A century ago, the bloody battle in northern France silenced the hopes, dreams, fears and nightmares of so many young men. Others were so badly affected by their experiences that they never spoke of them again.
On 1 July 1916, 19,240 British soldiers died; many were recent volunteers. Their voices, along with hundreds of thousands more in the coming months, were lost forever.
It wasn’t until two weeks later that the names of the dead and wounded were reported in British newspapers. People began wearing black armbands as a way of acknowledging their loss.
In August, the War Office showed a public information film, The Battle of the Somme – nearly half the population went to the cinema to see the horrific scenes of the realities of war. It reinforced their resolve – as the propagandists intended.
By early November, simple shrines began appearing spontaneously around the country as people mourned their lost ones; as the list of casualties grew hourly in this brutal war.
The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July to 18 November 1916. The number of British soldiers dying across the 141 days averaged 893 per day – a total of 127,751 men. There were 419,654 British casualties, 204,253 French and at least 465,000 German. More than one million dead and wounded. Plus 100,000 horses deployed to support the British army; most of their fates unknown.
But raw facts fail to convey the horror.
You can read the human stories – the Telegraph has provided real time updates today.
You should read accounts of those who are moved by walking the battlefields today.
You will see real footage – stark in black and white across the news and online, shared through social media.
You can follow Tweets reporting detailed war diary entries from this day a hundred years ago.
You will witness the scale of the loss through the 19,240 shroud-clad figures marking every soldier who died on 1 July 1916 – each carrying an individual’s name.
You should reflect on the poetry written by ordinary men.
You can visit the Somme and stand silent in this bleak but beautiful landscape where the lost lives continue to be remembered. Not just today, but every day.
And you must listen.
Listen to the words of long-dead young men, such as 20 year old Second Lieutenant Jocelyn Buxton, killed on the first day of battle:
Listen to the memories of the ‘silent generation’ who shared rare recollections, recorded by the BBC in the 1960s:
Because when history is recorded, it must be remembered through the words of those who were there. When someone is lost, it is their voice that we long to hear again.
We are so busy talking and writing and sharing, that we fail to take the time to listen. Just listen. Properly listen. To those around us. To understand their perspective.
Listening is the only way to understand what others feel, think and experience.
Listening is ephemeral – it is hard to create a lasting trace of voices as they can fade fast in our memories.
Listening lacks the presence of seeing and doing. Yet, we need to be present to do it well.
As you’ve engaged with the visuality of my words, reflect on their sound in your head. My words are not important but the personal space where you listen is.
In their personal space 19,240 young listened to the real horrors of war. 100 years ago today. Before they fell silent.