At the end of June 2016 commemorations will begin to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
Fought over 141 days in 1916, it is perhaps the defining British battle of the First World War. The 1st July 1916 is often mentioned as the worst day in the history of the British Army when nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed and about 37,000 wounded, as well as around 500 being taken prisoner. It is not always remembered that the 1916 battle was the first of three Somme battles.
98 years ago, on 21st March 1918 the Germans struck suddenly at the British Army in an early morning attack. After making peace with Russia, Germany had transferred most of the Eastern forces and were in a position of numerical superiority on the Western Front. A decisive blow had to be struck before the United States joined the war – the US eventually declared war on Germany (but not Austria-Hungary) on 9th April.
This was Germany’s first offensive action in the west for over two years, and her largest since the original invasion in August 1914. After a brief but ferocious artillery and gas bombardment, German infantry overwhelmed the British lines with their storm troops making deep penetrations. British casualties that day were about 38,500 of which 21,000 were prisoners. Among the British dead that day was Sister Ellen Andrews, who was attached to the 58th Casualty Clearing Station at Lillers when it was bombed by German aircraft, killing her and wounding the matron. Ellen Andrews was 32. You can find out more about the work
of British Women on the ‘Deeds, not Words’ walk. Sister Andrews is buried in Lillers Communal cemetery, but those from the 1918 Somme battles with no known grave are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing within Pozieres Military Cemetery. This was visited by David Cameron and Francois Hollande on 3rd March, this year, with both leaders laying wreaths
The German actions that day started a British Retreat that lasted over two weeks. Although the Germans gained all the ground lost in the 1916 Somme battle the British line never broke, and the Germans never reached the strategically city of Amiens. The fighting then moved elsewhere.
On 8th August 1918, at almost the same spot in front of Amiens where the German advance was stopped, the British, with strong support for Empire troops struck back. This time the Allied counter offensive proved to be overwhelming and within 100 days had led to the defeat of the German Army and the end of the war. Among those killed in the advance to victory was Second Lieutenant Wilfred Appleton White, who only left Whitgift Grammar School in Croydon in 1917. Aged 19 at his death in October 1918, he had won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford. Like Sister Andrews, he lies in a cemetery in France, but his name can be seen on the war memorial outside the gates of St Bartholomew the Great, visited on the ‘Zeppelin – Terror over London’ walk.by