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The Somme: 100 years on

PUBLISHED: 15:37 23 June 2016 | UPDATED: 15:49 23 June 2016

Royal Garrison Artillery Gunners at Lydd

Royal Garrison Artillery Gunners at Lydd

Archant

This summer marks the centenary of The Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human conflict with more than one million casualties in four months

Memorial to the 18th (Eastern Division) on the south edge of Trones WoodMemorial to the 18th (Eastern Division) on the south edge of Trones Wood

Just one day

Perhaps the main reason for our continuing national remembrance of this bitter battle is the horrendous number of casualties incurred on just one day The accepted figure of almost 60,000 casualties with 23,000 of them killed on 1 July 1916 alone, the first day of the battle, has resonated for a century.

The Somme battle went on to incur a further 360,000 casualties by the time it puttered out in November 1916; most were citizen soldiers who had responded to Kitchener’s call to arms. So what was this milestone battle all about?

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the SommeThe Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Genesis

At the end of 1915 the Allies decided to make a major attack on the Germans in June 1916 in the Departement of the Somme. The French were to play the major role, but when in February 1916 the enemy attacked at Verdun, the eastern gateway to the heart of France, the French rushed forces to its defence and the British were left to lead the attack on the Somme.

The plan was to attack in long lines at a steady pace along a 14-mile-long front, the assumption being that a heavy preliminary bombardment would have destroyed the German front line defences and barbed wire. It did not and the Tommies, advancing slowly into artillery and machine-gun fire, fell like ninepins.

So overwhelming were British casualties that the Generals were unable to decide what substantial moves to make next. When a night attack was begun on 14 July some limited advances were made, but despite the use of the new British invention of the tank in September, fighting struggled on until mid-November. The maximum advance made in all that time along the front was six and a half miles; German casualties were much the same as the British.

Kitchener Recruiting PostcardKitchener Recruiting Postcard

Few campaigns of recent history provoke such emotive British opinions as The Battle of the Somme: from those who regard Commander in Chief General Haig as a dependable, calm rock to those who believe he was an insensitive product of the social and military caste system who should have been sacked.

The destruction

By November 1916 the area over which the battle was fought was left shattered and in ruins. Many postcards were produced showing the damage, perhaps the most famous being the Leaning Madonna over the Basilique in Albert (GPS: 50.00373 2.64753). The statue was hit by a shell which knocked it over to a perilous angle about which two superstitious beliefs arose: the Allies thought the War would end on the day the statue finally toppled, the Germans thought that whoever knocked it down would lose the war. Neither proved to be correct. In March 1918 the British shelled it down and the Germans lost the War. Today the Madonna has been restored to her former glittering glory.

Special Poppy Pin from The LegionSpecial Poppy Pin from The Legion

Kentish involvement

Kent had played a major part in the war since it broke out. Just four days after it was declared on 4 August 1914, the Kentish Gazette reported major activity in the county. Many factories, gas works and waterworks in Faversham and Canterbury were guarded by troops day and night; miners joined in defensive works in Dover; the Chief Scout promised 1,000 Boy Scouts for active service and soon training camps and military hospitals sprang up along the Kentish coast. Troops embarked from Ramsgate, Dover and Folkestone for France and Belgium.

On 4 August 2014 Prince Harry unveiled a spectacular stainless steel Arch at the top of The Road of Remembrance along which an estimated 10 million troops had marched to the waiting ships in the harbour.

Major and Mrs Holt at homeMajor and Mrs Holt at home

The main Kentish regiments who took part in the Somme battles were: The East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) whose Battle Honours include Somme 1916-1918, Albert 1916-18, Bazentin, Delville Wood, Pozières, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Thiepval, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights, Ancre 1916.

From 1795 they had been based in barracks in Canterbury, which in the 1930s became Howe Barracks (after a former Commanding Officer, Lt-Col Gerard Howe). wSadly, these barracks have recently been closed.

The phrase ‘Steady the Buffs’ was told in Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 novel Soldiers Three and is based on Adjutant Cotter’s rallying cry to the Regiment in Malta.

