The Somme soldiers’ stories

From the battle-hardened veteran who led an audacious assault on the German lines to the headmaster who yearned to be reunited with his children, Peter Hart recounts the experiences of seven ordinary men who faced terrible danger on the Somme

British gunners busily engaged in putting over a curtain barrage. Somme campaign, France, 1916. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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“In waiting, there is nothing but anxiety” Captain Charles May found the countdown to zero hour excruciating

On 1 July 1916, Captain Charles May was up against it as he gazed over the parapet towards the German lines at Mametz. He and his men knew that the Germans were ready for them and there were rumours they had hung up a defiant sign on the barbed wire: “When your bombardment starts we are going to bugger off back five miles. Kitchener is buggered. Asquith is buggered. You’re buggered. We’re buggered. Let’s all bugger off home!”

May’s diaries express frustration as the days counted down. “We were all ready and anxious to get away. Waiting is rotten. It tries the nerves more than the actual moment of assault. Then one has action, movement, 100 things to strive for and to occupy one’s attention. But, in waiting, there is nothing but anxiety and fruitless speculation.”

In the last few days, he wrote a heart-rending letter to his wife, only to be opened if he was killed: “I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. It is the thought that we may be cut off from one another which is so terrible and that our babe may grow up without my knowing her and without her knowing me. It is difficult to face.”

Face it he did. He led his company into action and was killed by shellfire, just as they reached the German trench lines. He is buried in Dantzig Cemetery.

“He must have preferred that kind of death to the chance of being roasted”

Combat took its toll on Britain’s fighter ‘ace’ Albert Ball

Captain Albert Ball was not like other men. Seemingly without fear, he carved out a career as Britain’s foremost ‘ace’ in the skies above the Somme in the long hot summer of 1916, charging at any number of German aircraft before picking off his chosen victim. “Met 12 Huns. No.1 fight. I attacked and fired two drums, bringing the machine down just outside a village. All crashed up.

No. 2 fight. I attacked and got under machine, putting in two drums. Hun went down in flames. No. 3 fight. I attacked and put in one drum. Machine went down and crashed on a housetop.”

He summed up his method of attack: “When I get to close quarters I generally pretend that I am going to attack from above. The Hun gets ready to fire up at me as I pass over, and then I suddenly dive under his machine and if I am lucky I empty a drum into his petrol tank and down he goes.”

His personal fears only emerged in his letters home, and certainly the sights he saw began to affect him: “I fired five rounds into her. She burst into flames and fell upside down. Although she dropped like a stone, I saw her observer climb out of his seat and jump clear of the flames. He must have preferred that kind of death to the chance of being roasted.”

Ball was tortured to some extent by the murderous nature of his trade. By October he was exhausted and was sent home on training duties. When he returned to the front he was still deadly but his luck eventually ran out and he was killed on 7 May 1917. He was awarded a posthumous VC.

“When this long war is done… we shall have some glorious fun”

Lieutenant Robert Smylie dreamed of the day he would return to his three young children

Something had to keep ordinary men going during the terrible ordeals of the front line. For Lieutenant Robert Smylie, born on 7 April 1874, it was the thought of one day returning to live life to the full with his little children. After graduating from London University, he had a career in teaching before rising to become the headmaster of Sudbury Grammar School. He volunteered and would serve with the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Somme in 1916.

Robert wrote a poem, My Three Kids, in his army pocketbook. It relates in poetic form something of his warlike activities and how much he misses his children, but it also expresses his firm belief that he is fighting for their future:

And I’ve marched and crawled and run

Night and day in rain and sun

And shall do it until we’ve won

For my kids

The poem concludes:

And when this long war is done

We shall have some glorious fun

On 14 July, the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers attacked the German second-line positions along the Bazentin Ridge. The attack was a success, but during the assault Robert Smylie was killed by a single shot to the chest. The bullet went straight through his pocketbook, which is now preserved in the collections of the Imperial War Museum and is on display at IWM London in the First World War Galleries. He is buried in the Flatiron Copse Cemetery near Mametz.

“Fred tied a fieldbandage on it and called me a lucky bastard”

A ‘Blighty’ from a piece of shrapnel answered Albert Conn’s prayers

Private Albert Conn was born of a working-class background in the East End of London in 1897 and was serving with the 8th Devonshire Regiment in 1916.

Before the Somme battle started, he witnessed a portent of what was to come: “A small bird sang on a stunted tree in Mansell Copse. We used to listen to it and wonder that amongst so much misery and death a bird could sing. A corporal visiting the fire posts heard the bird singing and – muttering, ‘What the hell have you got to sing about?’ – fired and killed it!”

Mansell Copse, just south of Mametz, would become a slaughterhouse for the Devonshires. Soon after the 1 July attack, Conn was looking for a Prussian helmet as a souvenir: “The dead had fallen in many strange, grotesque postures, some on their hands and knees as if they were praying. One bloke, when I lifted his helmet, half the top of his nut was in it – it was full of brains like mincemeat. I’m not very squeamish, but I didn’t fancy scraping that out!”

When his ‘time’ came, Albert Conn was lucky enough to get a light wound. “I was jolted out of my sleep by a sharp blow on the inside of my left leg, just below the kneecap. It was just as though somebody had kicked me. I felt it with my hand in the darkness and my hand came away sticky and wet. I knew that the flesh was torn. A piece of shrapnel had gone deep in my leg. I had received what every soldier prayed for – a perfect Blighty! I told Fred, he tied a field bandage on it and called me a lucky bastard!”

Later in the war, Private Conn would be wounded again and ultimately was discharged from the army in September 1918. But he survived the war.

