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Expert Comment: The First Day of the Somme

Poppies on the Plateau Friday 1 July 2016

On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme, almost 20,000 men died fighting for Britain, and the battle as a whole, which lasted until November, created more than a million casualties – French, British, German as well as other nationalities. Germany had even more casualties on the Somme than Britain did. This was a disaster for Britain and Europe (and one that puts recent talk of a Brexit ‘disaster’ or ‘cataclysm’ into perspective). Military historians, such as Gary Sheffield, have rightly pointed out that this was not a uniquely terrible battle, but the date 1 July 1916 has become known as a watershed and a key date in our national story. 1 July 1916, more than any other day of the war, captures the horror and the slaughter. 

Many of the war poets were not involved in the battle – Rupert Brooke, for instance, was already dead, and Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas were still in training in England and wouldn't see the Front until 1917 - but the Somme plays an important part in our literature. For instance, In Parenthesis by David Jones and Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden record that conflict. 

Edmund Blunden survived the war and in October 1919 he started the university degree that he had been about to start when the war came along. The official student records noted that he had been gassed three times (but his health was recorded as good).  And if every town and city and, in one way or another, every village, in Britain became connected to the Somme, British universities did too.  At Liverpool University, there is the statue of the heroic Noel Chavasse, who won the first of his two Victoria Crosses at the Somme in August 1916. 

Liverpool Hope also has a connection in so far as it now owns the remarkable and unique Carter Preston collection. Last year, Liverpool Hope put on the excellent exhibition entitled Edward Carter Preston - The Great War: Medals, Memorials and Sculpture, which included design drawings and examples of his work as a war medallist. Edward Carter Preston, a Liverpool artist, designed the Next of Kin Memorial Plaques, ‘the Dead Man’s Penny’, which were presented to families of the servicemen who died. Recently, the Imperial War Museum produced an online article called ’11 Objects from the Battle of the Somme’ highlighting items from its collection, and the last of those items is a Carter Preston Next of Kin Memorial Plaque sent to the parents of Rifleman Charles Evans of the 10th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He was ‘killed in action during the Battle of the Somme on 29 August 1916, aged 22’. 

The Soldier - by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

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