The Battle of the Somme 1 July 1916-1 July 2016– a very personal memoir

Even after 100 years and when no-one who remembers it is alive, the Battle of the Somme and especially its first day remains a scar on the British psyche. The 1st July 1916 and the deaths in action of nearly 20,000 thousand men on that day alone has come to represent for many people the entirety of the Great War. Books, documentaries, battlefield tours and above all the annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday  keep the memory of the battle fresh, but behind all the pomp and remembrance it’s easy to forget that the names on the war memorials were men known, loved and grieved for, and that every name carried a story of pain and loss for the ones left behind.

Until the late 1990s I’d always thought that our family was the exception to the truism that every family in the country was touched by the 1914-1918 war and for some reason always felt slightly ashamed of that. My grandfather was born in 1900 and therefore too young to enlist, but he joined the army as a boy soldier in 1914, either out of patriotism, being swept up in the fervour of the early months of the war or the thought that it was time to find a steady paying job and take some of the burden off his widowed mother’s shoulders and the army looked like a good bet. In this family picture he looks both proud and slightly pathetic in his ill-fitting khaki: as if a harried stores clerk, busy kitting out men to go to the front, had held the uniform up in front of him and thought it looked as if it would fit and it would do. In any case, what did it matter one way or another? There were more pressing things to attend to.


I can’t remember that either my grandfather or my great-aunt, who was born in 1898, ever talked about the war in anything but general terms. Of course I regret that I did not ask them for their memories, but in retrospect there were small hints, especially with my grandfather (to whom I was very close and whose favourite I was) that even after fifty years he retained painful memories of that 1st July.

My grandfather was the third of four children and was born in rural Hampshire – his parents met when he was a coachman and she was a maid. The world they all grew up in is unimaginable now, with the slowness of its pace and the lack of the hundreds of small daily amenities we take wholly for granted – and of course it was a world where transport, especially in rural areas, was very much dependent on horsepower. As children growing up in Devon in the 1960s we spent many of our holidays in London with our grandparents, and I recall rushing to see my grandfather one day after a day out and proudly proclaiming that we’d seen horses and him laughing – because of course when he was a child horses were so ubiquitous they were not worth a comment. They drew ploughs and buses and vans and carriages – everything wheeled, in fact. What was worth remarking for him was something he told us that happened when he was about eight or nine – that the teacher had sent them all out into the school playground to see a flying machine – a brand new technology still in its infancy but which would take a dreadful momentum from war.

My great-grandfather died in 1910 leaving a young widow, four children, the eldest of whom was twelve, and no money whatsoever. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the village churchyard and the day my grandfather took me there to point out the place is the only time I can recall him showing any emotion over his father’s death or talking about him to any extent – and I can understand that completely. My own father died when I was thirteen and my brothers just eight and seven – and to this day I find it hard to talk about that. Even after decades some things just still are that difficult.

I’ve done a fair bit of reading about the Great War since the commemorations started, and I’ve wondered what it was like for my grandfather and his family and their Hampshire village. The news of war in the papers, the men he knew enlisting and marching off – relatives, neighbours, friends, the older boys at school – all determined to give the Kaiser a good kicking. They’d have heard in church every Sunday that God was on our side, and the more or less constant expansion of the British Empire over the previous hundred years had made defeat almost unimaginable. What young man wanted to be the one who held back when all his mates and relatives cheerfully did what their leaders told them was a civic duty? Then of course as the months went on during leave visits home the young man would see the signs in the windows proudly proclaiming A man from this house is serving in the forces; perhaps he heard the distant mutter of the guns in France, saw the street shrines to the fallen, and he’d have heard of the delivery of telegrams that every family dreaded with their messages of Missing. Wounded. Dead – and seen the drawn blinds that meant the death of someone in the house. Perhaps as well he felt, early on the morning of the 1st July, the shudder of the earth as nineteen mines were exploded one after the other on the Western Front as a prelude to the opening day of the battle of Albert.

All this, of course, is conjecture. What is not is the story of my great-aunt Martha, my grandfather’s elder sister. She was born in 1898 and when her father died she and the brother next to her in age were sent to relatives – my great-grandmother couldn’t support four children on what she made taking in washing. My grandfather and his younger sister stayed with their mother – Kathleen because she was the youngest and grandad because his mother thought he was so ugly no relative would want to take him. (He wasn’t. He was slight, fair haired and blue eyed).

