In an interview, referring to her books, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”, Hilary Mantel pointed out that we have the enormous benefit of hindsight when considering the main historical figures in her work, whereas, at the time when the events in her books were unfolding, her characters didn’t. Although her protagonists were real people, she could only make them credible by stepping into their shoes and immersing herself in their world rather than viewing them from her own perspective several centuries later. The point was very well made.
It’s a cautionary tale for other historians too. Take the case of Private James John SIMPSON, 4th Battalion, South African Regiment, who was killed in action on the 12th April 1917 and who is buried in Brown’s Copse Cemetery, Roeux. His brief account of the journey he made to the dressing station at Maricourt appears in “Delville Wood” by Ian Uys. On the 16th July 1916, having been wounded in the left forearm during the intense fighting at Delville Wood, he recalled that the journey between there and Maricourt was one of around six miles. Anyone who knows that part of the Somme, or who looks at a map, will know that the distance between Delville Wood and Maricourt is roughly half that distance . So, where does that leave us?
Well, we have to start by looking at it from Private SIMPSON’s perspective. Would he have used the same route from Delville Wood to Maricourt as today’s traveller? Almost certainly not. Part of his account includes a chance encounter with an unknown Seaforth Highlander who had also been wounded, and who was also making his way to a dressing station. Within seconds of SIMPSON parting company with him, a random shell landed where both of them had been sitting, killing his companion outright.
What we have to do is take into account what was happening at the time, and fortunately, we have a good source to turn to. “A Subaltern’s Odyssey – A Memoir of the Great War 1915-1917” by R.B. Talbot Kelly is well worth reading (or re-reading). Not only is it extremely readable, it provides a very good account of what it was like to be a Forward Observation Officer in the Royal Field Artillery. After leaving Rugby School, he attended the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, in 1914, and in April the following year he was commissioned in the Royal Horse Artillery. Within two months he transferred to the 52nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, which was part of the 9th (Scottish) Division and already serving in France.
Of the 14th and 15th July 1916, he states that “we fired endlessly and the enemy retaliation was fierce and continuous.” On the 16th, the day referred to by SIMPSON in his account, Talbot Kelly notes that both British and German artillery spent the day pounding Longueval. As he made his way to Longueval, he explains that he took the precaution of walking an extra mile or so, circumventing the village of Montauban where his battery was located. The reason was that the direct route, the route that we today would drive, was under constant shell fire, though interestingly enough, when he eventually returned to his battery the following day after being relieved, he was so tired that he simply couldn’t be bothered taking a safer, albeit longer route, and decided instead to brave the barrage that was still falling between Trones Wood and Montauban.
According to SIMPSON’s account, neither he, nor his Highlander friend, appear to have been under continuous bombardment, and although SIMPSON had fainted on three occasions during his journey, he appears to have had time for a brief, but leisurely chat with the other man. Had they been under heavy shell fire they would surely have sought cover of some sort, especially as both men were already wounded. In short, they appear to have been unmolested until the one shell landed in their midst. We have no idea where exactly they were, but it clearly wasn’t the shell-swept area around Montauban as described by Talbot Kelly, and it seems likely that both men had opted to take a circuitous and safer route rather than the obvious one which was inherently more dangerous. Although the most direct route to Maricourt from Longueval and Delville Wood was via Trones Wood or Bernafay Wood, then by way of Montauban, all of these locations were prime targets for the German artillery. On the 16th July the Germans had the South Africans where they wanted them, pinned down in Delville Wood, and as well as shelling the wood itself, their artillery would have been keen to prevent the South African Brigade being reinforced or supported from the direction of Maricourt and Montauban.
However, to the west and south-west of Montauban was a whole network of German trenches that were now in British hands. These linked up with the old German front line trenches that lay between Montauban and Maricourt. By taking Montauban Alley, then following the descending contours towards Carnoy, perhaps even using the shallow valley that runs west of and parallel to the road between Montauban and Carnoy, SIMPSON’s journey could easily have amounted to around six miles. I think we can also assume that he would have known the difference between three miles and double that distance, as would most people in an age when travelling on foot was far more common than it is today.
There is, of course, the possibility that SIMPSON’s recollection was at fault, or that his calculations were out. We do know, for instance, that he remembers fainting along the way. However, my own instinct is that his account can probably be relied on, and in any case, it’s all we have to go on regarding the matter of distance. On the other hand, his chance encounter with the other man may have occurred during a lull in the shelling, but we do know that shelling that day was frequent and often heavy.
The point is that whenever we read first hand accounts of the war, we often have to try to imagine things from the perspective of the individual concerned and the prevailing conditions at the time. Private SIMPSON would almost certainly have done what any of us would have done, which was to avoid being wounded a second time by taking what appeared to him to be the safest route. Seen in this light, his account of the distance covered has a strong ring of truth about it. Only by putting ourselves in his shoes can we hope to make sense of his version of events. In truth, we shall never really know for sure.