‘The British...infantry... is very brave but undergoing a costly apprenticeship.’
French officer, 10 July 1916
The Battle of the Somme lasted five months. The Allies kept attacking, but the Germans fought for every inch of ground. Soldiers from across the British Empire took part in the battle. For many of them it was their first experience of combat on the Western Front.
Why did the battle last so long? Fighting in an alliance meant honouring agreements. Britain could not let down the French and Russians. And the fighting on the Somme did relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.
General Haig was convinced that if he kept attacking he might win a clear victory or at least wear the Germans down.
British and Empire forces improved their planning, tactics and use of artillery as the fighting continued. But the battle sank into a muddy stalemate. It was finally called off in November.
Yellow line sign Signs were immediately erected on captured ground by the Royal Engineers. This Yellow Line sign marked an objective, a location beyond the French village of Beaumont Hamel. It had been one of the objectives on 1 July, but was not taken until the Battle of the Ancre, the final major attack on the Somme. ‘All that is left is a few heaps of bricks’, wrote one of the British attackers.
The late summer saw heavy fighting around the places on these trench signs, the village of Pozières and nearby Mouquet Farm, known to British and Empire soldiers as ‘Mucky Farm’. In just six weeks of fighting, Australia suffered 7,000 dead, nearly as many as in eight months at Gallipoli. One Australian officer wrote to a friend, ‘They are working the Australians for all they are worth just now’.
Second Lieutenant Harold Cope was wearing this jacket when he was badly wounded on 7 August 1916. It was cut away so he could receive treatment. In 1914, he might have died. But British Army medical services had learned to get the seriously wounded quickly from the battlefield. They were taken to Casualty Clearing Stations near the front line for life-saving operations.
Pressure was put on officers to keep attacking. These letters relate to Brigadier General Frederick Carleton, who was sacked from his command. The typed letter gives the reasons for his dismissal. Carleton’s letter to his wife conveys his shock and gives his side of the story.
Letter Close bonds were formed under the stress of battle. In this letter Corporal Frank Greenwood of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers praises his dead company commander,
Lieutenant Robert Smylie, and passes on his last words to his widow. Lieutenant Smylie, a headmaster in peacetime, had promised his three children ‘some glorious fun’ when the war was over.
Smylie’s wallet, containing a picture of his wife and children, was damaged when he was killed.
The Somme was a vicious battle.
The German commander, General Fritz von Below, demanded that, ‘the enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses’. A British officer carried this walking stick with a spearhead at Delville Wood – a maze of blasted tree stumps. The 1st South African Brigade was nearly destroyed during desperate fighting in ‘Devil’s Wood’, with over 2,500 men killed.
Letter For the ordinary soldier, the Somme could mean excitement and triumph as well as fear and discomfort. This letter from Private Daniel ‘Jack’ Sweeney of the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment describes a ‘big fight’ to his fiancée, Ivy Williams, who lived in Walthamstow, north-east London.
Australian soldiers bury a dead comrade, August 1916
The French 301st Infantry Regiment on the Somme, September 1916
Indian cavalrymen of the 20th Deccan Horse, before going into action on 14 July 1916
New Zealanders during the battle for Fiers, 15 September 1916
Triumphant Canadians return from action at Courcelette, September 1916
The Somme was mainly a battle of artillery, with observation the key to making full use of the guns. Observers in aeroplanes and balloons mapped enemy positions and guided artillery fire on to targets. Until the autumn British and French aircraft ruled the skies above the Somme battlefield. This was a huge boost to the effectiveness of their artillery.
The Germans responded by introducing improved fighter planes, making artillery-spotting increasingly dangerous for Allied airmen.
Many men wanted to bring home souvenirs to show off to their families. Many of these trophies were scavenged from the battlefield. But in a major offensive like the Somme, there was an opportunity to take them directly from enemy soldiers.
Military units also laid claim to captured equipment. Guns seized from the enemy were a sign of success on the battlefield.
These German drumsticks were captured by the 51st Brigade at Fricourt on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. They were kept by the Brigade signals officer, Captain Eric Carus-Wilson.
The photograph of enemy equipment captured by the Brigade shows them on top of a helmet. The sign appears to indicate that the trophies belonged to ‘151st Brigade’, but the first ‘1’ is probably a coincidental splash of paint.
Madsen light machine gun
This Madsen light machine gun was captured on the Somme by 16th Rifle Brigade. Captured machine guns were often painted with details of the unit that had seized them and sent home as tokens of their triumph in battle.
German Gewehr 98 rifle
Canadian Captain Ralph Webb described in a letter how he captured this German Gewehr 98 rifle.
‘I went over the top at Beaucourt Wood, lost my gun and a German officer nearby was about to give me a bullet. I managed to get him in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, left him dead, and brought back his rifle as a souvenir’.
German helmets and trench knives
These German helmets and trench knives were taken as trophies by British soldiers on the Somme.
Ordinary infantrymen could only keep what they could easily carry in their kit. They often sold their trophies to officers who could send packages home, or to soldiers working behind the front line who had access to storage.
The German Pickelhaube spiked helmet was the most sought-after trophy and could fetch high prices.