medals - the British War Medal and the Victory Medal - in the Blitz, Mr Allingham was presented with them again at a special ceremony at Eastbourne in East Sussex, where he now lives, in February 2005.

I don't know if there is a secret [to long life] but keeping within your capacity is vital
Henry Allingham

Mr Allingham's military service did not end with the Great War and during World War II he worked on magnetic mine counter measures.

He retired to Eastbourne 40 years ago, where he has outlived both his wife and his two daughters, who both died in their 80s.

In August 2004, Mr Allingham led the congregation in a reading of the Lord's Prayer at the Cenotaph in London in an event to mark the start of World War I and on Armistice Day in November 2004 he laid a wreath at the Cenotaph.

Asked to sum up the secret of his long life, he said: "I don't know if there is a secret, but keeping within your capacity is vital."


  1. PS. I should add some people really shouldn't be allowed to open their mouths in public :D You decide who :)

  2. Toni - This was such a nice thing to do, honoring someone who has given so much to maintain the freedoms we so readily take for granted. Thanks for the reminder that others died to give that to us. I have to know more about The Somme.

  3. Scott--it isn't anything on my part, except giving a respect where it is really due. Glad you were interested though.

  4. Very nice.These men should be honored, they sacrifice so much.Thanks, sweetie!

  5. I'm not that familiar with WWI so thanks for the info. I'll go google the Somme.

    it isn't anything on my part

    A lot of people wouldn't have even bothered. Good job.

  6. Fabulous story, Toni. Thank you so much.

    WWI seems to be the "forgotten" war. There isn't nearly as many books or movies about it.

  7. What a wonderful thing. To have a living memory to remind our generation, and a few before ours, of the sacrifices that were made. Thank you for reminding me, time to look something up to teach the kidlets.

  8. Wasn't The Somme in August? I thought the worst battle of the war as the Battle of the Bulge, but that may have been WWII - mixing up the two WW's is easy to do. Good for you for posting this -imagine outliving your wife and daughters! I wouldn't want to do it! And he's right, the real heros were the guys fighting in the trenches, in the stinking water, and taking the mustard gases, and getting shell shock...there was a soldier who boarded with my grandmother after the war and slept with his pistol under his pillow all the time (my dad was just little) and he was shell-shocked; couldn't stand the TV, radio, or any loud sounds. You didn't dare wake him up above a whisper. She didn't let any of the 5 children near his bedroom because of the pistol...

  9. Started July 1st 1916 according to the BBC, so through August too.

    Laurie, your grandmother's lodger must have gone through hell.

    I'm surprised by how little people know about it--but all my dad ever watched when I was growing up was military history programs.

  10. We are so very fortunate to live in a country of peace and tolerance.

    Each year on Remembrance Day though, I watch the attending numbers grow smaller and smaller and fear that our society is forgetting the sacrifices that were made for freedom.

    Posts like this one, Toni, remind us to honor those who have served and why they did so. Thanks.

  11. What a great tribute. It is true, you don't hear as much of WWI as you do the others, so it is nice to know there are people out there that help keep the memory alive.