A brief introduction to

7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was a joint offensive by the British and French forces.

The Battle of the Somme took place between 1 July and 18 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.

Equipped British soldiers in a trench looking at the camera
Equipped British soldiers in a trench, France, during the First World War. Image courtesy the National Library of Scotland

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.

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

British Mark IV, ‘female’ tank, originally armed with just machine guns
British Mark IV, ‘female’ tank, originally armed with just machine guns, Ashford, Kent. It is one of the last First World War tank on public display today. Listed Grade II © Historic England Archive. Ref: DP182278

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

Interior high explosive shell filling shed.
Interior high explosive shell filling shed. This huge space was able to hold 600,000 filled shells and 100,000 shells ready for filling © Historic England Archive. Ref: AA96-03565

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

A wiring party of British troops wearing tin hats
A wiring party of British troops wearing tin hats (Brodies) © Wayne Cocroft

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

Commondale Shepherds War Memorial with small crosses and a wreath at the base
Commondale Shepherds War Memorial, Commondale, North Yorkshire. Listed at Grade II © Chris Twigg

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

M40 passes by the site of the former National Filling Factory at Banbury
The M40 passes by the site of the former National Filling Factory at Banbury, Oxfordshire © Historic England

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

Aerial view of First World War training trenches at Redmires
Aerial view of First World War training trenches at Redmires, Hallams Moor, Sheffield initially dug by the Pals of the Sheffield City Battalion. The trenches are protected as a scheduled monument © Historic England Archive. Ref: 28107/016

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.

Further Reading

3 comments on “7 Things You May Not Know About the Battle of the Somme

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    Thank you. The war memorial on the North Yorkshire moors to the two local shepherds killed on the Somme must be very rare indeed. Not too often were young men’s bodies returned to their homelands and in any case, the memorials were almost always communal.

    As everyone in a small community was touched by the tragedy, erecting the memorial locally gave the family and friends a place to mourn. Losing a son or husband would have been unthinkable, but mourning without a grave stone or named memorial would have made it seem worse.

  2. Jerry Shoolbred.

    I hope you’ll include the trenches that were dug on the hill at the top of Ashburnham Road in Luton. There were remains of rusty wire there when I played there as a boy early in the ’60’s.

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