(Image credit: Wikipedia)
This historic battle lasted 141 days. A daily service of remembrance will be held at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in northern France at noon through to November 18. British readers who are interested in attending may register via the Royal British Legion site. Thiepval is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world.
Access to Thiepval will be restricted until July 9 for special ceremonies. On July 1, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Charles and Prince Harry will attend a commemorative service. The service will tell the story of the battle and will include special readings, hymns and music.
Nearby towns will also hold remembrance ceremonies as will cities and towns in the United Kingdom and Canada. Germans will commemorate the centenary at their cemetery in Fricourt.
The Battle of the Somme began at 7:30 a.m. July 1, 1916 is still regarded as the worst day in British military history. On that day alone, 57,470 men were killed or injured; 19,240 died. By the time the battle ended on November 18, more than one million men — British, French and German — had been wounded or killed.
Among the British soldiers were the Pals battalions, comprised of friends, relatives and workmates who were allowed to fight together. They had enlisted on the appeal of the recruitment posters featuring Lord Kitchener.
Private Sidney Lewis was one of those young men. In fact, he was only a boy — aged 12 — when he signed up in 1915. He was tall and stocky for his age. He was sent to the Somme and fought for six weeks. His mother discovered where he had gone, sent his birth certificate to the War Office and demanded his return. Sidney Lewis was sent home in August 1916, a year after he had enlisted.
The oldest soldier was Lt Henry Webber who died on the battlefield on July 27, aged 67!
Captain Wilfred Percy Nevill, known as Billie, decided that a football would calm his troops’ nerves. When the artillery bombardment lifted on July 1, he and another officer kicked the balls into ‘no man’s land’ and followed them. A Royal British Legion leaflet from May 2016 explains:
As the Advance approached the German barbed wire, the troops hesitated and Nevill dashed forward to kick the ball on. He was killed instantly.
No man’s land was the area between a system of trenches and dugouts protected by barbed wire on the British and German sides of the Western Front.
Conditions were extremely harsh. Each infantryman carried an average of 30 kg of equipment during the first phase of the battle. The weather was cold, the trenches wet. Troops had to live among disease-carrying rats. An average of 893 men died every day from July 1 to November 18.
Incidentally, the first British tank — the Mark I — made its debut on September 15 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.
Filming also took place during the Battle of the Somme. A feature-length documentary of soldiers in action — The Battle of the Somme — was quickly put together and premiered in cinemas on August 21, 1916. Six weeks later, 20 million Britons had seen it.
This is footage taken on July 1:
Another outcome of the battle, possibly because of the documentary, was a narrative against the officer class. A Royal British Legion paper on the battle says that the film by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell showed no officers, only soldiers (p. 11 of the PDF). Yet, officers were close to their men — more so than today — and often led the charge.
Over the course of the battle, the British took a strip of territory from the Germans that was 20 miles long and five miles deep.
The onset of winter with its wet, unforgiving weather finally put an end to combat. Troops on both sides had been poorly prepared and inadequately equipped.
The horrifying death toll brought the reality of war home for Britain.
The emblematic battle for the French is Verdun. For Australians and New Zealanders it is Gallipoli.
For the British it is the Battle of the Somme.
We will remember.