George Coppard, machine gunner at the Battle of the Somme, described it as a "dreadful scene" where "hundreds of dead were strung out , like wreckage washed up." Perhaps the sheer scale of this carnage accounts for the fact that it has led to literature which effectively conveys the horror and grief we feel when human life is quite simply squandered. This extract is from Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, written in the 1990s.
Price was reading the roll call. Before him were standing the men who had managed to return. their faces were shifty and grey in the dark.To begin with he asked the whereabouts of each missing man. After a time he saw that it would take too long.
Price began to speed the process. He hurried from one unanswered name to the next. Bryne, Hunt, Hones, Tipper, Wood , Leslie, Barnes, Studd, Richardson, Savile, Thompson, Hodgson, Birkenshaw, Llewellyn, Francis, Arkwright, Duncan, Shea, Simons, Anderson, Blum, Fairbrother. Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn and where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers' shattered flesh that lay in stinking shell holes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference,
Of 800 men in the battalion who had gone over the parapet, 155 answered their names. Price told his company to dismiss, though he said it without the bark of the parade ground; he said it kindly...Jack Firebrace and Arthur Shaw waited for them and asked them how they had done, The men walked on as in a dream, and did not answer. Some of them spat or pushed back their helmets, most of them looked down, their faces expressionless yet grained with sadness. They went to their tents and lay down.