This year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, which took place between 1st July and 18th November 1916. The battle was a joint offensive by the British and French forces – fought along both sides of the River Somme in France – aimed at decisively defeating the Germany Army.
Britain fielded a one million strong ‘New Army’ made up of inexperienced but enthusiastic volunteers from all walks of life, raised in a fervour of patriotism by Field Marshal Lord Herbert Kitchener, Secretary of State for War with his iconic recruiting drive, ‘Your Country Needs You!’.
The overall toll at the end of the campaign was over 1 million Allied and German soldiers killed, wounded or missing. The national trauma of the Somme is remembered to this day.
Header image: equipped British soldiers in a trench, France, during the First World War, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.
Here are 7 things you may not know about the bloodiest battle of the First World War.
1. The Somme was the first time tanks were used in battle.
The British Mark I tank marked the birth of armoured warfare. Fifty-nine tanks were used at Flers-Courcelette, part of the Somme. The assault was a near disaster. Most broke down or got stuck in the mud, but their main effect was psychological. The German troops had no idea of their existence – the development was a well-kept secret. At a massive 28 tons and nearly 10 meters long, they were terrifying monsters as they lumbered and roared out of the fog of battle. The tanks helped restore the confidence of British troops, demoralised by the catastrophic number of dead and wounded.
2. British guns fired 250,000 shells on the first day of the Somme
High calibre shells were essential to the success of the offensive. The majority of shells fired during the Battle of the Somme was filled with a high explosive mix of TNT and ammonium nitrate (amatol) and were produced at the new National Filling Factory, Chilwell, Nottingham, built in 1915 when Britain nearly ran out of ammunition for its artillery. The manager, Godfrey John Boyle, had no previous experience of explosives manufacture, but developed existing factory and mill machinery to meet demand. As a result, Chilwell produced nearly 20 million shells by the end of the First World War.
3. For the first time, all front-line troops were issued with steel helmets.
At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, most soldiers wore headgear made of cloth, felt, or leather. This offered no protection from shrapnel, especially from shells bursting in the air. Fatalities were commonplace with troops suffering terrible head injuries.
The following year in Britain, John L Brodie of London developed a helmet that could be pressed from a single thin sheet of steel. The soup bowl shaped ‘Brodie’ helmet with its wide brim, leather liner and chinstrap was virtually impervious to shrapnel. They were known to the troops as ‘tin hats’ or for the officers “battle bowlers”, after bowler hats.
By the time of the Somme offensive, all front-line troops had Brodies, with 1 million delivered to France July 1916. In images of troops from this time, it is the tin hat which immediately identifies them as British.
4. Battlefield crosses hang in many English churches.
During the war, tens of thousands of soldiers were hurriedly buried on the battlefields by their comrades, their graves marked with a simple wooden cross, name and brief details. The British Army had no formal register of the battlefield burials until February 1915 when a formal register of burials was created.
Orders followed that no solders’ bodies were to be exhumed and repatriated to Britain. Instead, they were later recovered and reburied with identical headstones in specially designed war cemeteries in France and Belgium.
After the war, the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the Church Army helped return some of the original wooden battlefield crosses to soldiers’ families. Some now hang in English churches, serving as poignant links with the conflict. St Mary the Virgin, Cavendish, Suffolk has thirteen. These include that erected over the battlefield grave of Arthur Wells, one of 6 local men killed at the Somme.
5. A rare war memorial on the North Yorkshire moors remembers two young shepherds killed on the Somme.
Robert Leggott and Alfred Cockerill were boyhood friends and shepherds, working for the local Gisborough Estate, which included most moorland farms around the village of Commondale. In 1914 they went to London together, joining the 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards.
Alfred suffered a gunshot wound to the head in July 1916, developed epilepsy and later died in England on 20 August 1920. His ashes are believed to have been scattered near the memorial.
Robert, who was 17, lied about his age in ordered to enlist. He was killed aged 19 on 25 September 1916 in an assault on the German lines. His body was never found.
Touched by the tragedy, the Honorable Margaret Chaloner, daughter of the first Baron Guisborough, commissioned the memorial. Erected in what was reputedly the two shepherds’ favourite spot on the moors, it bears eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on even the smallest local community.
6. The Allies used poison gas on the Somme.
Poison gas was first used by the German Army on the Western Front in the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Britain quickly responded by modifying existing chemical works to manufacture ‘war gases’, and more effective gas masks.
At Idmiston Down, Wiltshire, a circular trench was dug to test the effects of poison gas. The trench is protected by Historic England as a scheduled monument, as are the remains of the National Filling Factory at Banbury, Oxfordshire where gas shells were filled.
7. Troops were not thrown unprepared into the battle.
A commonly-held belief is that ill-trained troops were sacrificed on the Western Front in poorly thought out attacks. Increasingly, archaeological evidence in England is discovering elaborate training trenches, instructional models and full-size mock-ups of the German lines used to prepare troops for living and fighting in the trenches.
Historic England has commissioned research to identify the surviving remains of training trenches in England and the results will be published on-line later this year.