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The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Publié par Clifford Armion le 30/09/2013
Cette page aborde l'épisode de la bataille de la Somme, vu par des historiens, mais aussi par des témoignages de soldats, par la presse de l'époque et par le ministère de la guerre. Les différents documents présentés font l'objet d'une tâche à réaliser par les apprenants.

The battle viewed by historians

First, learn more about the battle itself thanks to the BBC website. Then, read the two short commentaries by historians:
John Keegan
Peter Simkins

The battle viewed by soldiers

Private Walter Hutchinson’diary

"On Saturday July 1st we set off for the trenches about 10 o'clock. As soon as we got on the road we saw an awful sight for there was wounded men by hundreds coming from the line. When we was going across the marsh, German shells was dropping all round but none of us was hit. We then landed to a communication trench. But before we had time to get in it Fritz sent us a tear shell. That was our first taste of gas.

Well we raced up and down that trench until every man was done up for we kept getting the orders about turn, double out, and then advance. We hadn't gone far up the trench before we came across three of our own lads lying dead. Their heads been badly damaged by a shell. Their names were Voice and Webster Brothers.

We had to go scrambling over the poor fellows - in and out, in and out. It was one of the awful sights I had ever witnessed and at this point our own lads was coming out wounded as we was following them in. Then the order came down dump everything and fix bayonets you have got to fight for it lads.

We obeyed the order like men. And was soon out of the trench and going across the open. I was running across a trench when the grid broke and let me through. I scrambled out and ran after the other boys. But had not gone far before I was hit on the hip with a piece of shell.

But I was still like Charleys Aunt, I kept running after the boys. We then landed at the trench we was making for and found out it was our own original front line trench. And we saw some awful sights in it for a lot wounded men that not been got out then.”

Extracts from the pocket diary of Private Walter Hutchinson from the first four days of the Battle of the Somme in 1917
Published online by The Telegraph, Feb. 22, 2007

Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

Captain Mauchlen’s sketch
Copyright © Durham County Record Office

Source: 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.


Sergeant Robert Constantine’s letter to his brother Jim

Copyright © Durham County Record Office                                     Tuesday
                                            Sep 4/1916
Dear Jim
Received yours dated Aug[ust] 27th . Yes
I got the parcel safe. I haven’t seen
anything of Will since we left the north
and he’s lying a good way from me just
now, but they’ll probably be moving
further up here when they go into action. By
we haven’t half been getting put through it
lately. We have now been in out of the line
about 3 weeks but we are training heavy
to take part in the push & 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.
I expect you’ll have an idea what part
we are at now lets know & I’ll write &
tell you if you are right, theres an awful
bombardment raging while I am writing
this so some poor chaps are going through
it hot…

Beginning of a Letter from Sergeant Robert Constantine to his Brother, Jim, 4 September 1916, Durham County Record Office, D/DLI 7/137/51
Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

This was Constantine’s last letter home. He died 11 days later. The end of the extract is a clear reference to letters being censored.

The battle viewed by the press

The Daily Mirror

General Headquarters, Sunday 10.15pm: Heavy fighting has taken place today in the area between the Ancre and the Somme, especially about Fricourt and La Boisselle. Fricourt, which was captured by our troops about 2pm, remains in our hands, and some progress has been made east of the village.

In the neighbourhood of La Boisselle the enemy is offering a stubborn resistance, but our troops are making satisfactory progress. A considerable quantity of war material has fallen into our hands, but details are not at present available.

On the other side of the valley, on the Ancre, the situation is unchanged. The general situation may be regarded as favourable. Later information of the enemy's losses show that our first estimates were too low.

Yesterday our aeroplanes were very active in co-operation with our attack north of the Somme and afforded valuable assistance to our operations. Numerous enemy headquarters and railway centres were attacked with bombs. In one of these raids our escorting aeroplanes were attacked by 20 Fokkers, which were driven off. Two enemy machines were seen to crash to the earth and were destroyed. Some long-distance reconnaissances were carried out in spite of numerous attempts by enemy machines to frustrate the enterprises. Three of our aeroplanes are missing. Our kite balloons were in the air the whole day.

Source: Daily Mirror, July 31, 1916 (extract)
Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

The Manchester Guardian

Armoured cars in action: enemy terrified by 'ironboxes'

The British army has struck the enemy another heavy blow north of the Somme. Attacking shortly after dawn yesterday morning on a front more than six miles north-east of Combles, it now occupies a new strip of reconquered territory including three fortified villages behind the German third line and many local positions of great strength.

Armoured cars working with the infantry were the great surprise of this attack. Sinister, formidable and industrious, these novel machines pushed boldly into the "No Man's Land", astonishing our soldiers no less than they frightened the enemy. Presently I shall relate some strange incidents of their first grand tour of Picardy, of Bavarians bolting before them like rabbits and others surrendering in picturesque attitudes of terror, and the delightful story of the Bavarian colonel who was carted about for hours in the belly of one of them like Jonah in the whale, while his captors slew the men of his broken division.

"Walking wounded" grinned through their bandages and grime as they talked of these extraordinary beasts while waiting their turn at the advanced dressing stations. Even the stretcher cases chuckled as they lay in the ambulances.

Source: Manchester Guardian, Sept 18, 1916 (extract)
Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

The battle viewed by the War Office

An official glossy magazine

This is the cover of the first edition of a magazine series that was produced on the British home front while the battle was in progress on the western front.

Source: the New South Wales HSC website, page maintained by the Charles Sturt University
Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

A semi-official movie


The Battle of the Somme is a movie that was released in 1916. It depicts one battle in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. It was shot by two men: Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell.

The British government did not produce the movie, but they did approve it and a group of MPs was involved in its making.

The film created controversy. Some were shocked that it so was vividly realistic. Others appreciated that it showed the hardships of war. It was a commercial success: 8 million people watched the movie.

The original movie is an hour and a half long. Here are some extracts for a total of 16 minutes.

Extract from a government report on censorship, October 1915

Extract from a government report on censorship, October 1915
British National Archives, PRO ref: CAB 37/136/34

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/britain1906to1918/pdf/complete_g6_cs1.pdf (p. 5)
Retrieved Sept. 13, 2013

Completing the task

Study each document and ask yourselves what vision of the battle it gives. Is this vision consistent with what historians wrote about the battle?

Choose a character and gather information on what their vision of the battle would have been. Here are some ideas of characters you could decide to choose: a soldier who fought the battle, a relative of a soldier who fought the battle, a Londoner who enjoyed war movies, a journalist who wrote articles on the battle, the editor of Great Push magazine, one of the filmmakers who shot The Battle of the Somme, Sir Douglas Haig (the general who ordered the battle), Ernest Dunlop Swinton who was the official British war correspondents on the Western Front.

Don’t make things too simple: yes there was censorship and a lot of propaganda, but some ill news still got through. Ask yourselves how and to what extent.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

"The Battle of the Somme (1916)", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2013. Consulté le 19/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/se-former/workbook/britain-and-world-war-one-dnl/the-battle-of-the-somme-1916-