Smiles from the Somme
On 1st July 1916 the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the First World War, began. Over 141 days, 1.2 million soldiers on both sides of the conflict were injured or killed, in what Captain Blackadder famously referred to as âanother gargantuan effort to move [Field Marshal Haigâs] drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.â 1st July 1916 has gone down on record as the single worst day in the history of the British army; in just one day, the army suffered 60,000 casualties.
Desperate to keep the true horrors of the war from civilian eyes, the propaganda machine swung into overdrive. Headlines from The Daily Mirror that month tell of smiling Tommies, heroic naval captures, German atrocities and British soldiers magnanimous in victory: âThe Big Advance: All goes well for England and Franceâ; âAlliesâ victorious advance continuedâ; âChivalrous victors: British soldiers show every kindness to their captured foesâ.
The Daily Mirror: Front pages, July 1916. Image Â© Mirrorpix. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Please click on the image to access this front cover (and others from the month of July 1916) in the collection.
Nowadays, we know the realities of life in the trenches, of shell-shock, gangrene and disease. Schoolchildren study the poetic laments and grisly photographs of the war and generations have been taught about the utter futility of trench warfare. A week after the battle began, however, the front page read: âA page of smiles from the Somme: our cheery Tommies arrive home, wounded but happyâ. The caption beneath leans heavily on romantic ideals of war and nationalism: âBack from the great advance they have come. Wounded and shattered they are â but happy! They have done their bit in upholding the honour of England and in vanquishing her foes.â
In our resource, The First World War: Personal Experiences, the war is pieced together through thousands of primary sources including journals, photographs, maps, memoirs and newspapers. I was moved to discover a series of oral histories amongst this trove, and was particularly drawn to "Description of going over the top and crossing no man's land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916". Recorded in 1986, this short interview features Maurice Symes - a private who served in the Somerset Light Infantry - recalling the events of the day:
âWell we were sitting ducks all the way, you see, with the Germans there with their machine guns and their artillery still there thatâs where the casualties came from, so many of them, see?â
ââŠI never had any fear or anything like that, I suppose you didnât at that age, you would know, you got a sort of âcouldnât happen to me feelingâ. Then it did happen to a good many, thatâs the trouble, I suppose they had the same feeling.â
ââŠwe just scrambled over the trench and walked forward and, you could see people going down all the way round, you know, getting shot. It wasnât a very pleasant feeling, and then I got hit myself âŠ I was more surprised than anything else really! Wondered what the devil had happened, itâs just like somebody had kicked you in the stomach, itâs a funny sort of feeling.â
Today, the campaign of the Somme is seen as a battle of attrition; an attempt to divert German resources from Verdun, where it was feared the French army faced annihilation. Evermore associated with one of the cruellest battles ever fought, the name âSommeâ is rooted, ironically, in a Celtic word for âtranquillityâ. The bullets, shells, shrapnel and barbed wire of First World War battles still litter the landscape; a century has passed, yet across France and Belgium, farmers continue to reap the âiron harvestâ.