On 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. In what would be one of the bloodiest battles in British military history, a member of the Downside monastic community served as a military chaplain. 

Dom Urban Butler joined as a chaplain to the forces in March 1916, serving with the 9th Cheshires before being transferred to the Grenadier Guards. On the 30th June 1916, the eve of the Somme offensive, he wrote a letter to his mother, Lady Butler, who was a famous artist. 

‘My dearest mother,

I have made time for a line to you on this tremendously solemn occasion. We had this morning perhaps the last mass for many of these poor fellows. May God support us all in this hour! Never, certainly, did soldiers go forward with higher enthusiasm than we have today. I had decided to be at the First Aid Post, had there been a common Aid Post for the brigade, but as the battalions are to have separate Aid Posts, I should miss many men of the other battalions were I to station myself at, say, the Cheshires or the RWF Aid Post. So I have decided to be at the Advanced Dressing Station to which all the wounded who do not die at the Aid Posts are ultimately brought.’

The next letter sent to his mother was not until the 7th July, but it describes the horror of the work which Dom Urban had been doing for the previous week. He spent 3 days and nights with no rest attending to the wounded from the battle in a chateau at Becourt. 

‘My Dearest Mother,

There is now, as far as I am concerned, a lull in the mighty battle and I am going to try and give you a few of my personal impressions.

On Friday June 30th we moved up by night from Bresle to Albert and bivouacked along the high railway embankment that runs due south from the latter town – we lay down in our blankets about 1am and I tried by pulling the flap of my sleeping bag over my head to shut out the deafening roar and blinding flashes of the guns and thereby induce sleep, for I knew that the days to come would be days of unceasing strain and effort. It was no use – a monster of a naval gun – 15 inch about a mile to our south fired every fifteen minutes from the railway line, shaking heaven and earth and sending its shell wailing away behind the German lines towards Pozieres. I think I slept for about twenty minutes that night altogether. At four I rose finally, to a beautiful July morning, a clear sky and a white summer mist laying in the valleys and along the meadows. It was the lull before the great ‘strafe’ and even our naval friend, the howitzer on the railway, was silent. Then, punctually at 6-15 the bombardment (or ‘intense artillery preparation’ as they call it) began. Imagine the loudest thunder storm and multiply it by ten and you will gain some idea of its intensity. I climbed down to the railway track to witness the extraordinary sight – the guns were all before us facing the sun and far away to our left and right, north and south, one saw vivid banks of fire turn in the white mist, which still shrouded the roads and clung to the undergrowth.

For two hours the throbbing flames shot upwards and the shells sped away into space and for twelve minutes during those few hours they say that every gun in the 5th Army was trained upon La Boiselle – a salient in the German line North East of Albert and as impregnable as their marvellous engineers have been able to make it…The modern battlefield is a strange place – ugly and horrible in the extreme as I hope to explain better when I describe the advance, but full of innocent surprises and sometimes quite impossible to take seriously.

At 9-30 we moved forward – I suppose I must not describe our formation or quote the units engaged. If the noise of the guns had been deafening when we stood behind and above them, imagine what it was when we threaded our way between them and marched in front of them, beneath their huge muzzles raised up to rake the skies. There was not an orchard or little garden in the suburbs of Albert that had not its ….. ….. beneath sandbags or shrouded by harmless apple trees. Eve could never have known the misery she was bringing upon her children when she took the forbidden fruit nor could she have foreseen her favourite tree put to such base uses as to scream the most hideous engines of destruction ever forged by Satan.

On we went, walking quite leisurely along a parched and dusty road. News was coming through by stragglers and lightly wounded men returning from the front line that the infantry attack which our division was supporting was doing admirably, that casualties had been enormous and the men admirable in their pluck and …..

Presently we arrived at the communication trenches; the brigade went in and I left them to go to the advanced dressing station in the chateau in the wood of Becourt (a good map of the battlefield ought to show it) some three kilometres east of Albert and just behind our front lines as it was on that famous first of July. The horrors of that place in which I have since spent so many hours will live in my mind till my last day. The heat was overpowering and I could hardly support the awful stench of blood and perspiration.

There were days in the past when men wounded one another in honourable anger, striking at the brow or the breast with clean steel. But these wounds are an outrage against heaven and I will not offend your feelings by describing what I have witnessed. Was man made after God’s image to be torn by hideous machinery and has the world developing upon an utterly false theory of civilisation determined to tear itself to pieces in rage at the sight of its own devil-worship?

However, there are some consolations about it and one is that the number of slightly wounded is great out of all proportion. Even the machine gun makes a clean wound and men are so often hit by it below the knee.

I have received two letters from you since the great battle opened on July 1st and most welcome they have been – also the chocolate and bottle of Horlicks malted milk. Many thanks for them.

I must draw my letter to a close. It is only a collection of notes put hastily down but will serve with others yet to be written when I afterwards try a connected narrative from the viewpoint of a Catholic chaplain. I don’t know how much the censor will pass but why object seeing that it is all dealing with what is past.

I have now my steel helmet and am as safe as possible. You have no idea what a number of lives have been saved by this simple means. I have seen helmets bashed in by bullets and the head of the wearer suffering from wounds which surgical skill can easily heal. The impact breaking power of the helmet is wonderful.

You must not be anxious for I am taking every care of myself.

Don’t have too high hopes about this battle, the Germans are marvellous and it will be a slow and costly business. I have just read a good article in the Daily Telegraph upon Saturday’s and Sunday’s battle and strange to relate I read it on the same road on Thursday on which it had been written on Sunday.’

In the archives here at Downside we hold all of Dom Urban’s letters, as well as that of the other members of the monastic community who served as chaplains during the Great War. 

To purchase the Downside Abbey Press publication Monks in the Military which discusses the experiences all members of the English Benedictine Congregation as military chaplains, click here