This coming Friday, 1st July sees the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme. The first day of which is acknowledged as the most devastating day in British army history, with nearly 60,000 British casualties on that day alone. By the end of the battle, which raged until November 1916, over 1 million soldiers from both sides of the conflict, had been killed or wounded.
Of course much has been published on this period in history. A search on the Derbyshire Library catalogue under the simple term of ‘Battle of the Somme’, gives 98 results. For me, the real impact of the battle comes from reading first hand accounts, and many of these too have been published. A quick look on the shelves of our Local Studies Collection in the Record Office brought to my attention ‘Almost like a dream’: a parish at war 1914-19, edited by Michael Austin. From the beginning of the Great War until its end, the vicar of St. Michael’s in Derby, encouraged men from his parish who had joined the services to write to him, to talk about their experiences. These letters were then published in the parish magazine – a vital way to keep the community close to the men they had waved goodbye to. The letters, hastily scribbled by working class men, show us the stark reality of life fighting for ‘King and Country’.
Letters detailing events at the Somme are included: Pte. L Hallsworth wrote “I have been through the worst battle that this Battalion has ever been in. God alone knows how I have escaped death. The bombardment lasted 5 days and the last two days was terrible, the night before the attack the bombardment grew in intensity until it was impossible for one to speak and we had to yell at the top of our voices to make ourselves heard…Good heavens! I shall never forget it, it simply rained shells and shrapnel and bullets were whistling through the air in hundreds…. Out of my section there are 5 who got back out of 27 and out of the Battalion only 130 men answered the roll call…”
2nd Lieut. Robert Parker wrote “The taking of one trench stands out in my mind more than anything else, and I don’t think I shall ever forget it, perhaps because I saw two of my best friends killed almost side by side. We failed to take the trench the first time and were in ‘no man’s land’ unable to move either way. During that time I was buried by a shell and hit by a piece of shrapnel in the finger, it was not much…” The title of the book comes from the end of this letter – “There is a lot more I could say but I cannot remember everything just now, it still seems almost like a dream.”
Copies of this book are available to borrow through your local Derbyshire Library – a poignant read at any time, but maybe even more so with the forthcoming anniversary in mind.