Remembering the tragedy of the Somme

At dawn on this day, 1st July, exactly 100 years ago the sound of a single whistle blasted the air of a beautiful river valley in Northern France. It signalled the start of the one of the deadliest and bloodiest engagements in the history of warfare – the Battle of the Somme.

 As British soldiers and their allies climbed from their trenches to launch their attack on the German line they were cut to shreds by a fearful barrage of machine gun fire. 

This was not supposed to happen. The allied command believed that days of bombardment had destroyed the enemy’s ability to put up effective opposition. They were wrong  and they certainly hadn’t reckoned on heavy duty machine guns able to fire 500 rounds a minute. In their anger they threw everything they had at the German line. Unfortunately what they had was 120,000 human beings.

By the end of that first day there were nearly 60,000 casualties and a death toll nudging 20,000. That was just the beginning. The battle continued to rage for 140 days leaving a million men dead or wounded and the world a sadder, less innocent place.

 This morning at 7.30am at a small gathering around Bournemouth War Memorial  a whistle – one manufactured for the Army in 1916 – sounded again to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of that terrible battle. 

Wreaths were laid, prayers were said, tributes were paid, there was a minutes silence and everyone – old soldiers, councillors and towns people – hoped and dreamed that one day we may all live in peace. The Mayor’s Chaplain Father John Lavers read out the names of the 12 Bournemouth men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 

Like so many of their comrades they were young, many were volunteers, ordinary working men who must have wondered what kind of hell they had entered.

The only good thing about their brutal deaths was that they didn’t have to witness such unspeakable violence any more.

I couldn’t help noticing that two of these tragic souls were neighbours. While 34-year-old Sergeant George Frederick Ivamy lived at 3 Cardigan Road, 23-year-old Private Albert Osborne lived just a couple of dozen houses away at number 51. 

Killed on the same day, these young men would become  neighbours again when both their names were among the 72,246 inscribed on Sir Edwin Lutchyens towering Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

How ironic that they lived in street named after the Earl of Cardigan, the officer who in the Crimean War recklessly led dozens of his men to their deaths during the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Here are the 12 men from Bournemouth who died in the first day of battle

• Lance Corporal Edward James Barnes, aged 22
159 Alma Road, Bournemouth
Hampshire Regiment
Bertrancourt Military Cemetery 

• Private Frederick Goodwin
(Born in Bournemouth)
Royal Berkshire Regiment
Ribemont Communal Cemetery Extension

• Private Frederick John Fish, aged 21
1 Josephine Villas, Branksome
Hampshire Regiment
Thiepval Memorial 

• 2nd Lieutenant Alfred Edward Flaxman, aged 36
Grand Avenue, Bournemouth
South Staffordshire Regiment

Thiepval Memorial 

• Sergeant George Frederick Ivamy, aged 34
3 Cardigan Road, Bournemouth
Worcestershire Regiment
Thiepval Memoria

• 2nd Lieutenant Eric Maitland Jellicoe, aged 20
St John’s Road, Bournemouth
Sherwood Foresters
Foncquevillers Military Cemetery

• Sergeant Leonard Frederick King, aged 21
Queen’s Westminster Rifles
Thiepval Memorial#

• Private Albert Osborne, aged 23
51 Cardigan Road, Bournemouth
Dorset Regiment
Thiepval Memoria

• Private Edward Walter Ragless, aged 24
49 Wolverton Road
Hampshire Regiment
Thiepval Memorial

• Private Ernest Edward Tanswell, aged 20
157 Windham Road, Bournemouth
Dorset Regiment

• Thiepval Memorial

• 2nd Lieutenant Lawrence Arthur Westmore, aged 22
West Cliff, Bournemouth
Hampshire Regiment
Sucrerie Military Cemetery

• Lance Corporal Victor Frank Wills, aged 18
16 Madison Avenue
Yorks & Lancs Regiment
Blighty Valley Cemetery, Authuille Wood

Addressing those gathered, Rod Arnold – chairman of the Wessex branch of the Western Front Association – described the first day of the Battle of the Somme as “one of the most tragic moments in our nation’s history.”

Mr Arnold said: “One hundred years ago today, 120,000 soldiers from the British Isles and Newfoundland were waiting to advance alongside their French allies against the German Army in the valley of the River Somme.

“Suddenly the British artillery bombardment of the German positions which had been going on for several days ceased. An uncanny silence fell over the battlefield.

“By the end of the day the British Army had suffered more than 57,000 casualties – over 19,000 of them were dead.”

The Battle of the Somme would carry on for a further 140 days. By the end of the campaign in November 1916 around one million men had been killed, wounded or were missing.

The silence came after a night-long vigil led in Britain by the Queen and at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, which towers over the rolling Picardy fields where so many fell.

Senior royals including the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, will join Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande and other leaders at the memorial later for a service of remembrance in front of an audience of 10,000.

In London, people lined Parliament Square to pay tribute, where the two-minute reflection was marked with the sound of gunfire.

People huddled under trees and umbrellas paused from their commutes to stand quietly.

The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery were present, having been at Thiepval on Thursday night.

The soldiers manned three sets of guns, drawn into place by horses, and fired every four seconds for 100 seconds to mark the silence.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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