Somme Interview with Lyn MacDonald

The author and historian Lyn MacDonald was one of a handful of writers in the 1970s and 80s that in many respect helped to revive interest in the Great War. At times I think we forget what a debt we owe these authors from that period who often worked in isolation, with virtually no public engagement or interest in what they did. Their work is a lasting legacy, and while many criticise Lyn MacDonald’s work as ‘just’ oral history, the voices of the men and women she interviewed would have been lost without her. In my own mind works like this Somme book have become WW1 ‘classics’.

Lyn MacDonald (The Star newspaper)

Lyn MacDonald (The Star newspaper)

This interview dates from 1983 when her book on the Somme came out. I was only sixteen at the time and I recorded this from the radio, in eager anticipation of the book appearing. I have the copy next to me now; given as a birthday present by my grandmother who had herself witnessed chalk covered soldiers returning wounded from the Somme in her home town of Colchester. She told me she couldn’t read the book as it brought back too many painful memories.

Lyn MacDonald, Somme

Lyn MacDonald, Somme

Lyn MacDonald is retired now and perhaps will never write another WW1 book again, and part of me feels sorry that she existed and worked in a  time before social media and the current public fascination with the Great War, because I know she would have embraced it somehow. But her books continue to capture the interest of new generations who come to the subject and the Somme is still in print, and no author could ask for more.

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Somme 50th Anniversary: Veterans Return

I am currently digitising parts of a scrapbook kept during the 50th Anniversary period of the Great War. It contains a fascinating insight into attitudes at that time, and many letters to newspapers from veterans – some of them well known Great War authors – putting their view across. Much of this will appear at a later stage on my WW1 Centenary website, but as a first offering he is a small Somme piece from the scrapbook.

This article was published in the Sunday Times on 3rd July 1966 and was entitled ‘The Field Where 900 of one regiment died’. It was written by one of their correspondents who had travelled to the Somme to cover the event. The photograph above showed some of the veterans present and was captioned “The valley of the shadow of death: those who lived look now from a German strong-point across No Man’s Land to their own lines – and their comrades graves.”

The main body of the article is reproduced below. It gives an interesting insight into press attitudes to the Great War at the time – some of which, it seems, has little changed in fifty years. It has to be viewed in the context of the times, of course; on the reverse of this clipping is an article about raids on Hanoi and ‘hopes of peace’ in Vietnam. War, in a very different way to 1914-18, was still very much on people’s minds at that time.

“Thiepval is dominated by the Lutyens memorial, an ugly red-brick arch. Perhaps the ugliness was deliberate… Overcome by memories, the British veterans of the Somme have lost their national reserve. Many wept at the Thiepval memorial ceremony when two Canadian DC3s flew dramatically low to flood Flanders poppies over lines of British, French and Canadian troops, plus 500 best suited old campaigners.

In the drab estaminets of Albert and Bapaume, where even the most anarchic French teenagers have jostled each other to help the veterans in trouble with their excruciating Great War French, the atmosphere has been party-like. But every so often some reflexive memory of the Somme horrors has stopped conversations in their tracks.

“My brother, that was Sgt Moyrah Williamson, was killed on September 16 – I think at Ginchy. We managed to find his bones in 1931.” said Mr Phillip Williamson, a Preston poultry farmer who fought at La Boisselle.

“My brother disappeared somewhere at Ypres.” said Arthur Morris, another veteran, who comes from Stechford, Birmingham.

This kind of dialogue of death has been commonplace in the last 48 hours.

Colonel Roberts, of Birchington, Kent and his wife Nelly May… were counting names at Thiepval. “That’s where my men were murdered.” said the Colonel, pointing to the deserted field overhung by a haze of summer butterflies.

“I’ve counted 900 names in my husband’s regiment, the Duke of Westminsters.”, Mrs Roberts said. “We saw my brother’s name at the Arras Memorial.”

There has been no chauvinism, no military pomposity and no hypocrisy at the Somme commemoration. The occasion seems to have defied anyone’s attempt to vulgarise it. Even commercial exploitation has been absent.

At the end of the Thiepval ceremony, the black staff cars drove off imperiously, carrying the British Ambassador, the French Minister for War Veterans, and a clutch of Generals, red-tabbed, red-faced and Sam Browne-belted.

“It’s just like old times,” said a veteran waiting with the others in the sun for their transport to arrive, “I always knew I should have joined the Staff.”

They went on waiting in front of the memorial on this turf so immaculately maintained by the War Graves Commission. Thiepval is the only place for miles where the flower beds don’t have a sign telling the public not to walk on them.

“They would be irrelevant here,” Mr Hoadley said, “I think everyone understands what this earth cost. The only people who really know about it are underneath. I think this anniversary will be the last. When it comes to 75 years, we’ll all be dead too, and the Somme will seem as abstract as Waterloo.”