Men of the ‘Big Push’: Ealing’s Battle of the Somme
By Dr. Piotr Stolarski
Above: A scene staged for the film, The Battle of the Somme (1916)
“I am in hospital with just a scratch from shrapnel in the leg –
nothing to get alarmed about. I can walk just as well as ever. I got
hit in the great advance,and, I give you my word for it, it was 'some'
(Private H. Lawrence, Royal Fusiliers, writing to his parents in
Hanwell from hospital)
The Battle of the Somme pitted the armies of Britain and France on one side, and those of Germany on the other, from 1 July to 18 November 1916, beside the Somme River, close to Amiens, in north-eastern France. It was the largest battle in World War One on the western front, and, with over 1 million men killed or wounded, one of the bloodiest in history.
To coincide with the centenary, and Dr. Jonathan Oates’s talk on Ealing and the Battle of the Somme (Tuesday 12 July, 6:15-7:15pm at Ealing Central Library), this blog post highlights some of the individual soldiers with links to the local area who were wounded, killed, went missing, or were decorated for gallantry, 100 years ago.
Above: Map from: http://www.worldwar1gallery.com/history/map10.png
The Battle of the Somme was in fact a five-month offensive on a 30-mile front, involving fierce combat in several inter-connected battles stretching across swathes of countryside, trench systems, and dozens of small French hamlets.
Private H. Lawrence, quoted at the beginning of this post, wrote to his parents in Hanwell describing the fighting at the Somme. His words were published in the local paper:
We were told we were going over the top to take a village, and then
the ‘strafe’ commenced. I never saw such a thing. We all moved as
in a dream. When we got to the place where we were to get over, it
was a sight, but it put new life into us. It made us all mad, we
shouted and sang, and then came the ‘Over, boys!’ Up we jumped,
and a hail of bullets rained all over us, but only one or two of the
boys fell until we got to the third line, and then we got shrapnel. We
got to the village. What a village! The Boches came crawling along
– in thousands; it looked like to me. ‘Mercy, kamerade,’ they cried.
I remember no more until I found myself in a Canadian hospital.
(MCT 26 July 1916, p. 1.)
Above: Local newspaper advertisement for the film, The Battle of the Somme (1916).
The Ealing public were given a sense of what was going on when, between 28 and 31 August 1916, a film was shown of the battle, at Broadway Cinema, Ealing, and the Walpole Picture Theatre, Bond Street, Ealing. This was a military-sponsored 90-minute propaganda film largely composed of actual battle footage (except for staged scenes of British soldiers going ‘over the top’), and it caused a sensation. It proved to be the most popular war film shown during the entire First World War (seen by around 20 million people); its opening showing attended by the Mayor of Ealing. The film was advertised in the local press in this manner:
For the first time in British history the stay-at-home public are to have
an opportunity of witnessing the full horrors of war. The present war is
described as hell itself, and we have very vivid pen descriptions of the
ghastly business from many of the world’s best penmen, but even with
this assistance human imagination cannot picture the grim realities.
The British military authorities arranged for a military film record to be
taken of the Somme battles, and now the pictures are to be shown to
the public, not for amusement or diversion, but as a tribute to the
bravery and self-sacrificing work of the magnificent British Army. The
films record the actual battle scenes; the work of the fighting men, and
all the wonderful organisation of our great war machine is revealed in
a way that no pen can describe. Dead men, wounded men, belching
guns, ruined villages, smashed enemy entrenchments, battalions of a
hundred different regiments going into action, and a host of other
sensational scenes go to make up 6,000 feet of terribly heroic and true
facts from the battlefield.
(MCT 12 August 1916, p. 6.)
The Somme, known as the ‘big push’ to contemporaries, is most (in)famous for the ‘60,000’ casualties suffered by the British army on the first day of the offensive (a fact taught to generations of school children in the United Kingdom). Paradoxically, the human cost of the battle, however, can be obscured when such figures are quoted in the abstract, with little attention to the persons involved. The following extracts from Ealing’s local paper, the Middlesex County Times (MCT), in contrast, bring home to us the personal and local impact of the battle and the Great War more generally. Several Ealing men were killed on the first day, while some were wounded or reported missing; and many more died in the months that followed – perhaps as many as 400 from Ealing and surrounding districts. All had pre-war lives, families, friends, jobs, comrades, and personalities, of their own. These brief reports show that many local men joined the army with enthusiasm in 1914, while some joined up together at local recruitment drives, destined for so-called ‘pals’ battalions’ (consisting of men who knew each other from clubs, churches, associations, or sports teams). The pictures are especially poignant reminders of a generation of men lost or scarred in a conflict of unprecedented intensity and destructiveness. The soldiers’ individual experiences could only be hinted at in print owing to the need to avoid mentioning military-sensitive information in the public domain; while the impact on their loved ones of hearing the news of their deaths (or survival) can only be imagined in retrospect.
