Last words from the Somme

It was a battle that claimed 95,675 British lives, including 20,000 on the first day. Ninety years on, letters and diary entries written by those who fell have been posted online for the first time by the Imperial War Museum. Composed shortly before the men died, they offer a poignant glimpse into the last days of doomed lives. By Oliver Duff

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:55

Wilfred Nevill, Captain

Captain Wilfred "Billie" Nevill was both reckless and impossibly brave during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Throughout May 1916, while home on leave, Nevill and fellow young officers entered heated discussions about how their men might react when finally ordered to go over the top and run towards the German gunners.

The 21-year-old devised what he considered to be an ingenious plan to distract the men of the 8th Battalion, East Surrey Regiment from the rain of machine-gun fire they expected to face crossing No Man's Land. While in England, he obtained two heavy brown leather footballs, and took them with him back to France.

On the eve of battle, he wrote to his sister, Else, thanking her for "a chit of some length and liveliness". He added: "As I write, the shells are fairly haring over; you know one gets just sort of bemused after a few million, still it'll be a great experience to tell one's children about." Cramping his writing to fit it all on to the bottom of the page, he signed off his last words to her: "So long, old thing, don't worry if you don't hear for a bit. I'm as happy as ever. Yrs ever, Bill."

In the hours before the battle, he revealed his plan to his men, giving a football to two of the platoons in his company and ordering the soldiers to punt it towards the German trenches, so "that proper formation and distance was not lost thereby". He kept one for himself, reportedly writing on it: "The Great European Cup Final - East Surreys versus The Bavarians".

At 7.27am on 1 July 1916, three minutes before the British artillery's bombardment of the Germans lifted, he "shared a last joke" with fellow officers before beginning the charge himself, kicking his ball into No Man's Land and running from the trenches in eager pursuit. His goal was the village of Montauban.

Despite facing very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, the advance began successfully. Approaching the German barbed wire, however, the advancing British soldiers hesitated.

Having got his men so far across No Man's Land, Nevill dashed forward with a grenade in his hand to kick the ball on - and was "immediately shot through the head", according to an eyewitness. The officer kicking the other ball, Bobby Soames, was also shot dead on the German wire.

The press back home leapt on the story as an example of classic British brio and strength of character. A fellow officer, 2nd Lt C W Alcock, in a letter to Else after her brother's death, praised his "personal charm and never-failing good humour" and "the interest he took in every individual under his command". The Germans saw it as evidence of British madness.

The Surreys captured a small tract of land later that day. The survivors searched for and found the footballs, which are on display in Britain. One of them currently resides at the Imperial War Museum.

Alan Lloyd, Lieutenant

The cheerful confidence of Second Lieutenant Alan Lloyd failed to convince his fiancée, Dorothy Hewetson.

The 27-year-old Lloyd, an experienced traveller in South America and East Africa, had immediately volunteered for service when war broke out in July 1914. It was during his honeymoon several weeks later that he found out he had been commissioned. In an effort to quell his new wife's angst, he wrote chastising her: "Everybody must put their personal considerations in the background now, & I don't believe you'd be so selfish as to try & stop me doing my part. Possibly

you don't realise that this is a life & death struggle with Germany." Although he hated "flag-wagging & Union Jack hurrahing etc", he believed: "Everybody who could do something & won't is a beastly unpatriotic kind of person."

After joining C Battery, 78th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, Lloyd repeatedly wrote to his "beloved" that the British were gaining ground.

After a brief visit home at Christmas 1915, where he met his son David for the first time, he was dispatched to the Somme. Ten days into the slaughter there he mailed her: "We are quite alright tho of course have had a hard time. Still it hasn't been nearly so rough as it might have been & we've done pretty well so far & hope to do better still... We are all very cheery & bright so don't fret your little self."

He added, with unwarranted optimism: "Probably they'll relieve us shortly," before signing off "Tons of love, Yr Hub".