Aunt Martha was the archetypal spinster aunt. She lived near us in South London, my grandfather visited her nearly every Saturday and often took me along. She spoiled me and my brothers and cousins, made us cakes, gave us money and presents at birthdays and Christmas and generally gave the impression that she loved the company of children and their noise and mess. I don’t remember giving any thought to why she wasn’t married – she lived with my great grandmother until the latter’s death at the end of the 1950s, went out to work at a solicitor’s where she was a valued employee, had a wide circle of friends and an active social life. If I did think about it I assumed that she had missed her chance of marriage thanks to the deaths of so many men and was one of what were cruelly called in the 1920s ‘surplus women’ – those who would never fulfil what was regarded as their natural function of marriage and motherhood.

She lived to be 100, independent almost to the end, and died just after her hundredth birthday. On the day of her funeral I travelled home with my uncle’s sister in law Josie and heard a completely unsuspected side of the woman I’d taken for granted.

In 1916 Aunt Martha was eighteen years old and had a boyfriend her age or a little older. He, like millions of men, had enlisted, knew he was going to France and they wanted to marry before he went, but both sets of parents – or rather mothers – said that they were too young. Knowing he was going to France he and my great aunt threw caution to the winds and made love. He went to France, was killed in the battle of the Somme, and my great aunt found that she was pregnant. (Josie turned to me at that point in the story and said,” she said to me, we only did it once because he was going away.”)

Of course her story was never going to have a happy ending. Being unmarried, with no prospect of a husband, pregnant and living in a society where illegitimacy was a social stigma that marked both mother and child for ever was going to make sure of that: and my great grandmother by all accounts embodied all the worst traits of Victorian censoriousness and narrow mindedness. In retrospect it is hard to blame her – perhaps she knew from her experience of widowhood that life would be hard enough for my great aunt without the added burden of a child and was little chance of a husband, let alone one who would take another man’s baby. Perhaps as well my great grandmother was very well aware that they lived in a society markedly unsympathetic to a woman perceived as sexually transgressive and she didn’t want that reputation for her daughter. No doubt there were admonitions about bringing shame into the family and that Martha was “damaged goods”. It’s one of the things people now don’t understand because pregnancy out of wedlock now doesn’t carry anything like the same stigma – unlike in the past where it could be a source of a lifetime of extreme shame for both mother and child. For a working class woman like my great-aunt, her reputation was everything. Whatever the reasons, a termination was arranged (illegally and no doubt expensively), and my great aunt embarked on her long life of spinsterhood.

Did she have regrets and cry in the night for what she had lost, or catch herself watching children as they played? Was it horribly traumatic or did she bury it all deep down and try to forget? I have no idea (although she was a woman who had a twinkle in her eye and once told my brother she would have on her grave stone “Martha Ruffle, missed, but not as much as you think she did!”)

Certainly she remembered her lost love and his child even at the end of her life. She and my grandfather came from a world where you did not inflict your emotional pain on anyone, no matter who you were, high or low. You stiffened your lip and your spine and jolly well got on with the hand life had dealt you. My grandfather certainly recalled the sacrifices of that July – he was usually quiet and withdrawn every 1st July and even less talkative than usual. Perhaps he was recalling friends and neighbours, his sister’s lost love and what she’d sacrificed thanks to war, or perhaps as a professional soldier of 40 years standing his grief and silence might have been not just for the men he knew but his knowledge and anger that the first day of the Somme was, in the words of another soldier (talking this time about the retreat from Dunkirk), an almighty great fuck-up. One that irretrievably changed the lives of people he knew and loved. Anyone would be silent thinking about that.


Thiepval Memorial to the missing credt Chris Hartford London

Thiepval Memorial

I have no idea of the boyfriend’s name, what regiment he was in or when he was killed, whether it was the first day of the Battle of the Somme or the last or some day in between. I do not know if he has a grave somewhere or if he was one of the many missing whose only memorial is a name carved in stone. Perhaps somewhere there is a family who still talk about great uncle so-and-so, killed so young fighting for his country and what a waste of a life – I like to think there is.  I do make sure that every November three crosses are placed in the Garden of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey – one for an unknown soldier and two for a woman and child who were as much victims of an industrial war machine as any man who went over the top to his death.