In November 2015 a fine statue, based on Lady Butler’s famous painting, The Man of Kent, was unveiled by the Queen of Denmark in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral (November 2015 Kent Life).

In addition, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kents’ 7TH Battalion played a major part on the Somme in the clearing of Trônes Woods as part of 18th Division, whose obelisk memorial stands at the edge of the wood today.

On 1 March 1961, the regiment was amalgamated with the Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment) to form the Queen’s Own Buffs, The Royal Kent Regiment, which on 31 December 1966 was merged with the other regiments of the Home Counties Brigade (the Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, the Royal Sussex Regiment and the Middlesex Regiment) to form the Queen’s Regiment. This was finally amalgamated with the Royal Hampshire Regiment on 9 September 1992, to form the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.

The unique history of those two Kentish Regiments is still remembered with pride by their Regimental Associations, with several local branches, qorwkmuseum@maidstone.gov.uk

Kentish casualties

The most powerful impact of the sheer number of losses of Kentish Men and Men of Kent is to be seen on the panels of the magnificent Thiepval Memorial (GPS: 50.05235 2.68814).

Standing 140 ft high it was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and carries the names of more than 73,000 British and South African men (the other Dominions have separate memorials) who lost their lives on the Somme and whose bodies were never found. The 817 missing men of The Queen’s Own Royal West Kents are listed on Panels on Pier & Face 11C. The majority (648) are Private soldiers; their ages range from 17-50.

The 532 missing of The East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) are on Pier & Face 5D. Again the majority are Privates (402), the age range 17-42.

The Memorial is maintained by The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who also care for the beautiful cemeteries (some 140 on the Somme alone). If you know of a relative who was killed in the First World War you can find where they are buried or commemorated on a memorial by searching the CWGC ‘Debt of Honour’ site: www.cwgc.org

Thankful villages

Nothing brings home the dreadful national toll of lost life in the 1914-18 War (a high proportion of those losses incurred in the Somme Battles) than the tiny list of villages who didn’t lose a single parishioner in the First World War. They were known as ‘Fortunate’ (sometimes ‘Blessed’) Villages, 32 of which were first identified by the author Arthur Mee in the 1930s in a series of guidebooks called The King’s England.

From about 2004 onwards, researchers Norman Thorpe, Rod Morris and Tom Morgan of Hellfire Corner became intrigued by the subject, shared information, compiled a list and finally arrived at the figure of 54 (www.hellfirecorner.co.uk/thankful).

As early as 1914, in a competition organised by the Weekly Dispatch, Knowlton was adjudged (by the Attorney General, Lord Birkenhead) to be ‘The Bravest Village’ for sending the highest percentage (30.8 per cent) of its parishioners to the First World War. From its population of 39, 12 men were sent. All of them returned. It is the only village in the county to be so blessed.

The prize for this achievement was the fine 17ft high Memorial that still stands on the Sandwich Road which passes the village, GPS: 51.23624 1.25738. The unveiling ceremony was described in The Times, 8 September 1919.

There has been some discussion as to whether Knowlton should really have qualified as not all of the men (who included Major F.E. Speed, Royal East Kent Yeomanry, Squire of Knowlton and High Sheriff of Kent) actually lived in the village, but worked there.

Today the tiny hamlet makes a fascinating visit, especially the small Church of St Clements, which is full of historical memorials to former Squires and their families. The Lodge House was designed by Lutyens (who also designed the fine West Kents’ War Memorial in Maidstone).

How to visit the Somme

First of all, if you do not already have tickets to the main 1 July ceremonies, we strongly advise that you avoid the main Anniversary period. Roads will be congested, security (for the many VIPs) tight, all accommodation already booked.

a. Take an organised tour. There are now many different tour companies. We recommend that you contact the Guild of Battlefield Guides for a reliable service: secretary@gbg-international.com or visit: www.gbg-international.com

The Royal British Legion also organises tours. See: www.remembrancetravel.org.uk/ww1-tours/the-somme

b. Self-guide. It is about a 90-minute drive from Calais (Port or Eurotunnel) to Albert in the heart of the battlefield area. Therefore if you had a specific site (such as a relative’s grave) to visit, it would just be feasible to go and return on the same day. An overnight stay or two would give time to visit all the main sites (among them the Thiepval Memorial & Museum, Lochnagar preserved Crater, Albert’s subterranean Museum, the Newfoundland Memorial Park, the Ulster Tower etc).

