The destination for history

10 defining objects from the Somme


Objects are the way in which we can touch the past, and they play a living role in history today. They bear witness to events and provide a unique narrative waiting to be explored.

Peter Doyle curates this fascinating selection.

Liverpool Pals badges

Lord Derby, the so-called King of Lancashire, introduced the notion that men of the ‘commercial classes’ might wish to serve their country in a battalion of their comrades, their ‘pals’. The ‘Liverpool Pals’ was the result. The implication was that middle-class men would not be forced to serve alongside men they would neither know nor understand – men of ‘lower social class’. Based on the snobbery of the time, it was a resounding success, though it would lead ultimately to the decimation of local communities. Ultimately, it was these men who would contribute to the much-debated ‘lost generation’, men of all walks of life who ‘answered the call’ to be decimated on the Somme in July 1916.
The 1st–4th City Battalions of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment were born of Lord Derby’s initiative. At a public meeting, Lord Derby was to announce that he would be sending Lord Kitchener a telegram to say that not one, but two, battalions of like-minded men would be offered to the nation. In fact, in just over a week, sufficient men would be found for three battalions, the fourth being added within weeks.
At his own expense, he was to commission in silver a badge bearing his ‘eagle and child’ emblem, which he gave out personally to each original member of the four Liverpool Pals battalions. Edward and Stanley Cole of Bootle, Liverpool, served in Number 4 Company, 19th King’s (Liverpool Regiment) – the third of the ‘Pals’ battalion to be raised. When Edward was presented with his silver badge, he crudely scratched his initials – ‘EC’ – on the rear and had a pin fitted so that it could be worn with civilian clothing (or perhaps given to his sweetheart). In its place on his cap was the brass version. Both brothers arrived in France on 7 November 1915, in time to take an active part in the Battle of the Somme. Stanley was killed on 30 July 1916 while attacking Guillemont. Some 500 men were killed in this attack – ‘Liverpool’s blackest day’.

Canadian Insignia

The maple leaf became the dominant symbol of Canada’s contribution to the Great War, with the overwhelming majority of the young country’s forces wearing the device to distinguish them from other soldiers. The maple leaf is prominently displayed in what was the standard ‘general service’ badge; most of the 260 or so infantry battalions that served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force had a distinctive badge – more often than not bearing the maple leaf. And if this did not sufficiently distinguish the soldier as a Canadian, then the simple titles bearing the name ‘Canada’ worn on the shoulder straps would confirm this. With the standard uniform of the average ‘Canuck’ looking very much like that of the British soldier, wearing distinguishing badges like these was important.
The Canadian contribution to the Great War was huge. By the end of the war, there were some 620,000 Canadians in uniform. More than 420,000 Canadians served overseas, with 60,000 dead and a further 172,000 wounded. Canada joined the war on 5 August 1914, and the Canadian Expeditionary Force that crossed the Atlantic was soon to figure in many of the most significant battles on the Western Front. Canadians held the line in the first gas attack, in the Ypres Salient in April 1915; they would serve on the Somme in 1916 and would take the village of Passchendaele in November 1917. In 1918, they would be in the vanguard of the armies that drove the Germans back to their Armistice Line. And at Vimy Ridge in April 1917, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps acted under Canadian generalship for the first time, and the seeds of the independent nation were born.

German identity disc

 The British used three different types: a single stamped aluminium disc, which carried the name, rank, serial number, unit details and religion issued on mobilisation in 1914, before being replaced by a single red fibre disc. Once this single disc was removed from the body the chances of identification were much reduced. As such, in August 1916, a two-disc system was evolved, the discs themselves carrying the same information as before, in duplicate, but this time stamped on compressed fibreboard discs: a green octagonal one which, it was intended, would stay with the body, and a red disc which would be taken as part of the accounting procedure. They were to be given the brutally frank name ‘cold meat tickets’ (resembling as they did the tags used in butchers’ shops); post-war, the term ‘dog tag’, from American usage, became commonplace.
This example is German, issued in 1916 to all soldiers. Stamped in simple zinc alloy, this disc was worn around the neck on a cord that was sometimes in the colours of the state; typical was the white and black of Prussia. The details of its owner are stamped twice, one above the other so the disc could be broken along its centre line, leaving one half with the body, the other removed for ‘accounting’ purposes. Fritz Braune came from Neudorf in Hesse and was born on 2 July 1898. He was just 18 years old when he joined his regiment, the Grenadier-Regiment König Frederich 1 (4Ostpreußisches) nr. 5. All these details are stamped on the tag, or Erkennungsmarke, carried throughout his service in the field. Attached to the 36th Infanterie-Division, his regiment was pitched into the Somme battle front on 24 July 1916. Fritz survived; his disc remained intact. So many others are buried with their owners, periodically surfacing as the ploughs break the surface for cultivation; sad reminders of young lives lost.

