The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July, 1916 – the deadliest day in the history of the British Army. Around 20,000 British Empire soldiers lost their lives that day and it was just the beginning of a battle that would be become forever associated with the horrors of the First World War.
Based on population modelling data, it’s believed that around 11 million Brits have a family member who fought at the Battle. But how many people really understand what their ancestors went through during the Somme offensive?
There are a number of collections available on Ancestry.co.uk which provide this context and can help researchers understand the role their ancestors had in the Battle.
The UK WWI Diaries 1914-1920 collection provides comprehensive details into British and colonial military operations and uncover some of the horrors of action on the first day of the Battle. According to the diary of the 10th West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own), which suffered the worst battalion losses of the day, troops assaulted in four lines, but the machine guns were “so deadly that the 3rd and 4th lines failed to get across “no-mans-land”. The Battalion saw 27 Officer casualties and 750 casualties of other ranks in just one day.
One of the most detailed diaries in the collection, belonging to the 7th Green Howards (Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Regiment), tells of an “unfortunate mistake” by one of the commanding officers that saw many men fall victim to the German guns, when his company assaulted without the support of the battalion:
“As soon as they began to climb over our parapet terrific machine gun fire was opened by the enemy and the company was about at once wiped out. The survivors lay… some 25 yards in front of our wire until dark”.
Following a later “feeble” bombardment, “the battalion assaulted and were met by a murderous machine gun and rifle fire, officers and men were literally mown down and were finally brought to a standstill about half way across to the enemy trenches. 13 Officers and over 300 men became casualties in about three minutes.”
Records also reveal a number of famous names who fought at the Battle of the Somme, including the then-Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s son Raymond, who was killed in action. His record in the UK, WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914-1920 collection reveals Asquith was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal posthumously.
War poet, Seigfried Sassoon also appears in the WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls, 1914—1920 collection. Sassoon famously denounced the first day of the Battle of the Somme as ‘a sunlit picture of hell’ but despite his obvious discontent with his circumstances he, like Asquith, was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal, as well as a 1914-15 Star.
Despite 11 million people being related to a Somme hero, and considering the horrors of the Battle, few people know much about it. As an introduction, we ventured into the depths of the National Archives with actor and historian Sir Tony Robinson to reveal five key facts people need to know about the Somme.