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Donkin's World: The Somme

Richard Donkin visits the scene of some of the bloodiest battles ever fought by man.

Do please visit Richard's well-stocked Web site

Details of his book Blood, Sweat and Tears which is acclaimed world-wide can be found here http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Sweat-Tears-Evolution-Work/dp/1587990768/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1214554429&sr=1-2

Returning from a weekend in Normandy we called at the Thiepval monument to the 72,000 British who died with no known grave on the Somme in the First World War (1914-18).

Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it towers over the battlefield and today has an interpretation centre to put the battle in context for new generations of visitors.

The list of names is staggering. Imagine your telephone directory pasted page by page on a wall. I counted three Donkins: a Thomas Donkin from Durham, a Harry Donkin from East Yorkshire, and a Stanley Donkin from Cornwall, none related to me as far as I know.

Both of my grandfathers were in the artillery. Grandad Donkin did not join the Army until he was conscripted in 1917. I'm quite proud of him for sticking it out when there was tremendous pressure to volunteer. It's probably the reason I exist. Young women would hand white feathers to young men they saw in civilian clothes. I wonder if that ever happened to my grandad? If so, I wonder how he handled it?

At Fricourt we visited one of the perfectly maintained British cemeteries. Almost all those buried there were members of the West Yorkshire Regiment and all were killed on July 1, the first day of the Somme when the British and Commonwealth losses ran to almost 20,000 with another 40,000 wounded. That's a football crowd, gone in a single day.

There are more than a thousand British WWI graveyards in France but very few German graveyards. No more than a fifth of the German dead are buried there in marked graves. Some were removed after the first war and others after the Second World War when the dead were either repatriated or deposited in mass graves.

When I first went to the Somme nearly 30 years ago there were few visitors. Almost every farm you drove past had its stack of old munitions ploughed up from the fields. At the Lochnager site where a large mine was exploded (60,000 pounds of ammonol completely destroyed a German redoubt) there was a young chap selling brass shell casings and old nose cones as mementos. Nearby there is the Old Blighty Cafe.

A good way to visit the Somme is to start from Albert, then head towards Bapaume on the D929 which intersects the battlefield. You can see the ridge line in which the Germans had dug their trenches, supported by deep underground shelters that enabled enough of their troops to survive an otherwise devastating bombardment.

Once the shelling had finished, whistles blew and the British troops, many from the same streets and villages, climbed their ladders and set out across no-mans land. Meanwhile the German defenders were rushing up from their bunkers to reach their firing positions from where they were able to rake the khaki lines of slowly advancing troops with withering fire.

One of them was the father of an old friend of mine, the late Godfrey Golzen. As a machine gunner, Godfrey's father must have mown down hundreds of the advancing British. Later he would lose an arm before returning to his home town of Berlin at the end of the war.

Mr Golzen senior was a well respected Justice of the Peace who lived peacefully in Berlin with his family, including Godfrey, throughout the Second World War. What makes this remarkable is that he was a Jew, one of about 200 in Berlin who avoided transportation and survived the Holocaust.

Godfrey explained that his family were assimilated and felt as German as any other Berliner. Not that that would have made any difference to the Nazis; but his neighbours and friends stayed loyal throughout the war. Another thing worth noting is his family's attitude to Eastern European Jews. "They weren't liked by those who had assimilated as we had done," said Godfrey.

The WWI sites are so important to Europe's heritage that they should be made more accessible. I would like to see a Front line footpath that follows the trench system at a certain date - say the morning of July 1 1916 - from it's beginning on the coast to the border with Switzerland.

Very little of the trench system has been preserved but a modern footpath would enable visitors to appreciate the enormity of this terrible war in a way that differs from simply turning up to a site in the car and reading a plaque. The access would need to be purchased but that should be possible. The farmers get enough as it is in EU subsidies. Why not attach a few conditions for those whose farms cross the battlefields?

Postcript: Since writing this I have been contacted by Thomas Golzen, Godfrey's son, who points out some innacuracies. I could edit them in the text but prefer to publish his note instead because it shows how stories can get mangled even given the best intentions of the author. But I also think it gives a different perspective on events where certain stereotypes have emerged. I wonder what the Nazi hierarchy would or could have said to the Jewish German highly decorated war hero?

Here is Thomas's note:

I can see from your blog that you knew my dad, Godfrey, and that you seem to have heard some family history. It's very strange for me to think that I'm only a generation or two away from all that. Actually, it was my gandmother's sister Susi who survived the war in Berlin as a Jew. My dad's family (father, mother and younger sister) managed to escape to Switzerland in 1939 and made their way to the UK from there. I also seem to remember being told that my grandfather had been mostly up against the French during the Somme. His recollection of the first day was climbing out of the dugouts after a week's bombardment with their machine guns and shooting all the attacking troops.

I never met him - he died before I was born - but I got the impression that he rather enjoyed the war. As a Jew, it gave him the chance to be treated on an equal footing with ethnic Germans, and to show them that Jews could be good soldiers too. He was highly decorated before he was invalided out.


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