Sally Magnusson visits the Somme to commemorate the bloodiest battle in the history of the British Army.
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Today on Songs Of Praise,
we commemorate the many thousands of young men
who lost their lives
in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, 100 years ago.
I'm in the Somme battlefields to remember the 1st of July 1916,
the first day of the Battle of the Somme,
and the worst day in the history of the British Army.
More than 19,000 British soldiers were killed that day,
with nearly 40,000 wounded or missing.
I join James Bickersteth,
retracing the steps of his great-great-uncles,
the Rev Julian Bickersteth
and Lt Morris Bickersteth, who fell in battle.
All these guys here. They were so young.
And I'm with the Living History Group
of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment,
finding out what life and faith might have been like in the trenches.
Those who served in the Somme were our grandparents
and great-grandparents, our great- uncles and great-great-uncles,
and it them we're remembering in our music today.
We begin with a hymn
that's also a prayer in difficult times.
This Friday marks the centenary
of the start of one of the worst battles of the First World War.
For five long months,
the British and French armies engaged the Germans
in a brutal war of attrition, in the Battle of the Somme.
After 141 days, they had still failed to break the German defences.
Visitors to the Somme in northern France
often speak of the peace and tranquillity of the landscape.
And then, you look round and you see this.
rows and rows of gravestones that speak of the exact opposite.
The Somme has become a place of pilgrimage
for those remembering loved ones who fell in battle.
James is here for the first time,
in search of a great-great-uncle who shares his name.
My full name is James Morris Bickersteth
and I'm actually named after a descendant of mine
-called Morris Bickersteth.
-You look a bit like him.
Thank you very much, he was a handsome chap,
and an officer in the British Army.
He led a battalion of men in the Battle of the Somme.
-So you're trying to find out what happened to him out here in the Somme.
I'm blessed with a wealth of information that exists
in something called the Bickersteth Diaries,
but it's always intrigued me as to the reality of his life,
and the actual location that he led his men
because there's only so much that you can learn through letters
but there's nothing like actually following
in the footsteps of somebody to better understand
the life that they led.
Three Bickersteth brothers served here at the Somme -
Julian, a frontline chaplain who was 31,
and Morris, just 25.
Morris would have been on trench duty for several months
before going over the top to fight.
Battlefield expert Alan Reed
guides us through an original 1st of July trench.
100 years ago, this would have been
a scene of horror, devastation, noise.
The German shelling coming from behind us, German machinegun.
Men trying to get to the front line,
in this sort of communication trench.
So, Morris would have been coming into a trench like this one
on the way to the front line.
The young lieutenant was in a battalion
known as the Leeds Pals,
part of the West Yorkshire Regiment.
So, here, James, we've got some of the Leeds Pals
when they were training in 1914, soon after they volunteered.
And amongst these men, there's an officer...
-..and it's him. It's Morris.
-As a lieutenant.
He was just commissioned.
So, that probably would be the men
he was in charge of at the time.
But come the day, on the 1st of July,
he was Acting Captain in charge of 250 men.
You must find this very moving.
I do, it's incredibly powerful in fact -
the first time that we walked down here I actually had goosebumps.
I do struggle to try and imagine
the horrors that people saw here and the suffering,
but also the incredible acts of bravery that took place here.
They were doing it for something that they believed in,
they believed in it for their country and believed in it for God.
Morris, at the time, came from a very religious family,
his father was a reverend in Leeds.
So, he put his faith into God, and if he was going to die...
-So be it.
-So be it.
And also, the fact that they were waiting,
not knowing when they were going to go over the top...
For months and months, Alan.
Yes, they would have been training before coming to the Western Front,
but what they didn't know was what it would be like
once they went over the top
and into no man's land. That, they couldn't prepare for.
The order was finally given,
and the battle began on the 1st of July 1916.
So, the path we're walking on now
was the British front line, exactly where we are.
So, Morris with his men
would have gathered in the trenches on the left.
And then at 7:30am
he would have gathered his men to go over the top.
And then when he goes into no man's land, about 10, 30 yards,
he stops because of what's going on.
He sees men dying, men dead.
And as he's trying to gather his thoughts
he's hit by shrapnel, by a piece of German shell.
Behind his back, we've got a witness account of that.
And he's killed instantly?
No, soon after that, he gets a bullet right to the head
and then he's killed instantly.
James, what's it like for you to hear that and to stand here
and to know actually
30 yards in there
was where Morris fell?
