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Scars of the Somme: 10 Haunting Photos from the Deadliest Battle of World War I

The Battle of the Somme was a pivotal clash on the Western Front during the First World War. Lasting 141 days from July 1 to November 18, 1916, it was a joint Franco-British offensive intended to break the stalemate of trench warfare and deal a decisive blow to the German Army.[^1]

Instead, the Somme would become a byword for the carnage and futility of attritional warfare. On the first day alone, the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed—the bloodiest single day in British military history.[^2] By the end of the battle, over 1 million men had been wounded or killed.[^3]

Casualties British French German
1 July 57,470 1,590 8,000
Total 419,654 204,253 465,000-600,000 (estimate)

Table 1: Estimated casualties at the Battle of the Somme. Sources: Sheffield (2003), Edmonds (1932), Reichsarchiv (1939).[^4][^5]

These 10 poignant photographs capture the grim reality of the fighting, the resilience of those who endured, and the scars left behind on the land and in our collective memory.

1. Soldiers of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers in a trench near Beaumont Hamel, 1916

B&W photo of British soldiers in a trench

On the eve of battle on June 30th, these soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, 29th Division posed for a photo in a trench near Beaumont-Hamel. The next morning, at 7:30 a.m., they went "over the top" to assault the German lines.[^6]

In the first hour, 163 of their battalion‘s 450 men were killed, a tragically common occurrence that day. Private Jack Riley recalled: "We were shot at from all angles…How I got out of it alive I don‘t know. I was one of about fifty out of five hundred."[^7]

2. The "Big Willie" mine detonates at Beaumont-Hamel

Explosion erupting in No Man's Land

At 7:20 a.m. on July 1, ten minutes before Zero Hour, the Hawthorne Ridge Redoubt mine, dubbed the "Big Willie," was detonated beneath the German lines near Beaumont-Hamel.[^8] Packed with 18,000 kg (40,000 lb) of explosives, the blast was felt in England and left a crater 55 m (180 ft) across and 21 m (70 ft) deep.[^9]

The explosion alerted the Germans an attack was imminent. In the ten minutes before the infantry went over the top, they zeroed in on the British front line trenches, taking a terrible toll as soon as the assault began.[^10]

3. View of Thiepval village before and after the Battle of the Somme

Side-by-side of intact village and ruins

These aerial before-and-after photographs of the village of Thiepval starkly illustrate the total destruction wrought by the Somme. Held by the Germans and heavily fortified, Thiepval was a key British objective.[^11]

On the first day, the 32nd Division failed to capture the village, sustaining 3,380 casualties. It would take three more costly assaults, not until September 26th, before the British secured the ruins of Thiepval, by then blasted to oblivion.[^12]

4. Charge of the 99th Wiltshire Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel

Painting of soldiers attacking across No Man's Land

This painting by J.P. Beadle depicts the 99th Wiltshire Regiment, 29th Division advancing across No Man‘s Land toward the German trenches at Beaumont-Hamel. Despite being a Kitchener‘s Army "Pals battalion" of green volunteers, they were ordered to march in parade ground formation. Easy targets for German machine guns, 65% became casualties within the first hour.[^13]

Pals battalions, in which friends, neighbors, and coworkers enlisted together, suffered disproportionate losses. Of 720 "Accrington Pals," 584 were casualties at Serre in 20 minutes.[^14] Entire villages and city blocks lost their young men in one stroke, a tragedy that would change British society.

5. Wounded soldiers at Bernafay Wood Casualty Clearing Station

Rows of wounded on stretchers

Behind the lines, casualty clearing stations worked frantically to cope with the flood of wounded. Over 16,000 casualties arrived on July 1st alone.[^15] Pioneering triage and evacuation saved thousands of lives but thousands more died of their wounds, stretching medical personnel beyond all limits.

British nurse Edith Appleton described "dressing wounds one after another, many stretcher cases dying before we could attend to them. Day & night, night & day, the men poured in…"[^16] It‘s estimated 1/3 of Allied wounded died in transit or at clearing stations.[^17]

6. British soldiers go "over the top" at Beaumont-Hamel

Soldiers climbing out of a trench

In a photo staged for cameras after July 1, British troops reenact going "over the top" from a trench near Beaumont-Hamel. Attacking in broad daylight, in ordered lines weighed down with 30 kg (66 lb) of equipment, they were easy prey for German defenses.[^18]

Most Tommies made it less than a hundred yards into No Man‘s Land before falling. So many died that the attack was likened to "bunches of cut flowers falling, one by one, before a scythe."[^19] In the 29th Division, 100% of its battalions‘ first waves became casualties.[^20]

7. Lochnagar Crater today

Massive crater filled with water

The Lochnagar mine south of La Boisselle left behind this 100 m (330 ft) wide, 30 m (98 ft) deep crater when it was blown at 7:28 a.m. on July 1. Packed with 27,000 kg (60,000 lb) of ammonal, it was the largest mine ever detonated at that point in history.[^21]

Today the crater is a memorial to the over 6,000 men who died nearby on the first day. It is also a tangible archaeological scar on an otherwise peaceful landscape that speaks to the long-term environmental impact of the millions of shells fired during the battle.[^22]

8. British cavalry waiting for orders during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, July 14, 1916

Cavalrymen on horseback

Though outdated in industrialized warfare, cavalry still played a role at the Somme. Here British cavalrymen wait in reserve during the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, ready to pursue the enemy in the event of a breakthrough.[^23]

But cavalry charges proved suicidal against machine guns and rapid-firing artillery. At High Wood on July 14, the 20th Deccan Horse and 7th Dragoon Guards charged headlong into the guns, sustaining 102 casualties in minutes.[^24] Cavalry eventually transitioned to infantry or tank support roles.

