One of my great-great uncles, Norman Martin Gibbins, was a Cambridge mathematician and chess aficionado whose main claim to fame was a paper he published in The Mathematical Gazette in 1944 entitled ‘Chess in Three and Four Dimensions.’ During the First World War, after being wounded as an infantry officer on the Western Front, he’d worked as a cipher officer for military intelligence in London, a precursor of the Bletchley Park codebreakers a generation later. After the war as Headmaster of Central Foundation School in London’s East End he influenced a generation of Jewish immigrant boys who went on to become mathematicians themselves, including Jacob Bronowski and Daniel Pedoe, infecting the former with his passion for chess and publishing many chess solutions with him over subsequent years.
Norman’s specialization was geometry, and I’ve often wondered whether his fascination with the dimensional possibilities of chess was fuelled by his experience of the First World War, not so much through his work in intelligence as by what he saw in the trenches with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1916 and 1917. This was very much in my mind when I recently watched the excellent The Somme: Secret Tunnel Wars (BBC4). In it, the presenter Peter Barton takes us on an extraordinary journey deep into the tunnels dug by the Royal Engineers in front of the village of La Boiselle, one of the key objectives of the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. These were not single saps, but were labyrinthine complexes on multiple levels, as if the tunnelers were recreating the coal mines in England from which many had been recruited. All of the digging was done by hand – or, more accurately, by feet, by ‘clay-pushers’ – and in utter silence, to avoid detection by the Germans as they counter-sapped from the other side. The tunneling was ostensibly in support of the war above, to lay mines under enemy positions, but soon attained a ghastly dynamic of its own, with tunnelers blowing each other up and breaking through to fight to the death in the darkness with clubs and knives. It was truly war in another dimension, an analogue of the conflict overhead but with a particular horror for the participants that can rarely have been matched in warfare since.
I’m fascinated by the detritus of war, but seeing archaeological work on the Western Front has sometimes left me with a tinge of unease, particularly in Picardy, where the beauty and richness of the farmland seems the best memorial to those who fell there, and where to cut into the land might seem to damage the sanctity of the place. Perhaps it’s the diver in me, used to respecting shipwrecks as war graves and not disturbing them; the fields of Picardy after all are a mass war grave, not only to the 71,000 missing men named on the Thiepval Monument but also to many thousands on the German side. Perhaps also it’s because the war to me still seems immediate, almost within living memory; my grandfather, like Norman Gibbins a veteran of the Somme and Passchendaele, lived until I was in my mid-twenties and I grew up with his memories of the war. For me, seeing the remains of trenches dug up, with decaying artefacts and the inevitable discovery of body parts, has sometimes seemed not only to add little to our knowledge of that war but actually to diminish it, like returning to the scenes of one’s own memories that are often best left unvisited.
My feelings though were very different on watching the La Boiselle tunnels being opened up. Here, instead of digging into a healed landscape, it was as if a bandage were being stripped off a raw wound, exposing the tunnels exactly as they had been left that day when the British troops finally overran the village and all of the efforts underground became redundant, superfluous to history. The archaeologists went down wearing breathing equipment in case pockets of methane gas still remained from the mine explosions in 1916. The presenter likened it to walking into their own version of King Tut’s tomb, and there was something jarring, shocking even, about the idea of going into a place where the gas and the smell of that war lingers on, and still has the ability to kill.
My grandfather told me that his experiences on the Western Front taught him the futility of war. To some, that common reaction of veterans might seem to deny the historical inevitability of a European war, or that it would be fought on the Western Front in the way that it was. But I think for those who were there the true meaning of futility was not in the overall scheme of things – the wider picture that soldiers rarely saw, yet which dominates our sense of that war – but in their experience of day-to-day endeavours which so often failed in their objectives., with calamitous results.
There can be few more awful instances than the final story of the La Boiselle tunnels. In the lead-up to the opening of the Somme battle on 1 July 1916, the tunnelers were tasked with laying an enormous mine beneath a German machine-gun nest on the edge of the village. But the day before, a German listening post able to detect telephone transmissions heard a British officer wish another good luck for the following day. Suspecting that mines were to be detonated, the Germans moved their machine-guns to another position, one that actually provided better enfilading fire across the fields adjacent to the village. After the mine was blown and the smoke had cleared the British infantry advanced into a hail of bullets, suffering more than 5,000 casualties in that sector on the first day alone. Instead of being the walkover that the underground mining was meant to facilitate, La Boiselle became one of the costliest objectives of the entire Somme front.
The truth of history often lies in the details, and the remarkable work of the archaeologists at La Boiselle gives vivid meaning to the memories of those who experienced that war, whether it be a fascination with the geometry and dimensions of conflict or a numbed sense of waste and futility.