The first day of the Battle of the Somme is one of the most remembered and commemorated days in Britain’s military history. On that day the British Army suffered its worst casualties of any single day in its history.
I try not to focus too much on the war dead – it is also important to remember those who served and survived (and to remember the impact of the war at home in London) – but the centenary of the first day of that battle stands out as a day to reflect on the cost of the war in the starkest terms. It is impossible to say how many Londoners were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916, but we can look at the record of London infantry units involved in the battle.
If we look at the number of fatalities recorded for 1 July and the subsequent four days (many of whom would have died of wounds from 1 July), we can see how badly some of the London and Middlesex battalions were affected by the fighting. These figures come from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database of the war dead:
|Unit||01-Jul-16||02-Jul-16||03-Jul-16||04-Jul-16||05-Jul-16||Total||Of which recorded on Thiepval memorial to the missing|
|1/2nd 1/3rd and 1/4th Bns, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers)||275||11||7||4||5||302||183|
|1/12th Bn, London Regiment (The Rangers)||149||2||3||154||100|
|1/13th Bn, London Regiment (Kensingtons)||58||6||1||2||67||42|
|1/14th Bn, London Regiment (London Scottish)||220||3||1||224||180|
|1/15th Bn, London Regiment (London Rifle Brigade)||275||6||1||282||219|
|1/16th Bn, London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles)||172||2||1||175||131|
|1/9th Bn, London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles)||221||4||1||2||1||229||179|
|London Regiment total||1370||32||15||9||7||1433||1034|
|2nd Bn, Middlesex Regiment||270||3||1||0||0||274||237|
|4th Bn, Middlesex Regiment||90||82||0||2||0||174||113|
|12th Bn, Middlesex Regiment||6||0||0||0||8||14||4|
|16th Bn, Middlesex Regiment (Public Schools)||160||7||2||2||0||171||91|
|Middlesex Regiment total||526||92||3||4||8||633||445|
|London and Middeseex Regiments||1896||124||18||13||15||2066||1479|
So, from these 11 battalions, over 2,000 men died over those days. Almost three quarters of them have no known grave and are recorded on the Thiepval memorial to the missing. (The ‘total’ figures are for these battalions, not the whole London or Middlesex Regiments, each of which suffered a handful of other casualties during those days).
Each figure in the table was, of course, a man – most likely a young men and in this case probably a Londoner. Among them were:
Clifford Hugh Butcher, an 18-year-old from Leyton, whom we met in a previous post about the appeals for information published in the newspapers during the latter half of 1916. His picture appeared in the Daily Sketch in August 1916.
Private Henry Leicester Oldham from Lavender Hill, SW. He was the son of a retired butler and was serving in 9th Platoon, “C” Company, Queen’s Westminster Rifles when he was reported missing on 1 July.
One man who was wounded but not killed that day was Captain George Johnson, an old soldier commissioned from the ranks during the war. The National Army Museum has his tunic, which I discovered and researched for their 2006 exhibition on the Battle of the Somme when I was a curator there.
The caption I wrote for it is used on the NAM website:
“Johnson was wounded on 1 July 1916 during the attack on Ovillers-La Boisselle on the Somme. Machine-gun fire devastated his battalion and although a few men reached the second line of German trenches, by the end of the day all had returned to the British lines or lay in no-man’s land. All but 50 of the battalion were killed, wounded or reported missing. Johnson was wounded in the chest, pelvis and right forearm. You can see where his uniform was cut away from his arm. He survived the war and lived until his 90s.”
These men were just some of the thousands of Londoners who were killed or wounded on 1 July 1916. The British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties that day, including 19,000 dead. The sheer number of casualties – and the reality of the fighting that caused them – is almost unimaginable for most of us today. One hundred years on, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the sacrifice made by the nation, its Empire and its allies that day in Picardy.