Heartbreaking letters of fallen Somme soldiers released to mark battle's centenary
Hundreds of soldiers wrote to families on eve of battle that saw 57,000 British casualties on first day
On 30 June 1916 2Lt Percy Boswell, like many of his comrades, sat down to write a letter. The young officer in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry knew roughly what was going to happen the following day, as he told his father.
“The Hun is going to get consummate hell just in this quarter and we are going over the top tomorrow when I hope to spend a few merry hours in chasing the Bosch all over the place,” he predicted with jaunty confidence. “I am absolutely certain that I shall get through all right, but in case the unexpected happens I shall rest content with the knowledge that I have done my duty – and one can’t do more.”
It was, he wrote, “a short note which you will receive only if anything has happened to me during the next few days”. On 1 July Boswell died in the first hour of the Battle of the Somme, aged just 22.
The 141 days of the battle across the flat farmland of northern France would eventually claim more than a million Allied and German dead and injured. Boswell was among 57,000 British casualties that first day. More than half of the soldiers in the second wave of the attack were cut down as they crossed the 320 metres of no man’s land. All 25 officers in his battalion, including Boswell, were either killed or wounded.
His letter is among hundreds written on the eve of battle preserved in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, and revealed to mark the centenary. Many are creased and tattered from being read over and over again by the desolate families.
On Friday, scores of events across Britain and in France will be held to mark the centenary of the battle, which began on 1 July 1916.
The main international ceremony will be at the Thiepval Memorial in France, attended by politicians, descendants of those who fought and hundreds of schoolchildren. The memorial bears the names of 72,000 people whose burial place is unknown.
There will be vigil services on Thursday at Westminster Abbey, and in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Northern Ireland, and a national service of commemoration at Manchester Cathedral on Friday. The service will be relayed to screens, and there will also be parades, exhibitions and free concerts in the city’s Heaton Park, which once served as an assembly point and training ground for troops heading for the front.
The Imperial War Museum in London is opening until midnight on Thursday, the eve of the battle, with special film, music and theatrical events and exhibitions. Admission is free.
Many of the final letters were given to the museum by descendants, along with treasured photographs, and kindly phrased and frequently untrue assurances from officers or chaplains that their loved ones died instantly without suffering. Some came with scraps of personal possessions including John Shaw’s homemade identity tag – he had worked in London as an embosser – with his name and number punched into the metal, made into a bracelet with a cheap watch chain.
Anthony Richards, head of documents and sound at the museum, said although the soldiers were issued with cloth or paper ID tags, some made their own for fear of ending up – as so many did – an unidentifiable corpse in a mass grave.
Shaw’s letter is one of the most extraordinary. He wrote to his mother on 12 October, when he was actually lying on the battlefield mortally wounded. “We went over the top on Sunday 8th and I got wounded. I managed to crawl back to our lines and worse luck here I am. Been here 4 days today and dying for a drink.
“Someone run into us the other day and promised to get us out of it. But we are still here never even brought us any water. I have been shot through the hip and cannot use my right leg. Properly knock up. Pity when one gets a blighty one [a minor wound that would get you sent home] too, after so long.”
Shaw was eventually rescued and brought to hospital in Rouen, but died there on 18 October.
Many were not formal last letters. Thomas Farlam wrote cheerfully in September to ask his wife for a notebook. Annie’s letter, stained with the Somme mud, was found among his possessions after his death on 16 September.
Royston Jones wrote on 10 September to his parents, Amelia and Charles, at home in Hackney, east London, assuring them that he was “quite in the pink” and had got their parcel. He ended: “PS I want some safety razor blades as soon as poss as I have run out of them also.” Five days later he was dead, aged 20.
Neither man’s body was ever identified, and their names are among the 72,000 carved into the Thiepval Memorial.
After witnessing months of the battle, Albert Baker wrote with foreboding in September: “I am writing this whilst in billets, some three miles behind the Line, not because I feel downhearted at all but because there have been so many killed or mortally wounded near me, and who knows but that it might be my turn next and I could not bear parting without my heartfelt thanks for your innumerable kindnesses.” He asked for his stamp collection to be saved for his youngest brother “as he may take an interest in them when he is older”.
“Once more before I close this not very cheerful epistle, I must thank you again for the way you have brought me up and looked after me, asking you to remember me to all my old friends, particularly Art and Rodney.” He added a postscript: “Who knows but that we may meet again in another sphere, when I shall be able to thank you personally for everything?”
He died on 14 September, shot in the lung, aged 20.
Source: The Guardian