Where: Somme, Northern France
History: Bloody slaughter of British and German troops during the trench warfare of WWI
Go there for: pay homage to the one million men who lost their lives on this day in one of the most brutal period’s of all history
Overview of the Battle of the Somme, 1916
The Battle of the Somme is famous not for its military success but for the very opposite; on 1 July 1916, the first day of the offensive, 58,000 British troops were lost (20,000 of whom were killed) as they ‘went over the top’ in a massive assault on German lines. This grotesque figure remains a one-day record.
Originally designed by British and French commanders in 1915 as a battle of attrition to bleed the German forces of reserves, its aim was shifted in early 1916 in response to the German Verdunoffensive. The date of the Somme was brought forward in the hope that diverting German resources away from Verdun to this second front would relieve the pressure on the beleaguered French troops.
The attack was preceded by an eight-day bombardment of German lines, which with its level of ferocity, was supposed to completely destroy German frontline defences and allow British forces to walk across No Man’s Land and take their position from them. On 1 July, British, French and Commonwealth troops went on the offensive. Many walked slowly towards the German lines, laden down with supplies, expecting little or no opposition. But the bombardment had failed in two ways; much of the munitions used by the English were ‘duds’ and didn’t destroy frontline barbed wire or robustly built concrete bunkers sheltering the Germans and it had given them advance warning of an attack. Tens of thousands of men fell to German machine guns – many as soon as they climbed out of the trenches.
By the time the offensive was called off in November, the British and French had gained just eight miles of territory and lost 620,000 casualties; the German casualties were estimated at 500,000.
Touring the Somme
There are two ways of visiting the battlefields; with a tour (of which there are many good ones available) or with a self-guided group of family or friends. This is certainly favoured by the many visiting descendants of British and Commonwealth soldiers who fought or fell here.
If you’re going to the Somme to retrace the steps of your ancestors make sure you have researched the details of their service in your home country first. In Britain, the process is simply set out in Fowler, Spencer and Tamblin’s ‘Army Service War Records of World War One‘, published by the Public Record Office in Kew, London. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a database of men killed and where they are buried or commemorated. Those never found are remembered by the vast arch at Thiepval.
A good map is also essential. Recommended maps are the Michelin 1/200,000 Sheet 53 which gives the locations of many Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and the British Official History’s 1/40,000 maps in Official History of the War: Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1916, Volume One (Edmonds).
Once You’re There
The best way of taking in the circuit of battlefields, graveyards and memorials that litter the countryside is by dividing the places visited into ‘stands’ where you can survey the scene and read or talk about what happened here. Weather is unpredictable in this area of France so bring waterproofs and sensible shoes. Plan your logistics; there are few toilet facilities so make sure you schedule in a stop at the café on the edge of Delville Wood. You can get hearty gallic lunches inAlbert and Bapaume while Avril Williams’ Tea Room in Auchonvillers is both a rest stop and a museum rolled into one.
One last word of warning; don’t be tempted to reap the ‘iron harvest’ of shells and grenades that still litter the countryside – they could kill you.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Official website with searchable database of those who were killed in the war
Le Tommy Café du Souvenir
91 route d’Albert
Tel: 03 22 74 82 84
This World War One themed bar is actually more tasteful than its description suggests. Have a drink while hanging out in an authentic trench or buy authentic First World War shrapnel in a plastic ball from an on-site vending machine – probably the only place in the world where this can be done – thankfully!
By Kate Griffiths