It is wonderful that documents from the First World War are still being uncovered. Often though, the letters and journals that are presented for publication in recent times give us just a brief insight into the lives and experiences of the authors. They may only produce a book after the addition of a considerable amount of background material. Not so this book. Apart from a brief introduction, I Survived the Somme is entirely the authentic words of an Artillery officer recorded eloquently in his diary.
As the title indicates, Charles Meeres served on the Western Front from 1915 until the end of the war, most notably on the Somme. As an artilleryman, his participation in the Battle of the Somme included the preliminary bombardment. This is usually recorded from the viewpoint of the infantry waiting in the trenches for the great attack to begin. It is interesting to read about it from one of the gunners.
Meeres explains that the bombardment, which began at 05.00 hours on 24 June 1916, was initially directed at wire-cutting. So dense and extensive was the enemy wire, this was a job that was to take two days. The guns were then turned upon the enemy’s lines.
His battery was in support of the 21st Division, whose front extended from Fricourt to South Sausage Redoubt, the brigades being numbers 94, 95, 96 and 97. The guns were 18-pounders but a howitzer battery from the 17th Division was also attached to those of the 21st Division.
Meeres’ brigade fired around 1,000 rounds a day and it was his job to supervise the ammunition supply. He had to make sure that there was sufficient ammunition on the positions, that the correct type of ammunition was being used (and that it was both close enough to the guns to be handled easily by the gunners), and ensure that the different types of ammunition were kept separate because each type demanded a different fuze.
When the attack was delivered on 1 July 1916, Meeres retired to the rear where the wagon teams were waiting. It was expected that the attack would be a great success and that the artillery would move forward and take up advanced positions behind the infantry. All that first day of the Battle of the Somme, Meeres waited with the wagon teams – as he did on the next three days. Eventually he went to Fricourt where he recorded what he saw:
“The mutilated trees raised broken limbs above a scene of utter desolation. Hardly a wall stood. Bricks, timber and household furniture blocked the road. The debris of war – abandoned rifles, bayonets, haversacks, water bottles, coats, boots, gas helmets, bombs and many ‘dud’ shells and broken shrapnel bodies – covered the ground. Deep shell-holes lay on every side. Here and there a deep, dark hole marked the broken cellar of what had been a house.”
I Survived the Somme is a fine addition to the body of first-hand accounts of the First World War and we are fortunate that Meeres’ diary has survived and is now available to all.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.