From the office: Remembering the Somme

By Editor, 30 June 2016 - 12:23pm

As we mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, editor Sarah Williams tries to find out if her grandfather was involved in the First World War's most notorious battle

Sarah Williams is editor at Who Do You Think You Are? MagazineThursday 30 June 2016
Sarah Williams, Editor
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Robert Ashley Baldry Royal Engineers Special Brigade

A photograph of Sarah's grandfather while at home on leave

19,240 men. I’m trying to picture it but I can’t. In fact, what I should be picturing is 19,240 bodies because that’s how many men in the British Army were killed on the first and bloodiest day of the Battle of the Somme.

And to that I should be adding the Germans and the French but they kept figures differently and it’s hard to find a precise figure for the day. Estimates put the total dead at around 30,000.

30,000 bodies and all in one day. British soldiers, with heavy packs, told to march shoulder to shoulder into the German machine gun fire. It’s a wonder that anyone survived.

For some reason I had always thought my grandfather fought at the Somme. I never knew him and I’m not sure anybody had ever told me that. My mother said he never talked about the war. He wouldn’t even tell them why he had been awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. Perhaps as a child I equated fighting in WW1 with its most notorious battle, the Somme.

As the centenary of the battle approached, I felt it was time to dig a bit deeper and that has become much easier now that so much information has gone online. My grandfather was in the Royal Engineers, Special Brigade. That means he worked in the gas division but that’s all I knew about him. His service record is one of many that did not survive the Blitz of the Second World War and all I had was his medal index card.

However, a recent discovery of him in the casualty lists on, led me to visit the Great War Forum and, with my small amount of knowledge, gleaned from a postcard he sent home, and the enormous help I got from experts on the forum, I have managed to download the relevant War Diary from The National Archives for just £3.45 without having to leave the comfort of my chair. On 1 July 1916, my grandfather was at Cassel in Belgium, not sitting in a trench penning his last words to loved ones at home.

I’m glad he didn’t see the horrific sight that I, one hundred years on, cannot imagine. I’m sure he saw enough bodies.

As family historians, we are used to honouring the dead. The act of remembrance is built into what we do on a daily basis, but when it comes to battles like this, remembrance is a humbling experience.

The world can seem a scary place right now. We sit at home and watch the news and worry about tomorrow. But today, let’s just be grateful for what we have and thank those men, our flesh and blood, who one hundred years ago saw unimaginable horror. Each one of them was more than just a number.

You can download our recently updated guide to researching your First World War Army soldiers for free here


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From the office: Which way did your ancestors vote?
previous blog Article
The Big Push: How Britain’s WW1 soldiers prepared for the Battle of the Somme
next blog Article
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