100 years ago today began the Battle of the Somme. Few episodes in human history are remembered with such a grand sense of supreme awfulness. But with this grandeur comes distance and incomprehension. As time passes the gulf widens: we need personal stories to bridge it.
My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, fought in the Somme and recorded his memories in a diary which spanned the whole of the First World War.
A member of the Officer Training Corps when war was declared, Charles would spend 20 months in training before leaving for the Western Front as a junior officer in the British Army.
When he finally did arrive in France in the Spring of 1916 his diary entries are brimming with a sense of fascination and adventure. But as the days go by these stories are increasingly peppered with references to “the coming offensive”. Lengthly preparations are made. He writes, “we handed to the quartermaster letter for home: last letters, which he understood were only to be posted if we were killed.”
It’s 9.30pm on 4th July 1916, and after what must have been an agonising four days in waiting, Charles was given his first order to enter battle.
With a guide and a small group of soldiers he is required to carry rations to his battalion on the front. In the middle of the night, struggling with large sacks of provisions along trenches three foot deep in water, he came across “an unpleasant sight that made me feel very sick.”
“I slipped when wading through some water and my hand caught hold of something round and slimy, half submerged, which rolled over and showed itself to be the head of a dead British Tommy, whose lower portions were stuck in the slime. This was the first dead body I had ever seen.”
As they approached the front their guide leads them out from the trench, and over the top. The ground is shell-torn, criss-crossed with the remains of deep trenches, covered in broken barbed wire and machine gun fire surrounds them. Charles admits, “I began to feel a little bit shaky.”
Eventually they arrive at the command post where they are given further instructions: leave the provisions here, hand out the rum to the men on the front.
By now they are deep into German trenches captured in the previous days of fighting. Solider’s bodies, equipment and ammunition litter the ground. The front is reached. Charles is shocked to find his soldiers exposed, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, in a trench “no more than knee deep.”
A senior officer tells him they are by the church in the village of La Boiselle. He replies “I’ll have to take your word for it” – the entire village had been reduced to rubble.
Dawn breaks. It becomes clear that the battalion are desperately vulnerable, with Germans perhaps as near as 10m away. They cannot move, because the Germans hold higher ground and snipers are poised. “Our own dead lay pretty thick about: Lord knows what they would look like in a few days after the summer sun had got to them.” Shell fire is minimal, which is just as well given their position.
He would survive this encounter. Later in the morning they are relieved, returning to Allied territory along a new hastily dug trench.
For three weeks his company is kept behind the front to clean-up, rest and repair.
Then the order comes to return to fighting. His battalion are to offer support in reserve. Their destination is an area of thick woodland which is shaken by repeated shell fire, causing trees to explode and fall all around. He notes that the trenches in the wood are “full of German and British dead… still unburied and in a horrible state of decomposition and covered with flies, who were having a real good summer.” That night he is woken in the night to find his dugout is on fire, and badly injures his leg in the scramble to get out.
He mentions this little in his diary, perhaps because the following night the officers, of which he is one, are gathered and given orders for “an immediate attack.” Charles is frustrated at his orders. “What hope”, he asks, “for an attack which is to start within the hour, positions to be taken in the dark, without reconnaissance over unknown ground?”
The attack begins and is chaotic. The advance doesn’t move quickly enough and those behind are trapped, caught in the open – fatalities are high.
As the day draws on he hears news that a whole company has gone missing, and is sent to try and find them. He finds them “dead and dying sprawled across a road”, with terrified soldiers lying on the ground, “too scared even to dig in.”
When he seeks help the senior officer he finds is useless. Amidst the crashing sounds of the battle Charles shouts in his ear “pull yourself together and get your men dug in.” As the night draws on he manages to get enough support from other officers to halt their attack and find cover – just beating the advancing dawn.
He spends the early hours of the morning back at the command post. Wearing a gas helmet they are continually working to keep the dugout entrance open. “Deep down though we were, our candles were continually being put out by the concussion of heavy shell bursting on top, and time after time a shell would burst in one or other of the entrances and piles of earth and stinking fumes poured down the steps… We were fearful we would be buried alive.”
