Today marks the anniversary of the start of one of the most bloody battles of World War One. The Battle of the Somme. The battle took place between the 1st of July and the 18 November in 1916 and which by the end of the battle the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone and the French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.
The vast majority of those Commonwealth soldiers who were killed were buried either where they fell or in hastily prepared graves nearby. The practice of non-repatriation of the dead was established during the First World War and meant that servicemen and women who died on active service abroad, were buried abroad. The countryside of France and Belgium is peppered with the immaculately maintained cemeteries that are looked after by the CWGC – The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
But closer to home there are many headstones from soldiers of the First World War that are scattered in cemeteries all over the country. The majority of those buried in the United Kingdom are predominantly the men and women who died at home in military hospitals after evacuation from the front. Others may have died in training accidents, some were killed in action in the air or at sea in our coastal waters.
I’ve photographed the headstones of a number of World War One soldiers who have graves marked in cemeteries near where I live. I visited Saltburn, Brotton, Skelton and Guisborough and through the project I made a record of a number of graves of those killed during or soon after the end of WW1.
The headstones of all British and Commonwealth are maintained and funded by the CWGC – The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Facts about the Battle of the Somme:
- The Battle of the Somme was originally meant to be a French led offensive with the British in support. It was also initially planned for August 1916
- When the German army attacked Verdun in February 1916 it was clear that France would not be able to lead any major offensive in 1916, indeed a British diversionary attack was needed fast to take the pressure of the French and divert German resources away from Verdun. That diversionary attack turned out to be the Battle of the Somme
- The preliminary bombardment lasted eight days and saw over 1,600 pieces of British artillery fire 1.73 million shells on to the German lines.
- The first infantry attack took place in the early morning of 1st July 1916 – the battle continued until the 18th November
- Many of the shells that were fired in that preliminary bombardment were duds and failed to explode. Those that did explode tended to be shrapnel shells which had little effect on barbed wire defences, dugouts and enemy strong points
- The average British infantryman carried 30kg of equipment as he went over the top during the first phase of the battle
- Britain lost 57,470 casualties (killed and wounded) on the first day of the Battle of the Somme
- 19,240 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the battle
- The oldest British soldier to die during the battle was Lt Henry Webber, 7th South Lancashire Regiment. He was 68 when he died on 27th July 1916
- On 15 September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette the tank made its operational debut. Although they scared many of the German soldiers in the front line, a mixture of poor tactics and unreliability meant that overall they failed to make a great impact
- During the Battle of the Somme 51 Victoria Crosses were awarded – 17 of them were awarded posthumously
- During the battle between July and November 1916, the French and British armies suffered around 625,000 casualties
- Germany casualty figures for the battle are estimated at 500,000
- The furthest advance of any allied force during the battle was five miles
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