6 Must-Know Facts About The Somme

Lasting 141 hellish days, the Battle of the Somme remains the most infamous confrontation of World War One.

The Somme

1. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE EASY

In the century since it happened, the Somme has become a byword for mechanised slaughter. Yet, at the time, the British expected it to be a relatively easy assault. In the official words of one senior officer at the time, "You will be able to go over with a walking stick, you will not need rifles". That's because, in the week leading up to the assault, the Germans were hit by a bombardment of Biblical proportions.

Over 1.7 million shells were launched at the German trenches and defences, and senior Brits mistakenly believed it would leave the enemy in ruins. They were wrong. The bombardment was largely a failure, and the Germans lay in wait with their machine guns as the troops marched into No Man's Land early in the morning on 1 July 1916. What followed was chaos and death, with 19,240 British soldiers killed over the following hours. It remains the single worst day in British military history.

2. IT WAS ALSO FOUGHT IN THE AIR

Think "Somme" and the dire world of the trenches will come to mind. However, this long battle was also partly fought in the air, and was a decisive moment for the Royal Flying Corps - the elite team that would eventually become the RAF. Their daredevil pilots, flying in the most rudimentary craft, would embark on dangerous reconnaissance and bombing missions during the Somme. Over 800 planes were lost, and 252 pilots killed.

Some pilots became legendary heroes, with one example being Lieutenant Cecil Lewis, a mere teenager whose personal philosophy was to "live gloriously, generously, dangerously... safety last!". After the war, he become one of the founders of the BBC, as well as the winner of an Oscar for a film screenplay. Incredibly, the dashing and fearless Lewis would also go onto be a flying ace in World War Two.

Nigel MacFadzean beside memorial to his Great Uncle, Billy MacFadzean, who won the VC on 30th June 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

Nigel MacFadzean beside memorial to his Great Uncle, Billy MacFadzean, who won the VC on 30th June 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

3. SOME MEN PLAYED FOOTBALL IN BATTLE

To boost morale on the first day of the Somme, a certain Captain Billie Nevill of the the East Surrey Regiment brought footballs with him to the front. On one was scrawled "East Surreys v Bavarians", and on the other "NO REFEREE". They went over the top into No Man's Land, kicking the balls as they ducked and dived between bullets. Sadly, Nevill himself was killed, but his "football charge" is now remembered as one of the most bravest and most moving incidents of the war.

4. HITLER FOUGHT IN THE SOMME

One of the German soldiers caught up in the mayhem of the Somme was a young Adolf Hitler, who proved a fanatical soldier and sustained a serious leg injury during the conflict. One of his fellow German soldiers was Otto Frank, who would go onto become the father of Anne Frank. Meanwhile, on the other side of No Man's Land, future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and famed composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, were among the Brits.

So was the young JRR Tolkien, whose experiences in the Somme directly inspired the great battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings. He would later recall scribbling the first drafts of his Middle-earth tales "by candle light... down in dugouts under shell fire". He would also later say that "My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself."

Close up of memorial to Billy MacFadzean, who won the VC on 30th June 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

Close up of memorial to Billy MacFadzean, who won the VC on 30th June 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

5. WHOLE COMMUNITIES PERISHED AS ONE

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the Somme was that groups of friends and workmates, people who had grown up together in the same towns, were slaughtered in unison. This was because many had signed up as so-called "Pals Battalions". Literally, battalions of friends, who had been inspired by local recruiting drives. Teams of dockyard workers, office colleagues, factory workers and miners would march together and die together within seconds.

This meant that villages, towns and cities would have swathes of their population vanish over the course of a few hours. As the brother of one soldier in the Accrington Pals later recalled, "I remember when the news came through to Accrington that the Pals had been wiped out. I don't think there was a street in Accrington that didn't have their blinds drawn, and the bell at Christ Church tolled all day."

6. IT SAW THE FIRST USE OF TANKS

The Battle of the Somme was the first military confrontation to involve the use of tanks. They made their first appearance on the battlefield on 15 September 1916, with the Germans initially shocked by the frightening spectacle of the trundling, mobile fortresses. Devised by the British, the Mark 1 was actually a hellish contraption for the soldiers inside, who had to work in near darkness, amid the grinding noise, suffocating engine fumes and boiling temperatures. Just another example of how the Somme would test soldiers to the very limits of their strength and sanity.