The Battle of the Somme: part 2

Our understanding of the First World War has been shaped by the numerous artists, poets, writers and composers who recorded their experiences of the fighting. In the second of two posts, Ilka Heale highlights some of the men who fought in the Battle of the Somme (1st July - 19th November 1916).





Image of Robert Graves: [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
Poet and novelist, Robert Graves (1895-1985) is probably best known for the I, Claudius novels. In the First World War he fought alongside another war poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967).

During the Battle of the Somme, Graves was struck by an exploding shell a few days before his 21st birthday leaving him so badly injured that he was reported dead by his commanding officer. However, by the time his obituary appeared in the British press, Graves had miraculously recovered. He was soon well enough to return to the front a few months later. Surviving the war, he went on to live until the age of 90.

William Noel Hodgson (1893-1916) was also a poet. Known as 'Smiler' to his friends due to his sunny disposition, he volunteered on the outbreak of the war in 1914. This poem Before Action was written in the weeks leading up to the Battle of the Somme. His battalion was ordered to advance across the downward slope of a hill, in full view of German trenches on three sides. They knew how slender their chances were. On 1 July 1916, Hodgson was killed in the opening minutes of the advance.
Taken from William Noel Hodgson: the gentle poet by Jack Medomsley.
Seen as a plea for courage in the face of death, this poem was originally published on 29 June 1916 in the weekly paper The New Witness. Hodgson died two days later. Hodgson's posthumous volume Verse and Prose in Peace and War, published in 1917, was so popular it ran into three editions.

John Buchan (1875-1940) was the author of the Thirty-nine steps, one of the most famous and influential adventure stories of the 20th century. During the First World War, Buchan worked at the War and Foreign Offices and was appointed Director of Information making a major contribution with the innovative use of propaganda. Published in 1916, Buchan wrote The Battle of the Somme, First Phase claiming that the battle was so successful that it marked the end of trench warfare. However he failed to inform his readers that of the 110,000 British soldiers who fought in the Battle, over 57,000 became casualties and 20,000 were killed on the first day of fighting.

Starting in 1914, Buchan also wrote the extensive Nelson's 'History of the war' published as a monthly magazine. This book, published in 1917, was intended to be a companion to the monthly volumes of 'History of the war' as it contained sketch maps illustrating the battles.

Herbert Ward (1863-1919) was a British sculptor, illustrator, writer and explorer. As Ward was too old to enlist in the army, he served with the British Ambulance Committee. Wounded at the front and mentioned in dispatches in 1915, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his work removing wounded soldiers whilst under bombardment. He died, partly as a result of his injuries, in August 1919.

Image from Mr Poilu by Herbert Ward
Mr. Poilu: notes and sketches with the fighting French was published in December 1916 as a tribute to the French as worthy allies. As described by Ward in chapter 1, Poilu was a nickname given to French soldiers. The illustrations, chiefly monochrome, depict not victory but land despoiled and soldiers standing alone, their faces all aged by a war which must inescapably be fought despite the losses already incurred.

British Composer George Butterworth (1885-1916) was best known for The Banks of Green Willow and his musical settings for the poems of A.E Housman.



Written in 1913, The Banks of Green Willow is a short pastoral idyll. It has become almost a symbol of that long-lost halcyon Edwardian age, as if Butterworth were transcribing the disappearing world around him.
 Butterworth had joined up at the outbreak of war and during the Battle of the Somme was awarded the Military Cross for capturing a series of trenches near Pozières. On 4th August 1916, his unit was ordered to attack a communications trench and despite successfully capturing it, he was shot by a German sniper and died on 5th August.

There is an exhibition of items from the University Library's collections on the ground floor of the Fairhurst Building. To find material on First World War, search YorSearch, our Library catalogue.


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

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