Today marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, considered one of the deadliest battles in human history. The Battle began on July 1, 1916 and did not conclude until November 18. During that time, the British and French saw a combined 794,238 casualties. The Germans saw 537,918 casualties. Those numbers are simply staggering — 1.3 million men dead or wounded in a single (albeit protracted) battle.
British and French forces were able to gain 6 miles during this time. That was with the introduction of the tank and air support. The Battle of the Somme was the second deadliest battle in World War I by casualties, and only two campaigns in World War II were more deadly.
I remember my history classes talking about the deadliest conflicts in American history– Shiloh, Antietam, Gettysburg, Appomattox. And those were battles that obviously included American casualties, the Somme did not. For comparison purposes? 310,486 men died in the Battle of the Somme. 204,000 died in the American Civil War. These are deaths, not included casualties, prisoners of war, or those who died in prison. Just take a moment to consider that. 1 battle lasting 4 months saw more death than a war that lasted 4 years.
At the same time that men were losing their lives, limbs, and minds in record numbers, there was a huge volume of poetry produced. The Poetry of World War I generally comes from the British side of things, the doughboys who found ways to record the horror that was unfolding in front of them night and day in trenches that were hardly conducive to, well, anything other than disease.
The Poetry Foundation has a collection of Poetry from the time, organized by year with the major battles noted. The selection includes works from Thomas Hardy, Robert Stevens, Edith Wharton, William Butler Yeats, Siegfried Sasson, Wilfred Owen, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, and GK Chesterton. Some served, some watched from home, so there are a variety of view points represented.
Oxford has a Digital Archive of poetry from the First World War. Among the various artifacts that have been made available, I was struck by the revisions of Dulce et Decorum Est. While I’ve linked to one there are several. Wilfred Owen did not survive the war — he died at the age of 25, one week before the Armistice was signed.
There are any number of poems that were written during the War and in the aftermath of the War; written by those at home and on the front. The following have been recommended to me: In Flanders Field by John McCrae, The Shield of Achilles by WH Auden, Prayer of a Solider in France by Joyce Kilmer, The Soldier by Rupert Brooke, and the aforementioned Dulce et Decorum Est.
I know there are a number of JRR Tolkien fans out there, so it bears reminding that Tolkien was in the trenches at the Somme. In interviews later in his life, Tolkien would recall writing first drafts that would become Middle Earth in the trenches of France under shell fire. The New York Times has a good article on the connection between the great evils and battles of Middle Earth and the Somme.
For those who favor historical records, the British National Archives have digitized the British Army War Diaries from 1914 to 1922, covering the entirety of the war. They also have a crowdsourcing project for those interested; Operation War Diary allows anyone to help comb through the 1.5 million pages of unit war diaries from World War 1 and help note and annotate them, pulling out details as you can.
Finally, for those who prefer novels from the time, there are certainly scads of them out there. I highly recommend Rilla of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Most will know the author from her Anne of Green Gables books and Emily of New Moon books. Rilla of Ingleside is actually the 8th Anne of Green Gables book, telling the story of Anne and Gilbert’s children — all of them in their teens and 20s at the onset of the War. Montgomery’s novel is World War 1 from the home front, and in fact is the only Canadian novel written about World War 1 by a woman and told from a woman’s perspective. Rilla is also an example of uncomfortable history — the novel had several thousand words trimmed from it, not because they were inaccurate but because of heavy anti-German sentiment. That was the only version available until about 6 years ago, so be on the look out for the edited and unedited versions.