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A Century of Silence

In 2008, after the British army had been fighting in Afghanistan for seven years, the media recorded a macabre milestone: deaths in action had reached one hundred. Photographs of the dead soldiers were published online and in the newspapers. Each face – smiling or serious, still teenaged or showing the first signs of middle age – represented a vanished life, a bereaved family and dozens of mourning friends.

But that was a hundred deaths over seven years. Now try imagine 20,000 – twenty thousand – deaths not over years or months or weeks but on a single day. That’s how many men the British army lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which took place a century ago in July 2016. It’s impossible to grasp a tragedy on that scale, and it was only one army fighting one day of one battle on one front of the war. The scale of the death and suffering is too great for the mind to absorb.

But that is perhaps a fortunate thing. If we could grasp tragedies of that size, it might be too much to bear. The Battle of the Somme, like the First World War as a whole, is best approached through the story of a single individual, like the poet Wilfred Owen. He nearly made it to the end of the war and safety, but his luck ran out and he was killed at the age of twenty-five only a week before the Armistice. His tragic passing was one among many, but we can grasp the sadness of one death. We can’t truly grasp the sadness of thousands or millions of deaths.

But Wilfred Owen isn’t a true representative of those who died during the war. He was an extraordinary man, a writer of genius whose few poems have touched the hearts of millions. He wrote about ordinary soldiers, but he wasn’t an ordinary soldier himself. If we want to understand a single story about one of those, we can turn to someone like Tommy Chambers. He was a private in the 36th Ulster Division from Northern Ireland. If he’d survived the war, he wouldn’t have become famous. He would have simply returned to the ordinary life he came from.

But he didn’t survive the war: he died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme after hastily scribbling a line in his small diary. It ran: “Left for trenches at 2am 1st July.” On previous days he had picked up the diary again in the evening to write a little more. But not that day: he was killed aged only seventeen. His diary was sent to his family and remained with them for a hundred years. They read his words and knew the sadness of his early passing, but the wider world knew nothing.

Now the diary is going on display as part of the centenary commemorations of the Somme. His silence is going to be broken and Tommy Chambers, an ordinary soldier, will speak from beyond the grave to many thousands of people, most of whom will not have been born until many years after his death. We can’t understand the stories of all 20,000 men who died on that single horrific day, but we can understand the story of Tommy Chambers.

He couldn’t have guessed that the few words he scribbled every day in his diary would one day be seen by so many eyes, but that is because he truly was an ordinary soldier, with no great hopes or ambitions except to survive the war. Even his youth wasn’t remarkable: many teenagers lied about their age to serve during the First World War. Most of them survived, but Tommy may have been luckier than some of those. He didn’t return home with crippling wounds or terrible memories. He did his duty and died many miles from home and many years from what might have been the natural end of his life.