This blog post was written by Hannah Turner, and was originally published in Past Forward – Wigan’s local history magazine.
“I still go cold when anyone says The Somme. It became a nightmare. Everyday you heard of somebody being killed or injured.”
Taken from Leigh and the Somme by Cyril Ward and Evelyn Finch.
The Somme, known at the time as the Big Push, aimed to end the stalemate on the Western Front. Following the Battle of Marne in September 1914, when the German Schlieffen Plan to invade France and capture Paris in six weeks failed, a stalemate took place between the opposing armies. A line of trenches stretching from the Belgian coast, through France and up to the Swiss border became embedded. Attempts to break the stalemate took place along the western front but they did little to contribute to breaking the deadlock. Endeavours to win the war on other fronts resulted in campaigns such as the chaotic Gallipoli operation.
General Haig produced an idea of an offensive to break through the impasse. The operation would begin with bombarding the German troops with artillery and thereby destroying their defences. The bombardment began on the 21 June 1916. British Intelligence has underestimated the strength of the German defences and in some cases they were deep below ground. In fact, Private Joseph Wharf from Peel Lane, Tyldesley, inspected one of these trenches after it had been captured. Describing them ‘as fine works of engineering’ he goes on to say how some of them were nearly 40ft below ground and so the bombardment failed to completely destroy the German defences and when the whistles blew along the British line on the 1 July 1916 at 7.30am signalling to British soldiers to go over the top and advance towards the German trenches, German gunners were able to position themselves and shoot at the lines of soldiers walking towards them in no-man’s land.
20,000 men are believed to have been killed on the first day of the Somme. Local historian Fred Holcroft’s research led him to conclude that over 100 men from the borough died on that day. Despite the massive loss of life General Haig remained optimistic and wrote in his diary ‘the total casualties are estimated at over 40,000 to date. This cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of the front attacked’. Haig’s optimism kept the offensive continuing until November. By the end of the Battle of the Somme it is believed that there were around 650,000 British casualties and 400,000 German casualties. Some parts of land had been captured by the allied armies but no were near the amount they had originally planned on.
News of the Somme began to trickle home. Haig’s optimism was reiterated by the local press. The Leigh Journal declared ‘the opening days of July are destined to stand out boldly in the chronology of the war, marking as they have done, the end of an historic period of enforced waiting and the beginning of a great offensive by the Allies’. A wounded British officer interviewed in London described witnessing some of the Manchester Regiments taking part in the battle, he said it was ‘inspiring to see them leap over their own parapets and tail off into the mist of the morning singing’.
Not everyone described the opening scene of the battle in quite the same alleged way as the officer did. Private Nolan who had served in the Gallipoli campaign said ‘there were more shells in five minutes than were fired at Gallipoli in three months’. Writing to his mother in Tyldesley, Private Alfred Jackson of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers told of the ‘terrible handling’ they received. Wounded and sent home, Alfred died of his wounds a few weeks later and was interred at Tyldesley Cemetery.
Private Thomas Edwin Walker wrote to his mother in Blackmoor from a hospital in Manchester. During the attack Private Walker had been in no-man’s land for 19 hours before being ‘brought down’ and ‘in that time I saw some awful sights’. All of the officers in Walker’s regiment were killed including his colonel.
During the offensive Private Joseph Wharf of the South Lancashire Regiment, was hit by a shell and covered by dirt and sandbags. It took his ‘pals’ an hour to dig him out. Private Wharf’s battalion was one which captured a German trench. He marvelled at the engineering of the trenches as well as the drink and food the Germans had left behind. Similarly, the Leigh Journal reported that Private Stephen Barnish of the 2nd Manchesters had also captured a trench with his battalion but Private Barnish implies a different image, a stark reminder of the brutality of the war:
We have captured part of the enemy’s lines, and a heavy struggle is proceeding.
We are progressing slowly but surely…The Germans are good fighters until you
get into their trench, and then they throw up their hands, and cry for mercy. If he
is a sniper or machine gunner he is a dead man for cert. The sniper is worst of all,
for he is the one who accounts for many of our boys when they are crawling along…
Back in England, local people were given the opportunity to observe the Somme for their selves with the documentary ‘The Battle of the Somme’ arriving in cinemas. The documentary is regarded by some as propaganda and was believed to be staged in parts. However, curiosity drove people to the local picture houses. In Leigh ‘The Battle of the Somme’ arrived at the Palace Theatre in September 1916. Despite drawing ‘record houses to the Palace’ not everyone was pleased to see the film, one local recalls ‘I remember my father coming home on leave and as a treat taking us to the pictures…so you can imagine our disappointment when we got there and father found that it was a picture about the Somme battle. He said, “I’ve seen enough Somme, I’m not paying to see it again.” So we all came home’.
The Somme ended in November 1916 but the recollections of the battle still stayed with the survivors. Interviewed in the 1980s a Somme veteran from the Leigh district still ‘wept openly at the memories’ and then requested that his painful rememberances die with him.
Leigh and the Somme by Cyril Ward and Evelyn Finch.
Pals on the Somme