Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Battle of the Somme is the sheer enormity of the numbers wounded or killed. Fifty thousand British troops were wounded or gave their lives on the first day alone, and over the course of next five months that number would rise to around 400,000.

Less well known, however, are those who fought at the Somme but were captured by the enemy. Of these, those who left records of their imprisonment provide a fascinating window into the lives of Prisoners of War. One such example is held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre: the scrapbook of Pvt John William McGrath.

Pvt McGrath's Notebook
Figure 1: Pvt. McGrath’s Scrapbook

McGrath served in B Company of the 18th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, and was captured outside the town of Guillemont on the 30th July. He records that he was captured along with about 50 of his comrades, as well as two officers, before being taken away for imprisonment.

McGrath recalls his capture
Figure 2: McGrath recalls his capture

McGrath’s scrapbook is patchy, and lacks the detail and organisation we might expect of say, a diary, but nonetheless it provides and insight into the treatment of POWs, and indeed of McGrath himself.

Above all, his scrap-book complains about the lack of food given to prisoners. Recalling the Christmas of 1916 for instance, he notes that he and his comrades had almost nothing to eat:

Pvt McgGrath recalls Christmas 1916-7
Figure 3: McGrath writes about Christmas 1916

In another entry in the scrapbook, McGrath, (or one of his fellow prisoners), made further commentary on the food situation in the form of a poem, saying:

Pvt McGrath's poem
Figure 4: McGrath’s poem, “We are the boys of hardship”

Despite the tough situation in terms of food, McGrath and the other soldiers seemed to have enjoyed a degree of home comforts. In particular, they seemed to have been able to send and receive letters from home, as this (sadly torn) letter illustrates.

McGrath's torn letter
Figure 5: A letter written by Pvt. McGrath

That these were real correspondences seems to be confirmed by McGrath noting down the addresses of his comrades, as well as references to parcels received for the prisoners:

McGrath's addresses 1

McGrath's addresses 2
Figure 6: Some addresses noted by McGrath
McGrath's parcels
Figure 7: Packages received by the prisoners. The text is faint, but in the top left for instance we can see they received clothing parcels

Unfortunately for McGrath and his fellow inmates, their incarceration by the enemy would be a long one. One final note of interest, for instance, provides a date for an event as July 28th, 1918 – almost two years since McGrath was captured in the beginning of the Somme offensive.

McGrath reference to 1918
Figure 8: McGrath’s reference to 1918

Sadly no further notes are written which provide evidence of McGrath’s activities following the war. Unfortunate though that is, the record he has left us provides a valuable insight into the experiences of some of those captured at the Somme, and other battles of the First World War.

This blog post was researched and written by Isaac Boothroyd, a volunteer at the Manchester Central Library’s Archives+ scheme.

References & Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the staff of the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:

  • MR4/17/322/2 – Notebook of Pvt John William McGrath.