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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. At 7.30a.m., on a 14 mile front running north of the River Somme in France, 60,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and began to move across No Man's Land. Within one hour, over half of these men were dead or wounded.

These soldiers thought that the German defences had been destroyed by the previous eight days of British artillery bombardment. In fact, many of the shells had failed to explode and the German barbed wire, trenches, machine-guns and artillery were still waiting for them.

On the first day, 100,000 British soldiers joined the battle. By the end of the day, there were 58,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead. It was the worst day in the history of the British Army and still remains the greatest loss in a single day for Britain.

The battle did, however, achieve its purpose. The French Army was being destroyed at Verdun, so the British attacked the Somme, forcing the Germans to divert resources and men from Verdun in its defence. The Somme tore the heart out of the German Army and, without this diversion, the French would have been defeated and the war lost.

The battle ended on 18 November 1916, because the rain turned the battlefield into an impassable sea of mud. The British and French had gained 12 kilometres of ground and suffered over 400,000 and 200,000 casualties respectively. The Germans sustained 500,000 casualties. Of the 15,000 soldiers of the DLI who had fought on the Somme, over half had been wounded, killed, or reported missing.

This section of the website will examine documents that show the impact of the battle on individual soldiers.

Photograph of an unknown soldier’s grave (D/DLI 2/18/81) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This photograph shows the gravestone of one of the 19,000 British soldiers who died on the first day. Where a body could not be identified, because it had been so badly mutilated (damaged) and lost its dog tag, it was buried in a grave with a regulation gravestone. The uniform of the soldier buried here must have been intact enough to show he was from the DLI and was a Lance Corporal.

In 1920, the body of an unidentified soldier was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey. His tomb is known as that of the Unknown Warrior, and is a symbol of all the soldiers who died in the war.

Individual soldiers' experiences of the first day of the Battle varied according to the place where they were stationed. In the DLI, of the 7 battalions which took part in the Battle, only the 15th and 18th Battalions The Durham Light Infantry actually fought on the first day.

Extract from Sergeant Barclay’s diary, 1 July 1916 (D/DLI 7/41/2) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Sergeant John Barclay was in the 8th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry and his diary shows the days leading up to and the 1 July as just 'normal' days in the war. 'Offensive near Albert - (messages) In village D Sec. relieved A Sec'.

See a full transcript of Sergeant Barclay's diary.

With hindsight we know why his leave was stopped on 29 June 1916. Barclay's diary also shows that not all injuries happened on the battlefield: ''Garcon' shot himself thro[ugh his] hand while cleaning revolver.' We don't know why this soldier was cleaning a loaded gun. He may have been too lazy to disarm it and this was a genuine accident. Possibly, however, he knew that the Big Push was the next day and wanted to spend the battle safely in an English hospital.

Extract from Private Roberts’ diary, 1 July 1916 (D/DLI 7/577/2) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Private William Roberts was in 18DLI from 1915 until he died of wounds, aged 23, in June 1917. His diary for 1 July 1916 shows a very different experience from Barclay's:

'The sights I saw are too terrible to write about ... I saw dead and wounded lying side by side Some were moaning and others had so far lost there [sic] reason that they were laughing and singing'.

See a full transcript Private Roberts' diary.

While some soldiers expressed their thoughts in diaries, others recorded their experiences through drawings. Captain Robert Mauchlen drew a series of sketches during the war, including several during the Battle of the Somme.

Sketch of the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt by Captain Mauchlen, November 1916 (D/DLI 7/920/10(5) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This drawing shows the attack on the Butte de Warlencourt on 5 November 1916. Although the Butte was of little strategic importance, it became a symbol to many of the soldiers who believed that it was vital that it be captured. The attack was carried out in appalling conditions, after a night of heavy rain and, although 9DLI captured the Butte temporarily, the soldiers were forced to retreat that night with terrible casualties.

The hill in the distance in the sketch is the Butte de Warlencourt. The sketch also shows the amount of equipment which the soldiers carried, further slowing them down in the mud.

Amongst their equipment, officers carried maps of the area with the trenches marked on them (trench maps). Only captured trenches (or current enemy trenches) were marked on them in case they fell into enemy hands.

Trench map with bullet hole, 1916 (D/DLI 7/503/7) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This map was in the right hand tunic pocket of Second Lieutenant Harold H. Nicholson when he was shot, and the map stopped the bullet from seriously wounding him. The bullet hole can be seen, with a dark stain which is probably blood

Letters were the main way of keeping in touch with friends and family at home. Some soldiers did not want to worry their families and tried to hide the horrors of war, others were more honest.

Lieutenant Catford's letters describe the terrible conditions facing the soldiers: 'The whole show is very ghastly... the Artillery is awful and the flies worse, whilst conditions of living are worse still' ... 'the fairly heavy bombardment which is practically continuous during this the greatest battle of the War'.

Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 25 September 1916, p.1 (D/DLI 7/115/15) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 25 September 1916, p.2 (D/DLI 7/115/15) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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He also emphasises the heroism which he saw: 'Men live and die like heroes and face with the greatest of courage that which no man ought to be called upon to face'.

See a full transcript of Lieutenant Catford's letter, 25 September 1916.

Letter from Lieutenant Catford, 30 September 1916 (D/DLI 7/115/17) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Catford sent this second letter on 30 September. He died of wounds five days later on 5 October 1916. World War I was the first time that shell shock had been acknowledged.

See a full transcript of Lieutenant Catford's letter, 30 September 1916.

Sergeant Constantine's letters were less positive about the war: 'we are training heavy to take part in the push and I am only wishing the war was finished before we go up, but no such luck, never mind I'll just have to take my chance the same has all the other boys ... the sooner this is over and I'm back home the better. I am getting properly fed up and sick of the damn job, but its no use grumbling I'll have to stick it.'

Letter from Sergeant Constantine, 4 September 1916, p.1 (D/DLI 7/137/51) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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Letter from Sergeant Constantine, 4 September 1916, p.1 (D/DLI 7/137/51) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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See a full transcript of Sergeant Constantine's letter, 4 September 1916.

This was his last letter home: he was killed on 15 September 1916. Constantine also refers to his letters being censored: 'I expect you'll have an idea what part we are at now lets know & I'll write & tell you if you are right'. Soldiers were not meant to reveal any important information in case letters fell into enemy hands. Knowledge of movements and battles was common and even mentioned in newspapers, however, as Constantine and Catford both knew.

Newspaper article ‘The Fourth Week’ from the Durham Chronicle, Thursday 27 July 1916 (D/WP 2/61) - Copyright © Durham County Record Office.
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This article, entitled 'The Fourth Week', was printed in the 'Durham County Chronicle' on Thursday 27 July 1916.

It describes how 'we are now in the fourth week of the great British-French offensive, and although we have not secured anything in the way of sensational successes, splendid work is being done ... On Wednesday we had the definite news of the capture of Pozieres'.

The low quality of the image is because it is taken from the microfilmed copy rather than the original newspaper which is in too poor a condition to be scanned.

See a full transcript of Durham Chronicle report.