Soldiers from the London Borough of Ealing
Private E. W. Laflin (from Ealing) – d. July 1916
News came on Thursday to Mr. and Mrs. W. J. Laflin, 25 Trent-avenue, South Ealing, that their eldest son, Pte. Edward William Laflin, had been killed in the “big push”. He was 21 years of age on Monday. He enlisted in the 8th Middlesex Regiment soon after the outbreak of the war, and before going to France served at Gibraltar and in Egypt. He was a St. Mary’s [school, Ealing] old boy, and in civil life was in the surveyor’s office of Messrs. Venning and Co., Bedford Row, Holborn where he was making rapid progress. A “real good sport,” he had made many friends in Ealing, who will deeply mourn his loss.
Pte. A. G. Marshall, of the same regiment, writes:- “I expect you will have already received the sad news of your son’s death, following so quickly the death of his dearest chum, Ozard. All who knew Ted, wish to express their most sincere regrets. We have lost a good fellow and a good soldier. I am sure you will feel much consoled to know that he died whilst carrying out his duty; he was gallantly doing his work when a high explosive shell burst right on his section of the trench.”
Mr. and Mrs. Laflin return their thanks for much sympathy in their loss.
(Source: MCT 8 July 1916, p. 5.)
Lieutenant W. P. Woodstock (from Acton) – d. 1 July 1916
Lieut. Walter Percy Woodstock, who was killed in action on July 1st, was the elder son of Mr. Walter Woodstock, of 76 Creffield-road, West Acton, and nephew of Col. T. W. Gunton, 8th Middlesex Regiment. He was educated at Colet Court and Cranleigh, and was in his thirtieth year. At the outbreak of the war he enlisted in the London Rifle Brigade, and went with the regiment to France in September last. He was a member of the choir of St. Martin’s Church, West Acton, from the date of the dedication of the temporary church, November 11th, 1903, up to the time of his joining the Army. He was also a member of the Marlborough Lawn Tennis Club and the Horsenden Hill Golf Club.
(Source: MCT 15 July 1916, p. 5.)
Sergeant T. R. Street (from Ealing) – Missing on 2 July 1916
Sergt. T. R. Street, King’s Royal Rifles, who is reported “missing, believed killed,” on the 2nd inst., at the age of 31, was born in Ealing, and went to Christ Church Schools, taking up afterwards the trade of a painter and decorator. A month after war broke out he joined the Church Lads’ Brigade Battalion, having been a member of the Christ Church company in his boyhood, and he rose to the rank of sergeant. He went out to France in October of last year, and had been there ever since, except for a week’s leave in February last. One of his comrades writes to Mrs. T. R. Street:- “He was held in the highest esteem by the men in his platoon. He was a very capable man in the trenches and his platoon officer, who has been killed, relied very much upon him. He was doing his duty nobly and well up to the time he was missed.”
(Source: MCT 15 July 1916, p. 5.)
Second Lieutenant H. E. Asser (from Ealing) – d. 1 July 1916
Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Asser, of 5 Waldemar Avenue, Ealing, have received letter from Lieut.Col. J. Hamilton Hall, commanding 16th Middlesex Regiment: - “It is with the greatest sorrow that I have to write informing you of the death of your son (Sec.-Lt. H. E. Asser, of this battalion). He has been officially reported as ‘missing, believed killed,’ because we have not been able to recover his body; but I am very sorry to have to state that there cannot be any hope of his being alive or even wounded. From inquiries made, it appears that he was shot through the head and was killed instantaneously, this whilst most gallantly leading his men forward in the attack on July 1st. He was a most promising officer, and amply fulfilled by his brave conduct on that fatal day all the good opinions formed of him by me and his brother officers. In a very short time he gained the confidence and respect of his men, and they followed him instinctively where he led. I can only say that I wish I had a battalion of officers as good as he was. Assuring you of my deepest sympathy and that of all the battalion in your very sad loss.”
