On this day, 100 years ago, the Somme Offensive began. The Battle of the Somme was the first offensive fought by the English and French army against the German Empire.
Spanning over 3 months, until November 18 1916, the battle was the one of the largest of World War I. It is also remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in human history – killing or wounding more than one million men. On the first day of battle alone, the British army faced the most casualties in their entire history; losing 54,470 men, 19,240 of those whom were killed.
In Pen and Sword’s new book The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs, author Richard Van Emden has compiled a collection of soldier photographs and writing that illustrate the extraordinary carnage and courage of the campaign.
From Second Lieutenant Frederick Roe, 1/6th Gloucestershire Regiment:
How do men conduct themselves at such a time, whether wounded or unwounded? I saw a great many who had become uncontrollable, shouting loudly and swearing violently. A few wept with the excitement. Others were desperately benumbed and quiet at the sight of such awful carnage. I saw quite a number of men with their lips moving soundlessly in some sort of prayer…If I try to think back as to how I myself behaved, I can only remember an acute awareness of all that was going on down to the smallest detail, and a feeling of overwhelming tiredness and brain-numbness which had to be fought against the whole time. Perhaps the worst of all was knowledge that I was entirely on my own: no appreciation of the general progress of the battle was at all possible and yet I was terribly concerned that I must do what I had been set to do in spite of all the adverse circumstances…
Two sights from this hour also cling to my memory. I saw through my glasses a shell explode close to a recumbent soldier. It shot him into the air like an arrow and apparently all in one piece. As the human missile slowed down at the top of its trajectory it turned very slowly into a horizontal position high up in the air and seemed to stay quite still for what seemed like an eternity of time. It then suddenly came hurtling down to the ground head first and did not move again. Sometime later in the afternoon I saw through my glasses a soldier sitting up in a shallow crater in no-man’s-land and tearing up his shirt to make himself some bandaging. To my horror on the next morning, I saw that he was still sitting up in the shell crater.
Due to its scale and destruction, thousands of recollections and studies have been written about the offensive. However, unlike other famous battles throughout history, the Battle of the Somme was also filmed and released to the public on August 10, 1916 under the title The Battle of the Somme. A great success, 20 million people saw it in theaters within the first six weeks of its release.
In Ghosts on the Somme: Filming the Battle, June-July 1916, the introduction states:
The film’s greatest importance, however, and the reason for its astonishing success with British cinema audiences on its release in 1916, was the feeling among members of those audiences that the film was making it possible for them to share some of the reality of what their husbands, sons, brothers, neighbors and other loved ones were experiencing in the actual battle of the Somme.
Watch a clip from the film below:
To learn more about this offensive and its effect on the war, take a look at all of our Battle of the Somme books.