THE BATTLE of the Somme was one of the bloodiest in human history.
For five months the British and French armies engaged the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front in northern France, during which more than a million men were killed or wounded.
Today (July 1) marks the centenary of the first day of the Somme Offensive, which was also the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. It saw 19,240 British soldiers killed.
The horrific numbers can all too easily obscure the fact these were young men – fathers, sons, and brothers – with their lives before them, who died in the service of their country.
Among those killed on the first day of fighting was James Burton, a young private from Leamington.
James was born in Leam Terrace on April 7, 1894 – the youngest child and only son of the three children of George and Frances Burton.
James attended school in Solihull, after which he left for London where he worked as an engineer, before enlisting into the 16th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, on his 21st birthday.
When he signed up he was recorded as being 5ft 5in, brown eyed with a fresh complexion.
The fresh faced new recruit would never have known what horrors awaited him and his fellow recruits in France.
After training in Nottinghamshire and Mansfield, the Battalion set sail for France, landing in Boulogne with the 33rd Division on November 17, 1915. They remained with the division until February 25 the following year when they were transferred to GHQ as support troops.
On April 25 the Battalion left GHQ and transferred to the 86th Brigade in the newly arrived 29th Division to prepare for the forthcoming Somme Offensive.
During the seven day and night bombardment of the German front line which preceded the initial attack on July 1, the 29th Division moved up near to Beaumont Hamel.
But the Germans weathered the artillery fire in deep trenches and came up fighting when British troops went over the top on Saturday July 1 – the opening day of the Battle of Albert, the name given by the British to the first two weeks of the Battle of the Somme.
As the British soldiers advanced, they were mown down by machine gun and rifle fire. Among them was 22 year-old James Burton who was killed at Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel.
He is one of many commemorated on the huge Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, inscribed with the names of 72,085 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were killed but have no known grave.
On July 24 1916, the officer in charge of Infantry Records wrote to James’ mother Frances asking if she had heard from Her son. Frances replied “There has been no news of my son”.
A century on we can report James’ sacrifice, and that of thousands of others, has not been forgotten.
* THE ROYAL Regiment of Fusiliers Museum (Royal Warwickshire) is commemorating the centenary of The Battle of the Somme.
The Warwick-based museum has a special display at St John’s House and will be hosting a free family event on Saturday July 23.
The first day of the battle on July 1, 1916, was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army, as 19,240 soldiers lost their lives. Among them were 433 members of the 1/8th and the 1/6th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Both Territorial battalions had been at the Front since March 1915, but ironically the Somme offensive was their first taste of a major battle.
At 7.30am in bright sunshine about 1000 men of the 1/8th battalion left their trenches, followed a few minutes later by the 1/6th battalion.
The Germans were expecting an attack. The artillery bombardment to destroy the enemy trenches and barbed wire failed, and the troops hid in their deep dugouts. A contemporary recalled ‘line after line was mown down by the enemy’s fire, and the dead and dying lay like swathes of grass in a newly-mown meadow.’
Despite high casualties both battalions reached the third line. However, they could not hold the position as there were no supporting troops on either side. They had a couple of officers and less than 200 men. Ammunition was also low. Thus at night they withdrew back to their old lines.
For such losses there were only limited gains, tactics were changed, and the battle continued until November 18, 1916.
Museum curator Stephanie Bennett said: “The display remembers young local men, like Harry Rudd killed on the July 1, and Albert Blakemore from Warwick who died on the July 19, aged 19. It is sad to think that they were somebody’s son, husband, father, friend or work colleague.”
The family day on July 23 will offer the chance to discover what it was like to be a soldier in the First World War by talking to members of the Birmingham Pals Living History Group; there will also be the opportunity to be a war reporter in a workshop run by Tell Tale Theatre; and get to see a recreated trench with real objects from the conflict.
Visit www.warwickfusiliers.co.uk for further details.