1 July 2016

We will remember them

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Memorial services are taking place around the country and the world to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice a century ago, giving their lives in the bloodiest battle in British military history.
 
In Brighton & Hove, a service was held at the City Cemetery on Bear Road. At 7.15am people gathered at the First World War section, standing in front of the Cross of Sacrifice, for a memorial service led by one of the council’s cemeteries officers.
 
Poems and testimonies from soldiers serving in the trenches were read aloud, including extracts from the diary of Sergeant Hubert Harding from Brighton. The Last Post was played by Reverend Michael Hydes before the start of the two minute silence. Three piercing whistle blasts brought the silence to an end at exactly 7.30am, the time the soldiers went over the top and into battle in 1916. Poppies were laid on the Cross of Sacrifice in memory of those who lost their lives.

Crosses of Sacrifice are stone memorials placed in every cemetery where there are 40 or more war graves. The Cross of Sacrifice in Brighton is located in the middle of the hundreds of graves for those who died during the Great War.
 
Those buried in Brighton & Hove were remembered and their backgrounds shared during the service. There are 274 men and one woman, a nursing sister, buried in the First World War section of the cemetery.
 
The British Army decreed those who died in battle would remain where they fell. It was also decided that those who later died of their wounds in countries where they had been taken for treatment would not be repatriated but instead buried in the lands where they died. The soldiers and nurse buried in the City Cemetery died of their wounds while staying at the Kitchener Military Hospital, which later became the nearby Brighton General Hospital. 

There are nine nationalities buried in the City Cemetery including people from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, South Africa, Poland, Portugal and India. There are also 16 German prisoners of war who died of influenza in a local hospital. Their graves are set away from the main war sections to respect the wishes of the local people at the time.

The war section in the City Cemetery is one of many similar specially designed cemeteries around the world to honour the war dead. At all the cemeteries there are identical headstones in regards to stone, shape and size. Each headstone features a national emblem, regimental crest or religious image along with the name, age, rank, and date of death of the soldier, creating a brief poignant snapshot of the person buried below.
 
The oldest of the men buried in the Brighton Cemetery is 67 year old Lieutenant Colonel George Boudrie O’Donnell, serving in the Royal Defence Corps. The youngest is Private George Ryder, a boy in the Royal Navy, who was just 16 when he died. 

The Battle

From January 1916, preparations for the attack began. Training and large scale rehearsals were carried out over a period of weeks.

Huge mines were laid by engineers to blow strategic gaps in the German defences.  A seven-day preliminary bombardment began on the 24 June in an attempt to cut the barbed wire in front of the German lines and destroy trench defences and artillery. In the week leading up to the battle, more than 1.5 million shells were fired.

The intention was to shatter the German forces and allow the British to cross no man’s land in a rapid advance to occupy the German trenches.

Tons of supplies and equipment, hundreds of guns, thousands of men and hundreds of horses arrived in the rear areas ready for deployment.

In a wave of patriotic fervour, thousands of men volunteered for service in Lord Kitchener's New Armies. It was soon realised many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.

People who already knew each other well would be good for the army - they would look after each other and keep spirits up during the hard times. The idea worked and soon groups of men from the same workplaces, villages, churches and sports teams were joining the army together.

By the end of September 1914, over 50 towns had formed Pals battalions with larger town and cities forming several Pals battalions each.

On 30 June messages of encouragement were sent to the men by their commanders. Field services were held by the padres and chaplains. Some units held parades with bands playing.

Equipment was cleaned and checked. Letters were written. Each man collected his ammunition. Kit to be carried into battle was handed out.

The troops fell in to their units and prepared for the march that night into the Assembly Trenches in the forward area. Between 2am and 5.15am 100 years ago thousands of British troops made their way on a moonless, but clear, night along pre-prepared routes to the forward lines to be in position and ready for Zero Hour at 07.30am on the 1 July.

On the first day alone almost 60 thousand lives were lost. In the following 141 days until the battle’s end on 18 November, an estimated one million men and boys died or were injured. The furthest they advanced was just five miles.