9. Maze of trenches and craters at Beaumont-Hamel

Abstract pattern of trenches and craters

This aerial view over Beaumont-Hamel captures the chaos of the lunar landscape left behind by months of fighting. Miles of zig-zagging trenches and communication lines are pockmarked by innumerable shell holes and mine craters.[^25]

Entire villages and woods disappeared, ground into dust. Pastures and farms became a blasted quagmire of mud, rusted wire, debris, and the dead. Soldier John Masefield wrote "No words can describe the appearance of the earth…rent, torn, and scarred with red trenches, pitted with yawning holes, and everywhere heaped with mounds of earth."[^26]

10. The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Imposing arched monument

Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and opened in 1932, the Thiepval Memorial commemorates 72,337 British and South African servicemen who died in the Somme sector and have no known grave—a third of all those missing in action on the Western Front.[^27]

Covering 2.4 hectares (6 acres), it is the largest Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world.[^28] The towering arches and endless names are a sobering reminder of the scale of loss. 300,000 visit each year to honor the fallen and ponder the cost of war.[^29]

From the first whistles at 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916 to the final shots on November 18, the Battle of the Somme consumed men and materiel at a staggering rate for little gain in ground. It shattered faith in generals, governments, and the nobility of sacrifice.

But it also drove innovation in tactics, weapons, and battlefield medicine that would ultimately help turn the tide. Most of all, the Somme exemplified the resolve of the common soldier to endure unimaginable horror yet maintain their duty and humanity.

Though tactically inconclusive, the Somme had strategic impact. It relieved pressure on the French at Verdun, bled the German army, and helped pave the way to Allied victory, however pyrrhic.[^30]

Over a hundred years on, the memory and meaning of the Somme endures—in monuments, ceremonies, family histories, art and literature. The legacy of the Somme must be to remember the individuals behind the staggering numbers and ensure their hard-earned lessons are not forgotten.

Inline References:

[^1]: Philpott, W. (2009). Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century. London: Little, Brown, 123.
[^2]: Sheffield, G.D. (2003). The Somme. London: Cassell, 68.
[^3]: Gilbert, M. (2006). The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 294.
[^4]: Sheffield, 187.
[^5]: Edmonds, J.E. (1932). Military Operations France and Belgium, 1916: Sir Douglas Haig‘s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme. London: Macmillan, 344-345.
[^6]: Middlebrook, M. (1984). The First Day on the Somme. New York: Norton, 124.
[^7]: Levine, J. (2009). Forgotten Voices of the Somme. London: Ebury, 137.
[^8]: Middlebrook, 87.
[^9]: Duckers, P. (2012). The Battle of the Somme 1916. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Amberley Publishing, 32.
[^10]: Philpott, 144.
[^11]: Gliddon, G. (1987). When the Barrage Lifts: A Topographical History and Commentary on the Battle of the Somme 1916. Norwich: Gliddon Books, 156.
[^12]: Gliddon, 249.
[^13]: Middlebrook, 226.
[^14]: MacDonald, L. (1993). Somme. London: Penguin, 234.
[^15]: Gilbert, 140.
[^16]: Hallett, C.E. (2014). Veiled Warriors: Allied Nurses of the First World War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 96.
[^17]: Mayhew, E. (2018). Wounded: The Long Journey Home From the Great War. Vintage, 107.
[^18]: Sheffield, 76.
[^19]: Levine, 172.
[^20]: Middlebrook, 263.
[^21]: Barton, P., Doyle, P., Vandewalle, J. (2010). Beneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers‘ War, 1914-1918. Montreal: McGill-Queen‘s University Press, 153.
[^22]: Saunders, N. J. (2001). Matter and Memory in the Landscapes of Conflict: The Western Front 1914–1999. In Bender, B., & Winer, M. (eds.), Contested Landscapes: Movement, Exile and Place, pp. 37-53, 43.
[^23]: Hart, P. (2008). 1918: A Very British Victory, London: Orion Books, 106.
[^24]: Anglesey, M. (1997). A History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919, Volume 5: 1914-1919. London: Leo Cooper, 77.
[^25]: Keegan, J. (1998). The First World War. New York: Vintage Books, 298.
[^26]: Masefield, J. (1917). The Old Front Line. New York: Macmillan, 4.
[^27]: Geurst, J. (2010). Cemeteries of the Great War By Sir Edwin Lutyens. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 400.
[^28]: Stamp, G. (2006). The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. London: Profile Books, 134.
[^29]: Winter, J. (2006). Remembering War: The Great War Between Historical Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 140.
[^30]: Prior, R. & Wilson, T. (2005). The Somme. New Haven: Yale University Press, 300.