Not counting the week-long preparatory bombardment, and the enormous mines that were set off under the German lines 10 minutes before the assault proper, the Battle of the Somme began precisely at 7:30am on a beautiful, sunny July 1st, 1916. At that moment the British troops crawled out of their trenches, and formed into orderly ranks to march across "No-Man's Land" and occupy the deserted German trenches (the artillery bombardment would have cut the barbed wire and killed the defenders). One Captain Nevill had given each of his platoons a soccer ball to kick-off as the attack began. It would be a grand "walk-over." That was the plan. In reality, men were killed instantly before they could even climb out of their trenches, Captain Nevill was one of them. The air was filled with flying metal. The Germans had survived the preparatory bombardment, and were manning their machine guns and artillery. Wave after wave of British soldiers were slaughtered, mowed down as they bunched up against the uncut wire. On that first day of the battle (which it's almost impossible to imagine would go on for four months) the British Army suffered almost 60,000 casualties, over 20,000 dead. A record.
In the climax of David Jones' epic prose-poem In Parenthesis, the protagonist John Ball attacks Mametz Wood, along with his unit, on the morning of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916. As he goes forward, he watches as most of his fellows around him are ripped apart, but Ball somehow makes it through unscathed until that evening. When ordered to take part in a subsequent, follow-up attack, Ball is knocked down, hit in the legs by machinegun fire, and begins his long crawl back. Along the way he discards most of his equipment (except for his gas mask, which he thinks might come in handy). However, his rifle has special meaning: as any soldier knows, a warrior and his weapon are one: it defines who he is, lose it and he loses his identity. As he retreats, Ball carries on a conversation with himself: should he leave the rifle? He hears the voices of his drill instructors driving home the importance of care of arms, the individuality of each soldier's weapon, the intimacy that he should share with it. In Chanson de Roland, mortally wounded Roland tries to break his sword Durendal against a stone, but cannot, so instead tucks it under his body and dies. So at last, John Ball relinquishes the symbol of his soldierly identity, his rifle, and must "leave itunder the oak."
And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight It's difficult with the weight of the rifle. Slung so, it swings its full weight, With you going blindly on It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious * * * At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung You're clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat From In Parenthesis, part 7, pp. 183-86. David Jones (1895-1974)
And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
It's difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Slung so, it swings its full weight, With you going blindly on
It is not to be broken on the brown stone under the gracious
* * *
At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung
You're clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
From In Parenthesis, part 7, pp. 183-86.
David Jones (1895-1974)