At 9am his commanding officer is killed while going to the toilet.
The battalion is given relief later that day, and Charles survives the Somme a second time.
One week later they return to fighting. He notes: “Today was my 23rd birthday. Was it to be my last?” Charles seems constantly aware of just how lucky he is to survive each day on the Western Front, and takes little for granted. His birthday is eventful: a number of men fall, one of whom, injured by shell fire, is carried away on a stretcher and “quite cheerfully smoking a fag” before passing away moments later.
When the mail arrives he remarks “there seemed to be an unusual number of parcels… it would have been a pity to get killed with a haversack still filled with good things.”
But relief comes again, and he disobeys orders to leave the front using what he thinks is a safer route, making him late back to his resting battalion. “We were so far behind that they had given us up as lost – and were too late for soup.”
“What a glorious sleep we had this night. It was a lovely summer night and news had got round that the division had finished with the Somme and were going back to a rest.”
Charles’ battalion would go on to fight in the area South of Ypres before returning to the Somme in October. His descriptions of the now four-month old battle-field are hauntingly familiar.
“A vast sea of mud and slime, not a tree or a building of any form in sight: not a tree stump even a foot high, not a blade of grass.”
“Should a man get wounded and fall in a hole, God help him if he had no pal near – he would surely die or suffocate.”
He passed the old front lines from July to witness hundreds of dead, buried where they fell, “marked sometimes by rough wooden crosses but mostly by rifles stuck bayonet-first into the ground”… “large numbers of these bodies were only just covered and feet and legs still protruded above the ground with just a boot or fragment of sock remaining on the bones.”
“They had expected in a few more days to win the war… none of the poor devils even got as far as the German wire.”
The 18th November is recorded as the last day of the Battle of the Somme.
The night before, Charles’ battalion was required to move into position ready to attack. The weather is poor and they have little knowledge of the terrain. “The water which filled the shell-holes was frozen and covered with snow.” The area near Grancourt is an intricate system of German trenches that they have never seen it in daylight. The night is bitterly cold. When there is a mix-up with one of his companies Charles’ is unnerved by the response from his commanding officer: “he was very cool and more polite than usual – a very bad sign.” Orders are given and the attack begins at 6am.
Against the odds they makes gains. Charles, waiting at their command post, comes across the dead body of a fellow officer. Soon after his hand is injured by a piece of shrapnel, and quietly, cautiously, he makes his excuses to leave the front. On the last day of the Battle of the Somme Charles Lander finally escapes.
Nearly home, arriving at Manchester station, there is some excitement to see troops returning from the front. “There was a cheering crowd at the station; we did feel foolish.”
Charles spent Christmas 1916 back with his family, returning to France to fight in the Battle of Messines and Passchendaele in 1917. Active on the front near Ypres during the German advances in 1918, his war would end there when a shell exploded in a barn where his company was sleeping, wounding 14 and killing 2. Suffering multiple injuries he would never return to the Western Front.
His diary paints pictures of five years of extraordinary landscapes, horror, despair, gas, trench-foot, fatigue, boredom, incompetence, luck (often) as well as joy and heart-felt relief.
One million people were wounded or killed in the Battle of the Somme. An almost incomprehensible catastrophe.
Charles Lander was one of those who escaped from hell. I count myself truly lucky to have the story of a survivor which I can hold so close to my heart.
- Charles Lander, known to the family as “Pop”, said little about his time on the Western Front during his lifetime. His diary was found by his daughter, Mary Lander, after his death in 1984 and transcribed by his grand-child Jeremy Lander and partner Sally Lander. This article is based on extracts from this transcription, which was later published as: “Lander’s War: The War Diaries of Lt. Charles Herbert Lander 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment”. Click here to for more information.
- The original version of this article implied that the Battle of Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres) took place in 2016, not 2017. It was corrected on 8 Nov 2018.
- The remainder of Charles’ diaries from the War are abridged in my 2018 article ‘Boredom, bungles and dodging death‘.