Further reading:

Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)

Richard van Emden. The Somme: The Epic Battle in the Soldiers’ Own Words and Photographs (London, 2016)

Lyn MacDonald. Somme (London, 2013)

Gary Sheffield. The Somme: A New History (London, 2004)

Martin Middlebrook. The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916 (London, 2016)

Peter Hart. The Somme (London, 2008)

Joshua Levine. Forgotten Voices of the Somme (London, 2009)


Many thanks to my brother Robert the family historian and archivist for invaluable and detailed family information and carefully checking my anecdotes.


The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction in the aftermath of the battle

Background: In the shadow of Trafalgar

Throughout the nineteenth century the Royal Navy was held in high esteem by the British public – even more so than the army. Being an island nation, the British relied on the seas as a barrier against invaders and her navy, which was considered the most powerful in the world, helped consolidate Britain’s status as a Great Power.

While the public and those involved were justifiably proud of the Royal Navy’s achievements, there was also the awareness that the late 19th and early 20th century navy was in the shadow of the greatest victory achieved by the Royal Navy – Trafalgar – and its commander Nelson, whose exploits continued to be lionised and held up as the gold standard not just for the Royal Navy but the British public. As the Battle of Jutland would demonstrate, Nelson and Trafalgar for good and ill would have serious consequences as while individual stories of courage and heroism would recall Nelson’s famous signal that “England expects that every man will do his duty”, what worked in securing that decisive victory at Trafalgar would prove to be inadequate at Jutland and expose several weaknesses in the strategy, tactics, communication and even basic health and safety procedures in the navy.

However that was still far away in the 1890s when Britain’s position as mistress of the seas was challenged by Germany. Under the new emperor, Wilhelm II – himself half-British – Germany began building up its navy, which stemmed partly from the Kaiser’s intention of protecting German interests and that she must have her “place in the sun”. This ambition for the German navy was also inspired by his summer holidays in Britain especially at the Isle of Wight where his maternal grandmother Queen Victoria had a summer residence, Osborne House. When he was made an honorary admiral in the British navy, the Kaiser was so overjoyed that he told a courtier, “fancy wearing the same uniform as St. Vincent and Nelson, it’s enough to make one feel giddy.”

While Germany built its navy, Britain watched with a mix of wariness and suspicion further fuelled by scare stories about espionage and a possible invasion in the papers and in popular fiction. The launch of HMS Dreadnought in 1906 sparked an arms race between Britain and Germany as both countries tried to outdo each other in the number of ships they could produce and add to their respective navies. By 1914, Britain had 28 dreadnoughts compared to Germany’s 16. With this superiority in numbers, the British press and public expected that should there be a head to head encounter with Germany, the Royal Navy would triumph and replicate Nelson’s feat at Trafalgar.

The man chosen for this task was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe (1859-1935), a naval officer who had participated in campaigns in Egypt and China. He was popular with his men, competent and well respected however he was viewed as too cautious. Winston Churchill once said that Jellicoe was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” His second in command, Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty (1871-1936) was a contrast to Jellicoe: while the latter was cautious, analytical and unshowy the former was impulsive and cavalier. Even in their personal lives, the two men could not have been more different – Jellicoe’s private life was quiet and conventional while Beatty was an illegitimate son who had courted scandal further by marrying a wealthy American divorcee. The marriage eventually soured: partly bought about by his wife’s lack of understanding of the demands of his naval career and duties as well as her selfishness and narcissism. Their personalities would reveal themselves during the battle where Beatty’s impulsiveness and carelessness would result into making parts of his squadron vulnerable to the German fleet while Jellicoe’s caution meant that lives were saved in the long run.034



The Battle of Jutland: Public reaction

On 31 May 1916, the British and German fleets met off the coast of Denmark and went head to head in what became known as the Battle of Jutland. In 36 hours it was all over but the public had to wait until 3 June before the first accounts of Jutland were being reported in the papers. What was reported did not exactly provide comfort the public who were expecting a Trafalgar part 2 and Jellicoe to be the new Nelson.