I always wondered what his last moments were like, always wondered what the place was like
that he gave his life.
And to be here now is incredibly powerful for me,
And there really is, I suppose, no better time
for me to have come - for the first time, I'm ashamed to say -
there's no better time for me to have come
than the 100-year anniversary
of the battle in which he gave his life.
We'll rejoin James later in the programme,
as he finally pays his respects to Morris.
Although we do have these first-hand accounts from soldiers,
it's impossible to recreate the true horror.
But David Grant has been meeting one group
who are trying to connect with the past.
Let's make one thing clear.
This is NOT the Somme.
Only those who were there would truly have known.
I'm with the Living History Group of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment,
who are spending a very wet weekend in replica trenches,
re-enacting life as a World War I soldier.
Gas, gas, gas!
Of course, this is just a re-enactment
but it gives you some idea what it might have been like.
The trenches at Park Hall Farm in Shropshire
were opened to the public only last year,
and this re-enactment is one of those
held across the country by the group.
Their leader, Sean Featherstone,
hopes the event will educate both visitors and volunteers.
I hope they see the human aspect
so they can see what the soldiers on both sides endured.
The smells and the sound...
You're in a hole in the ground -
it's muddy, it can get cold.
It's not glamorous.
I do this in memory of my great-uncle
and my great-grandfather who served in the First World War,
to try to understand something about what THEY went through.
Let's get a bearing. Get the range...
This brings to life what most men, and women,
actually died for in the actual war.
One member motivated by family history is Lee Bond,
who plays the part of the chaplain, or padre.
My grandfather was captured on the Burma railway,
worked alongside the padre,
and that gave him faith to be able to get through
some of the darkest times.
And as my thanks to God
and my Christian beliefs that he gives me,
I'm inspired to take that role of the padre on.
The padres would pray with the lads in the trenches
when they went round.
They were armed with their faith.
Over 5,000 chaplains served during the Great War. 168 lost their lives.
The padre would actually go over the top with the boys
-when the charges went against the enemy.
All he would carry would be his walking stick, and his Bible.
Padres actually received Victoria Crosses on more than one occasion.
Nowadays we have soldiers come back and they can go to therapy.
And they can go and sit and talk to psychologists.
There was no such thing in those days.
Help us to think wisely,
to speak rightly, to resolve bravely...
Faith was a very, very important and integral part to life on the front.
A shepherd wouldn't leave his flock -
a padre wouldn't leave his men.
Has doing this re-enactment had any impact on your own faith?
It's made it stronger.
Even though we're carrying out a re-enactment of the true events,
there's guys that are within our unit that say
they can't understand the horrors of the world
and how God would let something like this happen.
And what I've tried to get through to them is
that they can take faith in each other -
and they ARE part of a church whether they know it or not.
The true church is the people,
and each person is a building block,
and the mortar that binds us all is our faith in each other
and our love for each other, and it makes my faith stronger
because I get to see an element of people that is good.
And that makes all the difference in the world.
As a stark reminder of the thousands upon thousands of lives
lost during the Great War,
there are cemeteries and memorials scattered across the Somme region.
Hundreds of them. Each immaculately maintained
as a tribute to those who rest in peace.
Earlier, we learnt the fate of the young Morris Bickersteth,
who was killed on the very first day of fighting in the Somme.
By the end of the battle,
there were more than one million casualties on all sides.
who shares his middle name,
is here to see his ancestor's final resting place,
for the first time.
So, how many men are buried here?
It is about 300. This is what we call a battlefield cemetery.
In fact, we have now entered Queen's Cemetery
and this is where Morris is buried.
He is buried just by the Cross of Sacrifice.
It is a strange mix of emotions.
When I first arrived here, I felt
'relieved that I had finally come because I felt so guilty
'that I hadn't been here sooner. But then, it brings up so many
So young. All these guys here are so young.
It's so sad.
But, at the same time,
he was also devoutly Christian
and, eh, I think that saw him through right to the end.
His belief took him through, right to the end.
I mean, I doubt very much that,
in my life,
I will EVER be able to exhibit bravery and selflessness
in the way that he did, in the way that all of these guys did.
James has a copy of a letter that Morris intended his parents
to receive, if he didn't make it home.
'I just wanted to tell you that I do not fear death,
'except in so far as everyone must fear it.
'Death, to my mind, is simply a gateway through which one passes
'into life. I mean, real life.'
And, James, this arrived just after he had actually died,
-just after the family had heard the news of his death?
