TODAY, and over the days to come, people across Yorkshire will remember one of the bloodiest battles of the 20th century.
On July 1, 1916, the piercing sound of whistles filled the air as men climbed out of their trenches to advance. And so began 141 days of the fiercest fighting.
Those soldiers were surrounded by comrades and driven forward by determination, duty and fear. The prospects of reaching the enemy trenches were grim as whole waves of men fell to the storm of oncoming fire which spread across the battlefield. By nightfall, 21,000 would lay dead and 35,000 more would have been wounded in the first day on the Somme.
Many had answered the call to join Lord Kitchener’s new army to fight alongside neighbours and colleagues. They were volunteers drawn from the villages, towns and cities across Yorkshire.
These Pals battalions, as they became known, included the Sheffield Pals, the Leeds Pals, The Bradford Pals, the Hull Pals and indeed two Pals battalions from my town of Barnsley.
We will remember them...
The enthusiasm to volunteer was such that the Barnsley Chronicle reported that recruiting officers had been inundated with applications to the point where a shortage of application forms had occurred.
This was a story of patriotism and adventure retold across the country and Empire as men from all backgrounds joined together; trained together; went to war together; and ultimately, many of them died together that day.
Today I will be in Northern France to pay my respects to those soldiers. Men who were prepared to face danger to secure freedom for people they would never meet, and never know.
I have been to the Somme before. It was an emotional experience. I stood in the trenches the men had defended. I imagined the terror they must have experienced and walked the ground over which they had fought. Open rolling countryside that has changed little over the past century. Then I knelt in front of their graves. It felt like they were a long way from home.
Their memory can bring us closer to understanding ourselves. In many ways, the First World War marked the true beginning of the 20th century, setting events in motion that would shape generations to come and the lives we lead today.
We live in peace and enjoy freedom because of what they and others did for us. That is a legacy which will endure for all time. Teaching us in our own lives to always strive to do more to help others and build a better world through our actions.
The scale of the battle is difficult to comprehend. Beforehand, the sound could be heard from England as a week-long barrage of guns fired more shells at the German line than had been fired in the first year of war. Soldiers began to enter No Man’s Land shortly before 7.30am to lay in whatever shelter was around in the open. The world then seemed to shake as the final mines detonated under the German lines, and in the noise and light of that moment the Pals lay ready.
A brief silence fell before the advance started. As the heat of the summer day was met with the dust and noise of slaughter, fierce battles raged for control of the German trenches. In parts of the front later that night, local truces between soldiers allowed the wounded to be removed.
The events of the Somme extended beyond the trenches to touch the lives of nearly every community across the UK and beyond.
In the weeks and months that followed blinds would be drawn across working-class streets all over the country as the dead were mourned. Local newspapers published rows of photographs of young men as around half of those who joined the attack became casualties on that one day. For every yard of the 16-mile front there were two British casualties.
Reflecting back on that one day of senseless slaughter helps us to look forward. This weekend people around Yorkshire will pause and think about the First World War. It is a measure of our common decency that despite the First World War being a war of history, not memory, we commemorate it. Every part of our county has its own story.
The First World War did not only change our society forever, it shaped our continent. Conflict would return once again before the tensions of war in time gave way to the partnerships of peace. Today it is comforting to know that what were once fields of war are now fields of peace.
A hundred summers on from the Battle of the Somme, we should remember that sacrifice and reflect on how it changed our society then and shaped Britain today. In doing so, we recognise it is a measure of our common humanity that we must ensure it never happens again.
• Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central.