One hundred years ago tomorrow, a terrible event happened that would change the face of British warfare, forever robbing the lives of men and boys, not to mention sons, daughters, nieces and nephews who would never get the chance to be born. This week, we invite Westminster Guide Charlie Foreman of London War Walks to give us a taste of 1916.
At 7.30 am on 1st July 1916 tens of thousands of British troops left their trenches on the Somme and walked slowly into the greatest massacre ever experienced by the British army. Twenty thousand died.
Back in London, anyone reading the Sunday Pictorial over breakfast the next morning would have been delighted to read that 16 miles of the German front had been captured. Except it hadn’t – and the Sunday Pictorial was just typical of a programme of misinformation so complete that very few people back in Blighty had much idea of the enormity of the catastrophe.
With those 20,000 dead came 37,000 wounded – their plight in many ways more urgent and immediate. Most of the twenty hospital trains, ordered up to the front in preparation for the offensive had not arrived. And in the delay more men died.
It was days before the hospital ships got them across the channel and a succession of further trains took them up to London. Troops had been leaving from the London railway termini and coming back wounded ever since the war started. So it was the scale of the arrivals in that first week of July, not the newspapers, that started to alert the London public that something was seriously wrong.
At Charing Cross detachments of stretcher bearers waited for the long grey trains with red crosses on them. They carried the men out – four to each waiting ambulance – and then a nurse was assigned to travel with them. These trains were rolling in almost every hour day and night. Drivers and nurses were working nights without a break for two, three weeks on end – with drivers getting so tired falling asleep at the wheel, working so incessantly they could go all night without food. Nurses didn’t give any pain relief, could provide a little reassurance but could always rustle up a cigarette, sometimes lighting up and sticking them between the lips on heavily bandaged faces.
The relentlessness of these convoys didn’t go unnoticed. Crowds gathered at the station gates. The girls who – like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady – used to sell flowers along the Strand and in Covent Garden threw them into the open back doors of the ambulances.
By 1916 London had over 200 hospitals of many types ready to receive soldiers. The nearest to Charing Cross Station was – Charing Cross hospital. It was just two minutes walk away– not that these men were doing any walking . It was close enough to take emergencies – those who perhaps should never have left the coast on arrival, or who developed unexpected complications on the train journey. Even here crowds gathered at the gateway, so thick that police were needed to control them – and again they watched as the convoys arrived.
Turn left further down the Strand and you would soon reach Endell St, the site of one of London’s most remarkable military hospitals. It was run entirely by women. Flora Murray, the doctor in charge was on the pay of a lieutenant colonel – she wasn’t actually a lieutenant colonel as no woman could hold military rank. Assisted by Louisa Garrett Anderson – the daughter of Britain first female doctor– this hospital treated nearly 30,000 patients during the war; its surgeons carried out 7,000 operations.
This was almost certainly the first time on British soil that women had operated on men. During the Somme offensive Endell Street received convoys of up to twenty ambulances at a time; often in the middle of the night. Murray and Garrett Anderson were suffragettes and they expected the success of their hospital to have an impact on perceptions of women in public life. They photographed their work meticulously. They were right – this was indeed part of the big push that led to the enfranchisement of women.
Shocking and new, this was total war and London was central to it. City of Westminster guides are recreating the feel of London during that Somme offensive in a series of walks running through the summer. The first one will be at 7.30am on that fateful 1st July exactly 100 years after the first offensive. The walks run regularly through the summer and can be booked via http://tinyurl.com/somme100walk