The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. Over five months the British and French fought the Germans in a battle of attrition on a 15-mile front. The aim was to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun but the Allies were unable to break through German lines. Over one million men were killed or wounded on all sides.
The Battle of the Somme started on July 1st 1916 and lasted until November 1916. For many people, this was the battle that symbolised the horrors of warfare in World War One. This one battle had a marked effect on overall casualty figures and seemed to epitomise the futility of trench warfare.
The Battle at the Somme started with a week-long artillery bombardment of the German lines. 1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans with the intension that the artillery guns would destroy the German trenches and barbed wire placed in front of the trenches.
In fact, the Germans had deep dugouts for their men and all they had to do when the bombardment started was to move these men into the relative safety of the dugouts. When the bombardment stopped, the Germans would have known that this would have been the signal for an infantry advance. They then moved from the safety of their dugouts and manned their machine guns to face the British and French. The British soldiers advanced across a 25-mile front.
By the end of the battle, in November 1916, the British had nearly 420,000 dead, missing or wounded, the French nearly 200,000 men and the Germans 500,000. The Allied forces had advanced along a thirty-mile strip that was seven miles deep at its widest. Lord Kitchener was a supporter of the theory of attrition – that eventually you would grind down your enemy and they would have to yield. He saw the military success of the battle as all-important. However, it did have dire political and social consequences in Britain. Many spoke of the “lost generation”, finding it difficult to justify the number of men lost in the advance.
One of our soldiers commemorated on the War Memorial fought on the Somme and is recorded on the Somme Roll of Honour. Rifleman Alfred John Jones served in the 7th Rifle Brigade and died of wounds on 30th August 1916 aged 30. Rifleman Jones’s parents Alfred and Ellen lived at Old Ford Road, Mile End. When he attested in London on May 5th 1915, Alfred stated that he was a tunneller and he was married with one child. He joined his regiment in Winchester on May 6th and must have embarked for France very shortly after this. On 23rd August 1916 he was invalided back to England with gunshot wounds to his head, arm and leg. After 8 days of treatment at Netley Hospital, Rifleman Jones died on 30th August. His service medal was sent to his widow Mrs E Allwater at 65 Druffield Street, Roman Road in July 1921.
While Rifleman Jones died back in the UK, other local men never returned from the Somme battlefields.
The children of Hettie Ayres buried their mother in the Cemetery in November 1929 and on the headstone they also recorded the loss of their father 13 years earlier. Walter James Ayres had been killed in action in France on 27th September 1916 aged 38 years. He is buried in Contalmaison Chateau Cemetery in Picardy. Private Ayres had served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and would have been involved in collecting the wounded from the battlefield and treating them there and in the military hospitals. Considering the dreadful number of killed and wounded this must have been a truly awful and dangerous task.
In the 1911 census Walter Ayres is the licensed victualler running the Lord Palmerston pub at 74 Staines Road, Hounslow with his wife Hettie, three sons aged 9, 8, and 1 and a 5 year old daughter. He was helped in the pub by two barmen. Following the loss of her husband Hettie moved to 62 St Ann’s Road, Burdett Road Bow.
Also commemorated on his family’s grave in the Cemetery is Corporal Herbert Pickering who enlisted at Cockspur Street on May 4th 1915. At the time he was living at 122 Sixth Avenue, Manor Park. In the 1911 census he is living at 148 High Street Poplar with his wife and two children. His profession is given as an ‘extract of coffee’ maker. He enlisted in the Middlesex Regiment, originally serving in the 16th Battalion Duke of Cambridge’s Own but on 25th April 1916 he was transferred to the 86th Brigade in the 29th Division. Herbert embarked for the Front on 17th November 1915 and served 227 days until, on the first day of the Somme offensive, July 1st 1916, he was killed in action at the Battle of Albert. His body was never recovered. When his will passed probate on 1st June 1917 his death is given as ‘on or since’ 1st July 1916. Under the provisions of his will, his widow Rosie Emily received £200. Herbert Pickering is commemorated on the Thiepval Monument, for men who have no know grave