There were reports of appalling losses of life, especially on the Indefatigable and Queen Mary which sank when magazines on the ship exploded because the safety doors were kept open throughout the battle. Both ships sank within minutes with the loss of around 2,266 lives.  The death toll and the number of ships lost were noted down by a local woman from Kent, Ethel M. Bilbrough and interestingly she makes a comparison and contrast of the number of lives lost between Trafalgar and Jutland:

This morning comes news of our first naval battle in the great war, for up to now the Germans have kept their fleet well boxed up in port. We have lost heavily, as our main fleet was not in the North Sea where Admiral Beattie’s [sic] squadron was attacked by the Enemy with her most powerful battleships, cruisers, and torpedoes, aided by three Zeppelins to throw search lights etc., and to guide them which way to go. A most unequal fight to start with, and our splendid “Queen Mary” sank in two minutes, and others followed suit before the main fleet could get up to their assistance. Our losses were appalling, about five thousand four hundred  killed, whereas in the great battle of Trafalgar only about 400 lives were lost – far less than there were in the “Queen Mary” alone, which had over 1,000 souls. And its dreadful to think of the poor little “middys”, lads of sixteen having to go through what must have been a veritable hell upon Earth, Two admirals killed, and 333 officers. All England is bewailing, and no wonder.

This was echoed by Georgina Lee who mentioned the terrible loss on HMS Invincible:

There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attacked a powerful German fleet of 34 off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

But two days later, the Admiralty began to issue bulletins and reports in the papers which reassured the public that Jutland was a British victory despite the losses. The Daily Mirror trumpeted on 5 July that “German losses are heavier than the British” while The Times reassured their readers that “Britannia still ruled the waves”, something which was reiterated by Georgina Lee:

The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the act that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Eventually as more facts became known and were reported, the public demanded answers but overall there was satisfaction that the Germans did not dare challenge the British again. As Lillie Scales wrote in her diary:

On Monday the papers spoke quite differently – telling of numbers of German ships sunk, and that our strategy had been most wonderful, and that the German fleet would have been annihilated if a fog had not come on, and the day closed in before we had had time to reap the fruits of our victory, for it was a victory, the German fleet scuttling off for all it was worth and leaving us masters of the sea.

A century on, controversy still rages on about what went wrong at Jutland and who really was the victor but then as now, what was clear that Jellicoe and Beatty failed to deliver the knockout blow of a decisive victory that ensured Jutland would equal Trafalgar in the annals of great British naval victories. When the surviving ships returned to Britain after the battle they were greeted with boos and shouts of “cowards” while Admiral Jacky Fisher the man most responsible for the Dreadnought project after learning of what happened at Jutland, wailed “they had failed me!” which more or less summed up public disappointment of the outcome of the battle and his own desire to crown his career as the St. Vincent to Jellicoe’s Nelson.


“I Need a Hero”: Jack Cornwell VC

The aftermath Battle of Jutland undermined confidence in the Royal Navy and damaged its reputation in the eyes of the public. It also weakened national morale; as stories of heroism during the battle made their way into the press, one more than others captured the popular imagination – Boy First Class John Travers Cornwell or better known to the public as Jack Cornwell or Boy Cornwell.

His background and how he came to be in the Royal Navy was typical of the period. Born into a working class family in Leyton, Essex (now Leyton, east London), Cornwell left school at the age of 14 to work as a delivery boy and a year into the First World War enlisted in the Royal Navy without his parents’ permission. After training he was assigned to HMS Chester where he was posted as a gunner. During the battle, Cornwell remained at his post awaiting orders despite his comrades lying all around him dead or dying. Badly wounded but still refusing to abandon his post, he was finally rescued and transported back to Britain where he died of his wounds at Grimsby Hospital.

