I created this image by blending two photos, one taken during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and the other by me on the battlefield in 2018. While researching in the Imperial War Museum collections I had been struck by the 1916 photo, which seemed to encapsulate much about the battle, and war in general – the bleak vista, the almost casual litter of death, and – looking at it from an archaeologist’s perspective - how much of that could still lie just under the surface, buried in filled-in trenches such as this one.
I decided on my next visit to the battlefield to try to find a present-day vista that might come close to matching that view. The exact location of the trench is unknown – the caption states ‘Battle of Flers-Courcelette. German dead in their front line trench. 15th September 1916’ – but I felt certain that I could find a similar view and angle at a known trench site on that part of the battlefield. Eventually I found this spot near Courcelette looking east at the site of Regina Trench, where the field boundary follows the line of the trench as it abuts the Miraumont Road. On 21 October 1916, the day that the stretch of trench visible in my photograph was taken by the British 53rd Infantry Brigade, the view may well have been similar to the 1916 photo – some 250 Germans had been killed in and around the trench that afternoon, and the surrounding battlefield would have reflected the terrible carnage of the previous weeks as Canadian troops tried over and over again to take the trench.
I have a vested interest in this spot because my grandfather Tom Verrinder was at exactly this location in Regina Trench on the following day digging dugouts and a First Aid Post with his unit of dismounted cavalry. It was only after I had taken the photo and returned to look at the original that I spotted a remarkable coincidence - both images showed 18-pounder shrapnel casings, among the most common finds on the Somme battlefield, one at my feet in my photo and one off to the left in the 1916 photo. From my viewpoint as an archaeologist, fascinated by the detritus of battle, the presence of these artefacts seemed to bind these two images together across the century since the war.
Credit for the 1916 photo: photographer unknown, Royal Engineers No 1 Printing Company, © IWM (Q 189).
Colour photo including blended image: David Gibbins