(Source: MCT 22 July 1916, p. 5.)
Lance Corporal O. E. Pask (from Ealing) – d. between 1 and 2 July, 1916
News has reached Mr. and Mrs. O. E. Pask, of 37 Lancaster-road, Ealing, that their eldest son, Lce.-Corpl. Oliver Edward Pask, Middlesex Regiment, was killed in action between July 1st and 2nd in France. Lce.-Corpl. Pask was twenty-two years of age, and was educated at the Joseph Lancaster School [Ealing]. He enlisted at Hounslow in December 1914, and had been in France about sixteen months. In an earlier engagement he had been wounded in the left foot. A brother is at the front – Sidney Thomas Pask, 8th Middlesex Regiment.
Mr. Thomas Hall of 54, The Mall, Ealing, writes:- “Oliver Pask came to me as an errand boy about ten years ago. He was at the British Schools and worked between school hours. After being here about seven years I sent him to a brother of mine in North London to be apprenticed to the trade. After six months he returned as an assistant, but had not been back many months before he joined up, December, 1914. As you may guess, he was an exceptional boy and I feel sure that, had he lived, he would have risen to a high position in the drapery trade.”
(Source: MCT 22 July 1916, p. 5.)
Sergeant S. A. Thurrell (from West Ealing) – d. 1 July, 1916
Sergt. Sidney A. Thurrell, Royal Engineers, who was killed on July 1st, two hours after the commencement of the first advance in the “great push,” was the son of Mr. Thurrell, 83 Westfield-road, West Ealing. He was an “old boy” of Northfields School, where he was a prefect and vice-captain. Enlisting in the Yorkshire Light Infantry in the first month of the war, he won rapid promotion. Six months ago he was transferred to the Royal Engineers, and on March 14th last – his birthday – he went to France. He was a fine type of young Englishman, and was very popular with his fellows at school, in business, and in the army.
Sec.-Lieut. J. C. M. Pettitt, the commanding officer of Sergt. Thurrell’s sub-section, in a letter to Mr. Thurrell, says, “It is with profound regret that I have to inform you of the death of your son, Sergt. S. A. Thurrell. I could write a lot of the way he conducted himself in the attack before he was hit, but suffice it to say that he died serving his King and country as nobly as ever it would be possible for any man to do. I might say that he died within two minutes of being hit, and, therefore, thank God, his death was merciful. His sub-section joins with me in sending deepest sympathy in your and their sad loss. He was a thorough sergeant, and a gentleman.”
(Source: MCT 22 July 1916, p. 5.)
Rifleman Harry Parsons (from Ealing) – Missing in action, July 1916
No further news of Rifleman H. Parsons, of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, has been forthcoming this week, and his wife, Mrs. Parsons, now living at 27, High-street, Ealing, will be most grateful for any information. Rifleman Parsons, who is well-known in this locality, took part in the great push, and the only news which has been obtained of him was conveyed in a letter, dated the 4th inst., written to Mrs. Parsons, by a soldier comrade of her husband, who said, “I last saw him when we were advancing on the German lines, and he was quite all right then. One or two of the boys believe that they saw him lying wounded about the face, but they cannot be sure.”
(Source: MCT 22 July 1916, p. 5.)
Rifleman F. J. M. Broom (from Ealing) – Wounded in action, July 1916
Rifleman F. J. M. Broom, Queen Victoria Rifles, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. F. Broom, formerly of Bradley-gardens and Bond-street, Ealing, and now of Berkhampstead, received a bullet wound in the head at Gommecourt [at the Somme], and is now in Wharncliffe War Hospital, Sheffield, making excellent progress. An old Castle Hill [private preparatory school, West Ealing] schoolboy, he joined the QVR in September, 1914, and went to Flanders in May of last year.
(Source: MCT 22 July 1916, p. 5.)
