Thursday, 22 January 2015

First World War Remembered: The Somme

Boy Soldiers:

Around 250,000 boys, some as young as 14, lied about their age to fight in the First World War.

The Army turned a blind eye.

Of these 18,000 fought at the Somme and more than 120,000 were to be killed or wounded during the war.

Private Frederick Darkes of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment - is this the man in the powerful and iconic image taken from the official film of the Somme Battle released in British cinemas in August, 1916?

On 1 July 1916, Lord Kitchener's trained but as yet untested Volunteer Army launched their first major offensive on the Western Front along the banks of the River Somme.

The assault, designed to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, had been preceded by a massive bombardment lasting a week during which 1.7 million shells were fired.

But many of shells, low calibre and shrapnel, were useless against fixed positions and the German front-line positions remained largely intact and the barbed wire had not been cut.

At 7.27 am the British troops left their trenches and advanced into a hail of shell and machine gun fire.

By the end of the day 21, 053 men lay dead with a further 40,000 wounded.

Despite more than 60,000 casualties, the worst disaster in British military history, no first day objectives had been achieved.

But the battle was to continue for another five months and by the time it petered out 95,675 British and Commonwealth soldiers had been killed, 324,000 wounded, and 57 Victoria Crosses won.

They had advanced just six miles.

At 7.27 am on 1 July 1916, as the whistles were blown to go over-the-top Captain Wilfred Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment kicked two footballs into no-mans-land for the men to pass to each other offering a prize to the one who could dribble it all the way to the German front-line.

He was killed early in the assault, as indeed were almost 60% of the Officers leading their men that day.

Captain Robert Graves, already a poet and later author of I Claudius was so seriously wounded on the Somme that the doctors believed he was dead and were surprised to discover that he wasn't. He recovered but not before his family had been informed of his death and his obituary had appeared in The Times newspaper.

Lieutenant J.R.R Tolkien, future author of Lord of the Rings served throughout the Battle of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers including a successful assault upon the German defences around Thiepval.

It is believed his experience of trench warfare greatly influenced his imaging of the subterranean world he later created.

Lance-Corporal Arnold Ridley, better known as the author of the Ghost Train and for playing Private Godfrey in Dad's Army, fought at the Battle of the Somme where his legs were shredded by shrapnel, he was bayoneted in the groin, clubbed unconscious by a German rifle butt, and was left with a scar that ran the entire length of his body.

He later went on to serve in World War Two.

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