The Battle of the Somme: part 1

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme (1st July - 19th November 1916) one of the largest battles of the First World War fought on the Western Front. In the first of two posts, Ilka Heale highlights some books on the subject in the University Library.




At 7.30am on Saturday 1st July 1916, the opening British and French attack was launched near the River Somme in Picardy, northern France. The battle was fought in three major phases and several battles: at Albert, Bazentin Ridge, Fromelles, Delville Wood, Pozières Ridge, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Transloy Ridge, Thiepval Ridge, Ancre Heights, and at Ancre.

This was the 'Big Push' and was intended to hasten a victory for the Allies and to end the war. It was also one of the bloodiest battles. By the end of the fighting on the Somme, the British Army had lost over 400,000 men for an advance of a mere six miles. Between both sides, over 1,000,000 were killed or wounded. Practically all were infantrymen.

We are fortunate to have a collection of books about the First World War donated to the University Library by A. J. Peacock. Alfred James Peacock (1929-2004) was an educationalist and magistrate who completed a doctorate at the University. He also published a biography of the York "railway king" George Hudson. With an interest in the First World War, Peacock led annual tours of the battlefields.



The photograph above is of a young officer giving his men some final instructions before going into the battle. Taken from The war illustrated album de luxe: the story of the great war told by camera, pen and pencil edited by J. A. Hammerton (published in London by Amalgamated Press, 1915-1919).

The following quote (taken from The Imperial War Museum book of the Somme by Malcolm Brown) about the opening attack on the first day of the battle was written by an anonymous British eyewitness. He was writing about the part played by the 1/1st Welsh Heavy Battery (Territorial Force).


The extract below, from Orders are orders: a Manchester Pal on the Somme, is from an account written by Private Albert William Andrews of the 19th Battalion Manchester Regiment. A Manchester Pal, Albert recalled the first day of the Somme in his memoirs written in 1917 while convalescing from shell shock. You can also read his memories of Saturday 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Monday 3rd July, 1916

"On the Monday I was put with others burying the dead and this was when we realised the cost of our victory. The first Tuesday the roll was called there were too many that did not answer. Burying your own lads is not a job that I want again, some seeming by their looks to have died very easy, others very hard. [....] The job consisted of ….. taking their equipment off and emptying their pockets. You put the contents in the gas helmet satchel and hand this to the Officer who is with you, giving the man's name, number and Regiment if possible."

British troops advancing under shell fire 1 
On 12 August 1916 Friedrich Steinbrecher, a young German officer, wrote home saying: "Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word."

There is currently an exhibition of items from the University Library's collections on the ground floor of the Fairhurst Building; this will remain in place until the end of November (although it will be briefly removed between 19 and 28 October). To find material on the First World War, search YorSearch, our Library catalogue.

1. British troops advancing under shell fire - a British Official photograph taken from The illustrated war record: of the notable episodes in the Great European War

The photographs of the books in the University Library's collections were taken by the University photographer, Paul Shields.

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