There are many hotels, B&Bs and camping sites to suit all budgets. See Albert (Pays du Coquelicot, Poppy Country) Tourist Office, email: ot.albert.ancre

Battlefield guidebook

Our Major & Mrs Holt’s Somme Battlefield Guidebook gives you detailed instructions for how to reach the Somme, where to eat and stay, has a choice of timed and measured Itineraries, all with GPS locations and historical background to the battle. It comes with a detailed Battle map, showing all the museums, cemeteries, memorials and preserved sites, such as trenchlines and craters, battle lines and modern roads.

Golden storyteller

You may be used to wearing a red poppy in November, but this summer The Royal British Legion is hoping people will don a poppy pin of a different kind.

1 July marks 100 years since the start of the Battle of the Somme, the First World War’s bloodiest battle, which lasted until 18 November 1916 and claimed the lives or injured more than a million men.

To help commemorate the ultimate sacrifice made by so many individuals The Legion has launched a very special Poppy Pin (£39.99).

The intricate gold-coloured pins are made from the brass of melted-down shells found on the Somme battlefields and feature a prominent red centre, the paint for which has been mixed with soil handpicked from the fields.

The soil and nature of the metal used to create the pins means no two are identical, which is far from coincidental. The pins are a limited edition with only 19,240 made, the exact number of soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Each represents one of the soldiers killed and helps remind us that behind the numbers were real people, people just like us, sons, husbands, fathers, and amazing stories of comradeship and courage.

Each pin comes with a certificate detailing specifics of the individual soldier it helps commemorate, and directs you to where you can find more information.

While commemorating the sacrifices made in the past, the pins also help those serving today and all proceeds raised from their sale through The Poppy Shop (www.poppyshop.org.uk) go directly to The Royal British Legion and the important work they do in providing care and support to all members of the British Armed Forces and their families.

Also available, and made using the same materials and methods, is a set of Somme 100 cufflinks.

Buy your Somme pin or cufflinks at: The Poppy Shop, www.poppyshop.org.uk.

Ride to the Somme

At the beginning of the War the British Army was a relatively small force and was increased rapidly by volunteers with often whole streets and villages seeing every available man enlist. One hundred years on, people today are the last that will have spoken directly to those that fought on the Somme.

Today, cycling is a wide-ranging leisure activity but in 1914 times were very different. Throughout the UK there were 15 designated cycling battalions who were absorbed into the Army Cycling Corps.

Many stayed in the UK as part of home defence while others, and their bikes, headed to France and the frontline. Less expensive than motorbikes and used by most people in ordinary day life, the cycle was an everyday reconnaissance and communication weapon in the fight against the enemy.

Of the 15 battalions one was from Kent. The battalion was newly raised at Tonbridge on 1 April 1908 as a bicycle infantry battalion of the British Army’s Territorial Force. Initially designated as the 6th (Cyclist) Battalion, Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment), in 1910 it was separated from the regiment and redesignated as the independent Kent Cyclist Battalion so as to encourage recruitment from the eastern part of the county.

In August 1914, the battalion was headquartered in Tonbridge and at the outbreak of the First World War it was in Eastern Command, unattached to any higher formation but to be used as mobile infantry, and for work on signals, scouting and similar activities. It was much later in the War that the Kent cyclists saw direct action, but in Africa rather than France.

Ride to the Somme is a three-day cycle over 200 miles which will culminate by paying respects at The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, which lists the 72,195 missing British and African soldiers that have no known grave.

Enlisted riders will be asked to report on 31 August to the recruiting centre which will be the Imperial War Museum and from there will cycle in Northern France and visit locations where their ancestors will have fought.

The organisers are working with SSAFA, who played a crucial role in the First World War supporting families and soldiers upon their return home and is the longest-serving national tri-service military charity.

Their support covers both Regulars and Reserves in the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force and their families, including anyone who has completed National Service.

More information at: www.ridetothesomme.org.uk

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