Sergeant Thomas Morrissey (from West Ealing) – Won the Military Medal at the Somme, 1916
Sergt. Thomas Morrissey, R.F.A., whose mother lives at 12, Oak-cottages, Green-lane, Hanwell, has just been awarded the Military Medal. He is a married man, and his wife is living at 39, Adelaide-road, West Ealing. He was awarded the decoration for carrying wounded and mending telephone wires under fire in the “Big Push” now going on in the vicinity of the Somme. Before the war he was a postman at Ealing, but being a reservist he was immediately called up, and left England with the first Expeditionary Force. He was in the thick of the fighting at Mons, Landrecies, and on the Marne and Aisne, where he was wounded. After his recovery he was again wounded, this time at Ypres, and on returning to the line he took part in the fighting at La Bassee, and finally in the great advance which began on July 1st, during which he was wounded in the back, and was buried for six hours. His nerves are badly shaken as the result of all he has gone through, and he is now in the Welsh Military Hospital at Netley.
(Source: MCT 16 September 1916, p. 5.)
Lance Corporal Walter Camping (from Hanwell) – Won the Military Medal at the Somme, 1916
Lce.-cpl. Walter Camping, Royal Fusiliers, husband of Mrs. Camping, 3, Westminster-road, Hanwell, has been awarded the Military Medal.
In an action in the vicinity of Pozieres [on the Somme front], on August 5th, orders had been given that a certain German position was to be taken. The shell-craters in a certain portion of “No Man’s Land” held a number of Germans and several machine guns, and Lce-cpl. Camping, who could speak German, sprang upon the parapet, roaring out that all who surrendered then would be well treated, but that any who resisted would be shot. The result of his speech was that the Germans surrendered, and Lce-cpl. Camping received his decoration.
His coy.-commander, writing to him a few days ago, enclosing the medal ribbon, says, “I should like to congratulate you on your decoration, and, at the same time, thank you for your good work on that day.”
Lce.-cpl. Camping has also received from his brigadier-general the following certificate printed in gold, and headed with the crests of the four battalions comprising his brigade:- “Presented to Lce.-cpl. W. Camping, -- Batt., Royal Fusiliers, for his gallant conduct on August 5th, 1916, near Pozieres, when his action was instrumental in the capture of a large number of German prisoners. For King and country – L. Boyd Moss, Brigadier-General, commanding -- Infantry Brigade.”
The gallant soldier joined the Army in March, and had been in France only a few days before he performed the deed which gained him the decoration. He has since been transferred to the Royal Engineers.
(Source: MCT 23 September 1916, p. 1.)
Historians continue to be divided by the battle. Before the 1960s, it was common to see the Battle of the Somme as a futile mistake, given the huge number of casualties and the fact that the allied armies gained less than 10 miles of German-held territory by the battle’s end. Much of the generation following the war was also notably pacifist in outlook, as a result. However, contemporaries who lived through 1914-1918 were much more committed to the war as a ‘righteous crusade’ to preserve the British Empire and redress Imperial Germany’s aggression on the continent. The local clergy and newspapers, similarly, lionised the men’s sacrifice in what they saw as a just war. Revisionist historians now tend to set the battle in its First World War context, and see it as a stage in an intensive and brutal war of attrition. In this perspective it was one of several engagements which witnessed the development of new ways of fighting and a process of evolution in the allied armies’ modus operandi. As such the Somme was a necessary and big contribution to the eventual allied victory in 1918. As the pseudonymous newspaper columnist ‘Thames Valley’ wrote in the local Ealing paper, the Middlesex County Times, in September 1916:
A Berlin newspaper says quite truly, that the acres won from the
Germans were of no particular value: in themselves they were not,
any more than were the Belgian farmsteads and fields for which
Napoleon and Wellington fought through the whole of a certain June
day a hundred years ago. But if the loss of them mattered little, why
were a thousand guns massed to defend and infantry brought from
near and far to hold them? Why, when lost, were costly – and always
vain – counter-attacks made in the hope of winning some of them
back? The truth is that the long fight for these fifty rural hamlets in
Picardy, like the longer struggle for the hills and fields north of
Verdun, has been a trial of strength. In both cases the Germans have
found themselves the weaker side.
(MCT 23 September 1916, p. 4.)
Dr. Jonathan Oates’s talk on Ealing and the Battle of the Somme is on Tuesday 12 July, 6:15 - 7:15pm at Ealing Central Library, in the Green Room. Please book in advance in person at the library or by telephone: 0203 700 1052 or 0203 700 1055.
Local newspapers on microfilm at Ealing Local History Centre
World War One Men database – over 12,000 local men referenced (see Local History Blog)
‘Battle of the Somme’ in Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org)
Lyn MacDonald, 'Somme' (1983) – a classic account
William Philpott, 'Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice of the Somme' (2009) – a revisionist analysis