Posted by Bryony Partridge on July 1, 2016 in United Kingdom

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.

10th West Yorkshire WWI Diary

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.”

7th Green Howards War Diary

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.

Bryony Partridge

Bryony is the International PR Manager for Ancestry where she implements strategic communications and social media programs that bring increased media awareness for the company.

6 Comments

  1. Susannah Gray Hillery Blood

    My 2 Great Uncles, Arthur & Ernest Gray both Fought In the Battle of the Sommes – they were separated, thought one another dead, later reunited! Their Grandfather, Pvt. Samuel Gray fought at the Battle of Waterloo with the Scots Greys – he too survived without an injury!

  2. AngelaReed

    My grandfather would not talk about his WWI experiences. Even when my Mother (his eldest daughter) would ask him he remained silent but one day he made the comment that went something like this…”You will never know my girl, the horror of standing on the bodies if the dead horses and trying to avoid the bodies of your comrades in the trenches… And the stench…” As I began to work on our family history I ordered and received my Grandfather’s military record, and there I found that he had left New Zealand with his army regiment to go to the Battle of the Somme. I then looked online and tried to learn about the battle and now I have a better understanding of why he would not speak of his war experiences. I admire him so much and my love for him has grown for the quiet loving Grandpa I love.

  3. Jeani

    Thank you for your moving memory of your grandfather! Although he didn’t fight in the battle of the Somme, my paternal Uncle, ‘Jack’, fought at Amiens and was wounded. A few days later, he died from his wounds. I have been able to find even his conscription document and a photo of the ‘school’ in France where he was brought after being wounded and where he died, as well as the name of the cemetery and grave marker, etc. where he was laid to rest. Amazingly, it is located just one county east where his/my ancestors originally came from before emigrating to Canada. A second cousin has shared many photos of Jack with his Canadian Army buddies, and I have found some artifacts that my Dad had saved when cleaning out my parents’ effects after they died. Dad was just 12 years old when his older brother died in WWI in France, and he always looked so very sad when reminiscing about him. He died in early September 1918 and the war ended on November 11, 1918. Sad …

  4. Mark Leander

    My grandfather, Launcelot Pike, Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldier #1161 went over the top at Beaumont Hamel on July 1st, 1916 and didn’t get far into no-man’s land before being seriously wounded. The story told down generations is that he spent all day there before being rescued … presumably after dark. A soldier collecting the dead happened to notice his hand move and redirected him with the wounded to the hospital. Reconnected after the war the two remained lifelong friends. I have fragments of his story that he typed when I was a boy (I remember seeing him at his typewriter) … but it would be nice to collect even more information. For instance he was in hospital in France for about a month before being transferred to a London Hospital, but i don’t know where it was. I remember that he had a plate in his head and was missing a chunk of his arm, but have never seen his injuries described … do proper hospital records exist? My grandfather was a gentleman and certainly a hero to me (he survived Gallipoli, Beaumont Hamel, and the Halifax Explosion!!!) … I aim to write a proper story of his life to preserve it for future generations.

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