July 1st 1916 was a hot summer day in France, but it was no ordinary day for at 7.30 a.m, whistles blew and along an 18 mile front, thousands of British troops left their trenches and began an assault on the German front line. The Battle of the Somme had begun and was to continue for 5 months. On that first day alone, over 21,000 British soldiers were killed, missing or died of wounds, Over 35,000 more were wounded.
How do I know all this? I am a contented black cat, but I was there - a mere kitten at the time. My home was the front line village of Montauban where I lived deep underground in a dug out with German soldiers. I am not sure how I got there, but perhaps I belonged originally with a French family. All the French people had left.
My soldiers were very kind, sharing their food and playing games with me. The houses had cellars which had been joined by digging tunnels. There were even deeper dug outs and so many entrances that my home resembled a rabbit warren. The soldiers made themselves comfortable with mattresses, bedding etc from the houses and so did I. There were rats, often very large. Perhaps I was supposed to catch them! They lived on the dead bodies of men outside where I never ventured.
For a week we huddled underground, flayed by a continuous enemy bombardment which made a fearful din. My soldiers crouched stupefied as explosions shook the ground incessantly. Innumerable shells howled over us. Blocked entrances had to be cleared. Going to collect food and water was extremely dangerous so we had emergency rations. Wounded soldiers could not be evacuated. The hail of shells was meant to destroy the trenches and barbed wire above.
Suddenly on that morning of July 1st, the noise ceased for a moment as the barrage lifted. Bugles blew and my soldiers rushed outside. The venomous rattle of machine guns made me cower in my corner. Then some new soldiers called the Manchesters in brown uniforms came running through. I was terrified, but one called Paddy was sorry for me and tucked me into his pack. I was lucky, for these khaki soldiers often stood outside the dug-outs and threw hand grenades down the steps.
I bounced outside in Paddy’s pack and through a peephole saw that Montauban had been pulverised into a heap of dust The trees were blackened stumps and everywhere was the smoke and stench of cordite and fumes from the shells. My German friends were either dead, prisoners or had fled.
Paddy was sent back to the British trenches to get more grenades and as I bumped across No Man’s Land I heard the cries from hundreds of wounded lying in the glaring sun begging for water and help. Paddy had strict orders not to delay so although very upset, he had to ignore their pleas. Some humans think cats are cruel! The grenades collected, back we came across No Man’s Land with murderous German shells bursting all around. Paddy joined his unit in Montauban Alley, a deserted German trench on the far side of the village. Here, during an afternoon "quiet" spell I was allowed out for a game.
We remained in this new front line for 3 days. Several German grenade attacks were beaten off. On 4th July, the 30th Division was withdrawn to rest. Paddy took me behind the lines and gave me to the company cooks as a mascot Just the place for a square meal!
In the summer of 1917, I left France hidden in the jacket of a young soldier going home to Rochdale on leave. I settled in with the soldier’s parents and was named "Nigger". Lancashire is now my home. That poor soldier was killed soon afterwards in the terrible battle of Passchendaele. Paddy survived the war.
Montauban today is a sleepy village, but the area abounds with beautifully kept military cemeteries. French cats discussing human behaviour echo the old song, "When will they ever learn’?".
This is’ based on ‘The First Day on the Somme’ by Mr Martin Middlebrook. Kathleen Wood is grateful to him for allowing them to reproduce the story from the cat's point of view.