John Masefield’s Somme

John Masefield (1878-1967) was already a well known and prize winning poet by the time of the Great War. After being rejected for service as a commissioned officer on medical grounds in 1914, he served in France and at Gallipoli with the Red Cross, the experience of which led him to write an acclaimed, if somewhat romantic, book about the latter campaign. He went on to a lecture tour in the United States in the first half of 1916 but then returned to France, invited to work as what he described as a “chronicler”: a potential author of an official history. Masefield was given free reign to tour the area and he spent much time on and close to the battlefield, building an impression of conditions. It was during this period that he described the Somme battlefield in letters to his wife, which appear in “John Masefield’s letters from the front 1915-17” edited by Peter Vansittart (London: Constable & Company, 1984). His writing is vivid and memorable:

Mounted British ammunition carriers passing through the village of Guillemont, Somme, 12 October 1916. Imperial War Museum photograph Q78844.

21 October 1916

I cannot give you any dim conception of what the battlefield is now. But if you will imagine any 13 miles x 9 miles known to you … you will get a hint of its extent. Then imagine in all that expanse no single tree left intact, but either dismembered or cut off short, & burnt quite black. Then imagine in all that expanse no single house is left, not any large part of a house, except for one iron gate & half a little red chapel, & that all the other building is literally blasted into little bits, so that no man can tell where villages were, not how they ran, not what they were like. Here are there are cellars, in one place there is a well, in several places there are mangles, farm implements, & bundles of burnt plank, but the rest is gone.

Then imagine in all that expanse there is no patch of ground ten feet square that has not got its shell hole. To say that the ground is ‘ploughed up’ with shells is to talk like a child. It is gouged & blasted & bedevilled with pox of war, & at every step you are on the wreck of war, & up at the top of the [Thiepval] ridge there is no ground, there is nothing but a waste of big grassless holes ten feet deep & ten feet broad, with defilement & corpses & hands & feet & old burnt uniforms & tattered leather all flung about & dig in & dig out again, like nothing else on God’s earth.

A horse engulfed in the mud North of Montauban, Somme, October 1916. Imperial War Museum photograph Q4465.

22 October 1916

It rained very hard one day, & the mud was worth a visit for itself alone. It was necessary to travel on new roads, less than a month old, & all made under fire, with wood & brush & stone & whatever came handy. Imagine an army traffic on such roads, all day & all night, with shells from time to time, blowing big holes in them, & at least a steady hard 16 hours rain. To call it mud would be misleading. It was not like any mud I’ve ever seen. It was a kind of stagnant river, too thick to flow, yet too wet to stand, & it had a kind of glisten or shine on it like a reddish cheese, & it looked as solid as cheese, but it was not solid at all & you left no tracks on it, they closed all over, & you went in over your boots at every step & sometimes up to your calves.

British troops of the 17th (County of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles), 47th (2nd London) Division, crossing a muddy area in the Ancre Valley, Somme, October 1916. Imperial War Museum photograph Q1561.

22 October 1916, continued

We went into a wood, which we will call Chunk-of-Corpse Wood, for its main features were chunks of corpses, partly human, partly trees. There was a cat eating a man’s brain, & such a wreck of war as I never did see, & the wounded coming by, dripping blood on the track, & one walked on blood or rotten flesh, & saw bags of man being carried to the grave. They were shovelling parts of men into blankets.

Masefield was denied access to official records and eventually alternative arrangements for production of an official history were made in which he played no part. A chapter that he had written about the Somme was however published as “The old front line” (London: William Heinemann, 1917). It has been reprinted on several occasions and remains as a readable classic of the Great War.


The Battle of the Somme 1916

Starter reading list for the Battle of the Somme