I think that this probably brought a huge amount of comfort to them...
-..and really helped with the grieving process.
They were as devoted to the Christian faith as Morris was
and I'm sure that receiving this letter really helped to heal
what must have been terrible wounds caused by the loss
-of their son.
-They must have felt he was talking to them.
I think they probably did.
# For all who needs comfort
# For all those who mourn
# All those whom we cherished
# Will be reborn
# All those whom we love
# But see no more
# They are not perished
# But gone before
-# And lie in the tender arms of He
# Who died for us all
# To set us free
# From hatred and anger
# And cruel tyranny
# May they rest
# In peace
# And rise in glory
# Lord, give me wisdom to comprehend
# Why I survive and not my friend
# And teach me compassion
# So I may live
# All my enemies to forgive
# All suffering and sorrow
# Will be no more
# They'll vanish like shadows
# At Heaven's door
# All anguish and grieving
# Will one day be healed
# When all of God's purpose
# Will be revealed
# Though, now, for a season
# Lost from sight
# The innocent slain
# In the blindness of right
# Are now in the warmth
# Of God's glorious light
# Where they rest in peace
# And rise in glory. #
The death of young Morris Bickersteth
sent shockwaves through the family and deeply affected
his elder brother Julian, who was serving on the front line
as a chaplain.
Across the border, in Belgium,
is Poperinge, a town that soldiers like Julian
sought out, away from the bloodshed.
Just off the main square is Talbot House,
described at the time as an oasis in a world gone crazy.
The soldiers came here to forget about the war.
They came here away from the fighting that was going on.
-So, they came here for peace.
-It's an incredible space.
-It must have been a welcome contrast from the trenches.
And we know that Julian was here in August, 1917.
Wow. Wow, that's fantastic.
Such a wonderful place of recuperation, this.
And people like Julian must have so needed this.
Absolutely, it was a very special place and
Julian being a frontline chaplain would have seen the horrors of war,
tending after the wounded, reading the last rites.
And also, on top of that, losing his brother, Morris.
And, indeed, he actually... Julian puts his emotions onto
paper here, in one of these letters, he says,
"I have seen sights and heard sounds the last few days
"which will live with me to my dying day
"and have filled me with an agony of sympathy
"for those suffering indescribable things.
"I have been surrounded for three days with nothing but blood,
"Yet, rising out of this sea of misery and pain,
-"human nature, the spirit of man has won the day."
I'm amazed that Julian was able to see the good in
what must have been a horrific scenario.
And as the war progressed, like many people,
he began to doubt the war itself, but one ting that he never lost
was his faith in Christianity, which is amazing.
And this house would have strengthened
the Reverend Julian Bickersteth's resolve,
because of what can be found in the loft.
It is stunning up here.
What is it, Jan, how did it come...?
Well, it was actually a place of recreation for the troops,
catering for body, hearts and minds, but also for the soul.
And it was a way of soldiers to just realise
that they were not a cog in a machine of war,
but a person of flesh and blood
with their own interests, their hearts, their minds, their spirits.
-That's what it meant to them.
-And we know that, Julian,
your relative did come here and attend at least one service here,
-is that right?
-Yes, that's right. So, I believe in August 1917,
during the battle of Passchendaele, he came along here with
a number of confirmation candidates to a service.
When you think of Julian here, a man who spent all his time really
trying to minister to other people, do you sense here him finding
something for himself?
It probably meant that Julian was able to keep his sanity
and to continue his work in the trenches.
It's been a real privilege to come to Belgium and France,
and to get to know, just a little, these young men from
another time, who gave so much.
Of course, that war
wasn't the war to end all wars, far from it.
Next week, it's Battle of Britain Memorial Day,
and Pam remembers the dark days of World War II,
and the Spitfire pilot who was just 18 years old when he saw action
for the first time.
But until then, our closing hymn today
is one often sung at Remembrance services,
and it seems fitting to sing it now.
Subtitles by Ericsson
Sally Magnusson visits the Somme to commemorate one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the British Army and retrace the experiences of the devout young men who heard the call of duty.
Father Hear the Prayer We Offer from St. Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich O Love, That Wilt Not Let Me Go from St. Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen Be Still my Soul, The Lord Is on Thy Side from Church Of Christ The Cornerstone, Milton Keynes Rest in Peace by Libera Brother, Sister, Let Me Serve You from Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, Liverpool I Vow Thee to my Country from The Royal Garrison Church, Aldershot.