Just after midnight on 4 August 1916, the 17th Division launched an attack in Delville Wood, north of Montauban. Disastrously, German artillery cut communications and Lloyd tracked back under heavy fire to mend the telephone wires. He was hit by a shell and died after 20 minutes. Ten days later he was awarded the Military Cross.

After Lloyd's funeral, gunner John Manning placed a simple sign on his grave: "He died as he lived, brave and fearless, a true British hero."

Percy Boswell, Second Lieutenant

A dashing 22-year-old with a pencil moustache and an unwavering gaze, Percy George Boswellwas optimistic about the British forces' prospects against the enemy when he wrote to his father on 30 June 1916, just hours before being sent into battle.

"I am just writing you a short note which you will receive only if anything has happened to me during the next few days," he began, in neat script that teetered off towards the bottom right-hand corner of the page.

A bullish tone soon took over, as the Second Lieutenant promised: "The Hun is going to get consummate hell just in this quarter, and we are going over the parapet tomorrow, when I hope to spend a few merry hours in chasing the Boche all over the place."

He added: "I am absolutely certain that I shall get through all right, but in case the unexpected does happen I shall rest content with the knowledge that I have done my duty - and one can't do more. Goodbye and wish the best of love to all. From Percy."

When Boswell wrote the letter, his battalion, the 8th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was already huddled in sodden trenches running along the eastern edge of Authuille Wood.

Their orders were to attack over a 320 metr-long slope in range of well-sighted German machine guns. The regimental history records what happens next: "Over the flat rising ground the enemy machine guns acted like so many reapers and wave after wave of men were mown down in this harvest of the manhood of the nation."

Among the 550 casualties - 80 per cent of their attacking strength - was Boswell, who died during the first hour of fighting on the first day of the battle.

Alfred Bland, Captain

Captain Alfred "Bill" Bland seemed hugely excited by being at war. On the day he first landed in France in November 1915 he write to his wife, Violet (also known as Lettie) that he was "extraordinarily happy, simply bursting with riotous spirits".

In a note which showed none of the scholarly restraint demonstrated in a book he co-wrote with the renowned historian R H Tawney, he wrote: "The one thing lacking is shell fire. I shall not receive the real thrill till I get within sound of the guns..."

In February 1916, after experiencing trench life, the 34-year-old, serving with the 22nd Manchesters, wrote to Lettie: "I can't bear you to be unhappy. Think of the cause, the cause. It is England, England, England, always and all the time. The individual counts as nothing, the common cause everything."

This spirit faded. Writing on 29 June, he accepted it might be his final farewell: "Give my lads such a lot of hugs from me and thank them for their dear long letters, which are beautifully written and spelt. God bless you."

Bland was killed at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. He left two young sons. His last message to his wife was brief and simple: "My darling. All my love for ever. Alfred." Enclosed with the note was a pressed flower - a forget-me-not.

Charles May, Captain

Captain Charles "Charlie" May, 27, thinking of his wife, Bessie, and baby daughter, showed none of his comrades' enthusiasm to go into battle.

A member of the 22nd Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, 7th Division, he wrote to his wife on 17 June, a fortnight before the bloody first day of battle of the Somme: "I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water. I cannot think of it with even the semblance of equanimity."

Over the months his attitude changed to resigned fatalism. May's final diary entry at 5.45am on 1 July, reproduced from Malcolm Brown's history of the Somme, was among the last testaments to be written by the 19,240 Britons who would die on the Somme that day. "No Man's land is a tangled desert," he wrote. "We do not yet seem to have stopped his machine guns. These are popping off all along our parapet as I write. I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over."

Suspecting he might not return, he asked his friend, Captain FJ Earles, if he would look after his wife and daughter. May led his men over the top at 7.30am that day. The 22nd Manchesters made progress across No Man's Land, but the machine guns he wrote of cut down many of the battalion - and May was among the dead. Earles kept his promise, and later married May's widow.

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