Battle of the Somme at 100

July marks the 100th anniversary of World War I’s bloodiest battles.

The Battle of Somme took place between the 1st of July and the 18th of November 1916. The battle is known in history to be one of the bloodiest battles to ever occur as 1 million men were either killed or injured. It was notorious for its introduction of the tank, and the use of air vehicles which dominated the skies. The plan was to bombard enemy German trenches with artillery and have British soldiers march across no-mans land towards the enemy trenches. This failed as German officers hid in trap doors in the trenches, enabling them to launch a surprise attack on the British soldiers.  57,470 British soldiers died on the first day making the 1st of July 1916 one of the deadliest days in British history.

Charles Thomas at his wedding to Elsie Dora Dent
Charles Thomas at his wedding to Elsie Dora Dent

Charles Henry Thomas was just one of the many local men and boys who fought during the Battle of the Somme. Born in 1898, he joined the army in 1915 at the age of 17. The official enlistment age was 19. Charles was one of the hundreds of boys who lied about their age to volunteer. During the Battle of the Somme Charles was a stretcher-bearer. He was looking for wounded on the battlefield when a bomb exploded directly in front of him. Shrapnel pierced his stomach and Charles was badly wounded. The men who found Charles thought he was dead. They started to push his body into the bomb crater to bury him and Charles moaned with pain. He was rescued and taken to a hospital. Charles was discharged in August 1918, probably because of his wounds. Tom remembers his dad had stomach pains for the rest of his life. Doctors eventually discovered that the surgeons in the field hospital at the Somme had stitched Charles’ intestines to the wall of his stomach.

The battle lasted until 18 November and more than 1 million men on both sides were killed or wounded. In Britain, the government was blamed for poor tactics and the mood of popular support for the war changed. In Barking and Dagenham newspapers printed sombre lists of the dead.

William Fletcher with his parents and brother, circa. 1917
William Fletcher with his parents and brother, circa. 1917

The Trenches

On the Western Front networks of trenches were dug. Men lived in chambers dug into the mud. Rats and lice were everywhere and it was cold and wet. But many soldiers said the worse thing about the trenches was boredom and the waiting between battles.

William Fletcher was a keen artist. As a boy he liked to draw the sights near his home in Barking. In 1917, when he was 22, he joined the army and was assigned to the 112th Trench Mortar Battery. A mortar worked like a cannon and fired very heavy explosive shells. William had to carry shells from stores to the trenches. After the War, William ran a bakery, delivering bread around Barking in a horse and cart.

When resting, soldiers practiced skills from home to pass the time. Some sewed, others made tools out of used shells. William drew. His family saved the drawings he sent home. They show his talent and his sense of humour despite conditions in The trenches. After the war, William married Florence and had two children. They were Denny, who was killed in the Second World War and Joan. William ran the Spurriers bakeries while his brother George ran the butchers, GA Fletcher & Sons.

George Beale, kneeling on the right circa. 1917
George Beale, kneeling on the right circa. 1917

World War I around the world

Before the war, George Henry Beale worked for a printing firm in Farringdon. Like many men who fought in the war, George didn’t really want to. He loved cricket and a quiet life. But he believed the war was necessary for eventual peace. George was called up to the army in 1916 and sent to North Africa. He kept a diary of his experiences, tracing his journey from Egypt, through Sinai and Palestine. George was wounded fighting the Turkish army near Jerusalem.

He was sent back to Alexandria by camel. After recovering, George was sent to retrain. While he was training, peace was declared. George was sent to Adana, in Turkey, where he stayed as part of the army of occupation until the Peace was signed in 1919. Frank is the youngest of George’s sons. Frank has kept his father’s diary to pass on to his grandchildren. Most entries record the results of cricket and football matches George organised or are about letters sent and received from home. Frank thinks this is because his dad was always thinking of home. George never talked much about the war, except recalling the occasional Arabic word he’d learned. George married Alice in 1920 and the family moved to the Becontree Estate in 1929. He and Alice raised four children. Frank was the youngest. He went to Hunter’s Hall School and later worked for many years in the Ford factory.

John Rhodes, bottom left, circa. 1914
John Rhodes, bottom left, circa. 1914

John Somerset Rhodes was born in 1888 and joined the army at 18, travelling to Asia. He was in Dublin with his regiment when war broke out. As an experienced soldier, he was part of the British Expeditionary Force, the first British troops sent to the Western Front. John was wounded in the arm during the Mons campaign. He could no longer fire a rifle and was discharged in 1915.

John’s experiences seem to have affected him deeply. He had been very happy, especially during his years in India before the war. After the war, his character changed and he was described as often angry and unhappy.

Brothers in arms

Five brothers John, Bernard, Martin, Joseph and James Cassidy all joined the army in 1916. The brothers served bravely and all were promoted. The eldest, John and Bernard, became Lieutenants. John later won the Military Cross and Bernard won the Victoria Cross.

The Cassidy brothers. From the Sunday Pictorial, circa. 1918
The Cassidy brothers. From the Sunday Pictorial, circa. 1918

Bernard Cassidy was fighting in the Spring Offensive in March 1918. This fierce attack was the German army’s last effort to win the war. On 28 March, Bernard led a company of men with orders to hold their position At All Costs. Under heavy bombardment, Bernard and his men successfully pushed back the German soldiers. But they were too many. Bernard’s company was surrounded and he was killed.

Martin Cassidy and his mother Julia went to Buckingham Palace to receive Bernand’s Victoria Cross. Martin was, himself, injured during training and spent the war in England doing vital supply work. Martin did not speak much about the war. Surviving soldiers sometimes felt guilty that they lived when so many had died. He worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham for 30 years, raising his family of 12 children in Hornchurch.

Below is a list of those men from Dagenham who died during the Battle of the Somme. This list is ongoing and more will be posted soon.

 

Name Age Rank Regiment Date of Death
Edward Chaplin 21 Private 9th Battalion Monday 3rd July
Frank John Young 32 Private 9th Battalion Sunday 13th August
Charles Band 28 Private 60th Brigade Royal Field Artillery Saturday 9th September
George Bixby 22 Private 1st/23rd Battalion Sunday 16th September
Edward James Brown 21 Private 8th Battalion Monday 25th September

 

Exhibition by Callum Meyrick

Work experience student from Robert Clack School