“Many Germans ceased to live”

Frank Maxwell displayed his utter contempt for fear during an assault on Trônes Wood

Frank Maxwell was already a hero – at the age of 28 he had been awarded the Victoria Cross after he helped to drag some guns back to safety while under heavy fire during the Boer War in 1900.

This was an officer who led from the front. By 1916, Maxwell was commanding 12th Middlesex Regiment on the Somme. As a battle-hardened veteran, he was disturbed at the amateurism of what he saw and had already earned praise for his vigorous action to resolve difficult situations. On the night of 13/14 July, he was ordered at short notice to take Trônes Wood. “To talk of a ‘wood’ is to talk rot. It was the most dreadful tangle of dense trees and undergrowth imaginable.”

He resolved to form a single line and ‘beat’ the woods from end to end as if for a shooting party. “After infinite difficulty, I got it shaped in the right direction, and then began the advance very, very slowly. Men nearly all very much shaken by the clamour and din of shellfire and nervy and jumpy about advancing in such a tangle of debris and branches. I immediately found that without me being there, the thing would collapse in a few minutes. So off I went with the line, leading it, pulling it on, keeping its direction.”

Maxwell made his men fix bayonets and ordered them to shoot ahead into the undergrowth. When they came upon serious resistance he led the attack himself. “A curtain may be drawn over this, and all that need be said was that many Germans ceased to live, and we took a machine gun.”

Amazingly, the German resistance collapsed and Trônes Wood was secured. Maxwell’s character bemused most of his men – he seemed utterly immune to fear. He cheerfully wrote to his wife: “A man may be squandered over me without any more feeling about it, than being sorry for his poor mother or wife. I mean of course, that it does not incapacitate my system in the least.” This was not an entirely normal reaction and there is little wonder that many of his men had difficulty in living up to his expected standards of conduct.

Maxwell was soon promoted to brigadier general but was killed on 21 September 1917.

He is buried at the Ypres Reservoir Cemetery and his VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at IWM London.

“Something with the force of a cannon ball hit me full in the chest”

Within seconds of going over the top, Sergeant William Kerr found himself fighting for his life

Men came to fight on the Somme from all over the empire. One such was Sergeant William Kerr, a Canadian who had volunteered in January 1915 to serve with the 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion, a dismounted unit in the 1st Canadian Division.

When he went over the top for the first time in September 1916, Kerr was filled with a strange exaltation. “Fear? I had no fear at all. All the pent-up dread and tension had completely left me. Like a shot I was up and over the top of the trench. In no time, bullets were flying and a wicked machine gun had opened up against us on my right. Something with the force of a cannon ball hit me full in the chest. I believed

I had been killed, and in the two seconds it took me to crumple up, my lips had only time to murmur, ‘Oh mother!’ Then nothingness.”

For too many men, such thoughts were the end. But William Kerr awoke. “I opened my eyes and had a minute or two to realise I was still alive. After a while I began to feel about my chest, for I didn’t know how bad I had been wounded, or what had got me. I felt my left breast pocket sticky with blood.”

After struggling to put on his field dressings, Kerr lay still and waited for rescue. At sundown the stretcher bearers arrived and carried him to the advanced dressing station in a captured German dugout. Here he was laid on a rough wire mesh bed, surrounded by other seriously wounded men.

“That was to be a terribly long night, pitch dark as it was down in the depths of the place. Two of the most seriously wounded screamed with their pains for most of the night, until one of them passed away. He was at the far end of the dugout, but I could hear the murmured, ‘He’s dead. He’s gone!’ For myself, with a dull pain all over my chest, I just lay without moving all through the night.”

Although he had been terribly wounded, Sergeant Kerr had also been fantastically lucky. When he was examined, he was told that, from the location of the entry and exit wounds, his heart must have been in the act of contracting at the instant the bullet smashed through his chest. Against all the odds, he survived and after a long convalescence would return to fight at the front in 1918.

“I seem to be pretty bulletproof”

The resourceful Wilfred Nevill allayed his soldiers’ fears with  the assistance of a football

Captain Nevill has long been criticised for his bravado in encouraging his men to kick footballs ahead of them as they attacked across no man’s land on 1 July – but the real story was very different.

In 1916 he was serving with the 8th East Surrey Regiment and faced with attacking strong German positions at Mansell Copse. To distract his men from their fears, Nevill had brought back the two footballs from his last leave. His colonel, Alfred Irwin, had approved the idea: “Nevill came to me with a suggestion… as he had 400 yards to go and knew that it would be covered by machine gun fire, it would be helpful if he could furnish each platoon with a football and allow them to kick it forward and follow it. I sanctioned that on condition that he and his officers really kept command of the unit and didn’t allow it to develop into a rush after the ball.”

As so many men did before they went over the top, Nevill tried to console himself and his family: “I seem to be pretty bulletproof.” One of the footballs had written on it: “The Great European Cup-Tie Final. East Surreys v Bavarians, Kick off at Zero!” The other had emblazoned on it “No referee”, to indicate that ‘rough stuff’ was entirely appropriate.

Second Lieutenant Charles Alcock wrote of the tragedy that ensued. “Five minutes before zero time he strolled up in his usual calm way, and we shared a last joke before going over. The company went over the top very well, with Soames and your brother kicking off with the company footballs. We had to face a very heavy rifle and machine gun fire, and nearing the front German trench, the lines slackened pace slightly. Seeing this, Wilfred dashed in front with a bomb in his hand, and was immediately shot through the head.”

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Peter Hart is the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum.