A river runs through it: Radio 3 looks at the tragedy of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme has given the associated river a lasting infamy.

Gravestones in Lille of soldiers killed in the Battle of the Somme. Photo: Getty.
Sunday Feature: Somme
BBC Radio 3

If only all of the BBC’s coverage of the First World War anniversary this year could be as tactful and interesting as Paul Farley’s documentary (5 January, 6.45pm). The Liverpudlian poet travelled to the River Somme in Picardy to find its source – a still and peaceful pool “with just a tiniest hint, a quiver of a current”. The name “Somme” (now a byword for the futility and wastefulness of war) comes from a Celtic term meaning “tranquillity”. The battle, which took place during the summer and autumn of 1916, has given the river a lasting infamy.

Farley travelled some of its 152 shape-shifting miles as it rises in the hills at Fonsommes near Saint-Quentin and flows quietly westward to empty into the English Channel, talking about the surrounding landscape and its sometimes wretched history. He was appallingly evocative about the launch of the German offensive in March 1918: the Stygian artillery barrage, the mustard and chlorine gas, the gluey spring fog and relentless shrapnel – a kind of industrial version of an arrow storm at Agincourt – and how the shock of it all would leave any new recruit in the trenches numb and sleepy, as though under anaesthetic.

For most of the programme, we heard an ambient trickling or rushing of the river and the sound of Farley’s boots trudging along it, with him speaking off the top of his head (at least it sounded like that) in his low, convivial voice. He kept using the phrase “I should tell you that”, politely conscious that we could not see what he could, leading us by the hand like someone murmuring into your ear.

Farley has form with documentaries about water – last year, he made Crossing the Bay, about Morecambe. Any child raised, as I was, near Lancashire knows of the black magic quality of Morecambe – the tides as fast as a galloping horse and sand that swallows up mail coaches and shrimp tractors. Farley’s on-location interviews and monologues were brimming with life.

He never gives us the “poet musing” bit – those sententious paragraphs you get all over programmes such as The Verb, which always sound flinch-worthily pre-prepared. Farley just sounds clear and rhythmic and natural, with a gift for the simple statement, making even the unimaginable intelligible.