1916 battle of jutland

Cornwell’s exploits and conduct during the battle captured the public imagination and over the next few weeks and months after Jutland, his image was circulated widely in the papers and his gallantry was immortalised by a portrait by the society artist Frank Salisbury. A campaign for Cornwell to be awarded the Victoria Cross was begun as well as to bury him with full military honours. The Daily Sketch noted that “England will be shocked today to learn…that the boy-hero of the naval victory has been buried in a common grave”. On 29 July 1916, Cornwell was buried with full military honours at Manor Park Cemetery and on 15 September, the London Gazette announced the awarding of a posthumous Victoria Cross to “Boy, First Class, John Travers Cornwell, O.N.J.42563 (died 2 June 1916), for the conspicuous act of bravery specified below. Mortally wounded early in the action, Boy, First Class, Jack Travers Cornwell remained standing alone at a most exposed post, quietly awaiting orders, until the end of the action, with the gun’s crew dead and wounded all round him.” His mother finally received the award at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace on 16 November.

Times July 31 1916

The lionising of Cornwell as a hero had its roots in the Crimean War which was the first conflict to be covered from the battlefield first hand by war correspondents. While the papers reported military disasters and appalling conditions on the front, there were also stories of bravery and gallantry displayed by ordinary soldiers and sailors. The institution of the Victoria Cross in 1856 was one way to recognise the bravery and gallantry of the ordinary soldier and sailor and the public began to see them as heroes.

The failure of Jutland in becoming another Trafalgar lead to general disillusionment over the navy and its officers and the bravery of Cornwell and other sailors went into some way into restoring confidence in the Royal Navy. With the conflict both on land and sea not going well, the British public needed heroes and Jack Cornwell’s exploits provided a boost to national morale. During the rest of the war and even to this day, he has been held up as a role model especially for the young.

Conclusion: A Pyrrhic victory?

Each side claimed victory but never again would Germany go head to head with the British at sea. During the rest of the war, they resorted to U boats which forced the Navy to adapt the convoy system to guard Britain’s food supply and the transporting of civilians across the Atlantic. As several historians have pointed out, Britain might have lost the battle but in the long term they did win the battle of the Dreadnoughts. However controversy still rages over what did happen and what could have happened had things been different. New research and advances in technology has meant that the wrecks could be examined more thoroughly and help us learn more about what really happened in those 36 hours

Upon hearing news of the battle, Kaiser Wilhelm II exulted that “the spell of Trafalgar has been broken” and on one hand, he was right as despite having several advantages, the British failed to score a decisive victory. On the other hand however, the British retained control of the North Sea and the Germans were unable to penetrate the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy.

A month later, the Battle of the Somme would mean that Jutland was pushed out of the headlines and it became increasingly clear that another sea battle that could finish off what Jutland started would never materialise. In the end, the shadow of Trafalgar still looms large even a hundred years on. If one goes to Trafalgar Square, there are a pair of memorial fountains and busts of Jellicoe and Beatty that commemorate Jutland but the busts are tucked away in a corner of the square behind the column that bears Nelson’s statue which literally and figuratively is a sign that both men will always be condemned to be in the shadow of Britain’s pre-eminent naval hero.



Further reading and viewing:

Innes McCartney. Jutland 1916: The Archaeology of a Naval Battlefield (London, 2016)

Nick Jellicoe. Jutland: The Unfinished Battle (Barnsley, 2016)

Gavin Roynon (ed.). Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)

Ethel M. Bilbrough. My War Diary 1914-1918 (London, 2014)

Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)

Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell. The Battle of Jutland (Barnsley, 2007)

Andrew Gordon. The Rules of the Game: Jutland and the British Naval Command (London, 1996)

Correlli Barnett. The Swordbearers: Supreme Commanders in the First World War (London, 1963)

John Winton. Jellicoe (London, 1981)

Charles Robert Beatty. Our Admiral (London, 1980)

George Bonney. The Battle of Jutland (Sutton, 2002)

Robert K. Massie. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War (London, 2004)

Robert K. Massie. Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (London, 1991)

S.W. Roskill. Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty (London, 1980)

Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle (Channel 4 UK documentary) – first telecast on 21 May 2016

The Battle Of Jutland: The Navy’s Bloodiest Day (BBC documentary) – first telecast on 31 May 2016



Jutland: WW1’s Greatest Sea Battle – at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

36 hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle that Won the War – at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth



Photos of portraits of Jellicoe and Beatty in the National Portrait Gallery London and busts in Trafalgar Square taken by blogger

All other photos from the internet, Times article of Cornwell’s funeral screenshot taken by blogger