Although life in WW1 trenches is now invariably linked with the word ‘mud’, in fact the River Somme runs through a chalk landscape for much of the setting for the eponymous battle. True, the riparian margins of the River Somme were peatland, making the going challenging in these parts, but during early parts of the Battle of the Somme the weather was dry and the chalk was hard. A better picture of the conditions associated with early stages of the battle is given by William Orpen’s paintings of the same area in 1917, where white bones of the dead blend with the white bones of the chalk landscape. Indeed Orpen’s “Thiepval 1917” may have been the subconscious trigger for this poem.
Only when the rains came in late July and August and barely seemed to stop did the battlefield begin to descend into a muddy hell. Anyone who has walked across a chalk field in the rain will know how cloying and sheer glue-like the chalk and clay-with-flints (usually found together) of such a landscape can become. During the warm days of July, however, the Somme Battlefield was often bone dry and splattered with the startling while lesions of shell holes and trench lines, as though the very bones of the Earth were being exposed.