Friday, 1st July marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The battle lasted for a little over four months, finally coming to an end in November 1916. It was the largest, and bloodiest, battle on the Western Front, with over one million men on both sides killed, wounded or missing in action.
The events of the battle have been well documented but it is the personal experiences of those involved in the fighting that I was looking for when searching through our catalogues, to tell the story of the men from Birmingham who fought bravely for their country.One of the first items I came across was from our Birmingham Collection – a small book with the simple title Poems and Drawings by H. L. Field. This is a collection of poems and drawings by Henry Field who was killed in action on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Before the war he had studied at the Birmingham School of Art and his family arranged the poems and sketches for publication after his death. The introduction to the volume tells us that the poems were written between 1912 and 1916, when he was aged 18 to 22. The introduction is signed R.F. and it is clear that it was a very personal decision to publish the poems. The ones that meant the most to R.F. (the ones they used to laugh over together) were omitted and one can only assume that while they wanted to do justice to the memory of Henry, some of the poems were too difficult and too personal to share. We believe R.F. was Henry’s brother, who died November 1918. Also to be found in our collections are two photograph albums relating to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment taken by Captain J.A. Wall in 1915/16. He was at one time serving with the 16th Battalion (3rd Birmingham) of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, known as the Birmingham Pals. The photographs are of soldiers at Arras and notably absent are any images of the Somme where he was wounded in 1916 but was fortunate to recover. Even though it is not a personal record, also in our collections is a printed copy of ‘Illustrated Michelin Guides to the Battlefields (1914 – 1918)’, which was published in 1919 and would have been one of the earliest accounts of the battle. The guides were published by Michelin & Cie and were ‘In memory of the Michelin workmen and employees who died gloriously for their country’.
Through the records of individuals such as these in our archives, we can remember these ordinary men who showed their bravery in the worst of conditions, and who gave their lives for their country.
We will remember them.