To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in July 2016, IWM published The Somme: A Visual History, a new book which tells the story of the famous battle. In this guest blog by author Anthony Richards, IWM Head of Documents and Sound, we find out more about some of the remarkable personal stories that are included.
- Researching the book
As the author, it was a privilege for me to select the most interesting material to be featured in the book, and I was keen for the story to be told primarily through the words of those who were actually there and who experienced what was to be the key battle of the First World War. What distinguishes this book from the many others on a similar theme is that it is based upon IWM’s own collections, with a narrative which concentrates heavily on the original letters, diaries and memoirs written by participants in the battle; photographs taken during the campaign; stills from the famous Battle of the Somme film; and images of exhibits and artwork from the museum’s extensive archives. IWM’s great strength as a national museum is that we base much of our exhibitions and projects around the personal stories of ordinary people, which allow our audiences to engage with individual experiences of war and empathise with those who lived through such earth-shattering events.
- Personal stories
This reliance on personal testimony means that we are able to create a strong link to the Lives of the First World War project, where you will now find a Community of stories of those who feature prominently in The Somme: A Visual History.
Among these you will find William Cyril Jose who, as a 17-year old under-age volunteer, went into action with the 2nd Devonshires during the initial infantry assault on 1 July 1916. He received a bullet wound to his shoulder and fell in no man’s land, where he lay in fear of death until the next day, eventually crawling back to the safety of the British lines.
You can also discover further information about George Ellenberger, an officer of the 9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who led his men into action towards Fricourt on 1 July. While shocked at how intact the German front line defences were, despite the heavy artillery bombardment which had been directed on them for the previous week, he describes in a letter home how his unit took a stream of prisoners in one of the few success stories of that fatal First Day of the battle.
All the Allies are advancing and behind the dark clouds there is just a little ray of sunshine which we trust will mean peace…
Perhaps one of the most poignant accounts featured in the book is that of Lieutenant Russell-Jones, commander of the 30th Division Trench Mortar Battery, who recorded the extensive casualties sustained during the battle and reflects on the ‘perfect hell’ that he and his men had experienced. Yet despite this, his tone remained optimistic for the future: “Let us hope we are in sight of the finish. All the Allies are advancing and behind the dark clouds there is just a little ray of sunshine which we trust will mean peace…”
The Battle of the Somme would last until 18 November 1916, yet the development of new technology and fighting techniques, when combined with the attritional warfare which saw the German Army fall back to the Hindenburg Line at the beginning of the following year, would ensure that the path for victory was set. It would, however, take until November 1918 for the larger battle to be won.