Barbed wire

This barbed wire can be identified as German because of its single wire twist with a square cross section, and a particularly fearsome set of barbs. This specimen came from Gommecourt, a salient or bulge in the German front line on the Somme, jutting forward pugnaciously towards the British. Gommecourt was the scene of an ill-fated diversionary attack by the British 56th and 46th Divisions on 1 July 1916, an attack that left more than 2,000 men dead, five times that suffered by the German defenders. The barbed wire had played its part.
Barbed wire formed a significant component of the field defences of the Great War; it was to need constant attention. Wiring parties on both sides would enter no-man’s-land under the cover of darkness, in patrols of two to three men to inspect the integrity of the defences or cut paths through their own wire in preparation for a raid or in larger fatigue parties to repair and improve the front-line wire. Wire was brought up the lines by fatigue parties who, usually under the instruction of a sapper officer or NCO, would carry out the work in darkness. Any noise would trigger off a flurry of star shells and Very lights intended to illuminate the interlopers, picking them out in stark silhouette against the night sky, an easy target for a sweeping machine gun or targeted artillery barrage. It was the invention of the screw picket – which spread like wildfire on both sides of no-man’s-land – that meant complex wire barriers could be constructed relatively noiselessly, soldiers literally winding them into the ground. As the defences got stronger, the barriers seemed almost impervious; the actual limit of attack often stuttered and faded at the barbed barrier.

Tyneside Scottish cap

 Amongst the most enthusiastic volunteers were those of the north-east of England. On Tyneside, men of Irish and Scottish descent gathered to form units of Tyneside Scots or Tyneside Irish. In fact the Tyneside Scottish were mostly Englishmen – over 75 per cent of them – who were lured by the possibility of wearing Highland dress. When finally assimilated by the Northumberland Fusiliers, most men were disappointed to hear that the British Army had not given them the right to wear kilts. Instead, they had to proclaim their origins through the adoption of that most Scottish of all headgear, the glengarry cap. Unusually, the Tynesiders were brigaded together, forming the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) and 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigades of the 34th Division.
The cap illustrated belonged to Second Lieutenant (later Lieutenant) Gilbert Watt Sandeman of the 20th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Scottish). It is dark blue, with a central red tourie, and is bound in silk, with silk tassles. Inside, it bears the initials G.W.S. – a rare example of an attributable wartime cap. Lieutenant Sandeman was 25 in 1916.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, the 102nd (Tyneside Scottish) Brigade (34th Division) were at the centre of the British line, astride the main Albert–Bapaume road and opposite the fortified village of La Boisselle.
Zero hour for the attack was 7.30 a.m. North of the road, the 1st Battalion were faced with crossing no-man’s-land, which was 750 yards wide and caught in a valley between two strong points, the villages of Ovilliers and La Boisselle. While the valley to the south of La Boisselle was named ‘Sausage’, that to the north of it was ‘Mash’. Completely in the open, the advancing Tyneside Scots in Mash Valley were caught in crossfire from both strong points. Some men made it across the valley to La Boisselle, but it was no use: the survivors were forced to retreat, and the Tyneside Scottish were back where they started. The 1st Tyneside Scottish lost 584 men, their battalion commander killed. Sandeman was one of the fortunate ones – he survived the war.

Lochnagar crater

 The Lochnagar Crater is one of the biggest craters ever formed from conflict, with an internal volume of 35,500 cubic metres. It is preserved intact as a memorial to the men who fought on the Somme and is visited annually by thousands of people per year. The crater is deep and dry, its stable slopes cutting through the chalk. The crater stands where there was once a German redoubt in their front line. It is a remarkable sight, preserved intact within the Somme battlefields. Walking up to it, the crater still has the opportunity to take your breath away, and to allow you to wonder at the sheer power that was involved in its detonation.
The mine was commenced in November 1915, with an inclined shaft that descended some 95ft below ground. It was dug from a communication trench, Lochnagar Street, some 300ft behind the front line – and some 900ft from its intended target, the Schwaben Höhe strongpoint. The tunnel gallery was divided to produce two explosive chambers some 60ft apart, deep underground. In total, the chambers held 60,000lb of the explosive ammonal. The mines at La Boisselle were detonated at 7.28 a.m., two minutes before zero hour. The crater formed was 300ft at its widest diameter and 70ft deep. It obliterated 400ft of trenches, and an unknown number of German soldiers with it.
The explosion of this mine, and the seven-day bombardment that preceded it, created a living hell for the German defenders sheltered in their trenches and within the dugouts that were excavated into the solid chalk rock of Picardy. However, the defences were too strong, the strength of the artillery explosions too weak, the mines too scattered. When the men went over the top on 1 July 1916, they were met with a maelstrom of fire that would see men lean forward as if battling against the wind. The first day of the Battle of the Somme was marked with losses of 57,470 men – some 19,240 of them killed in action. The first day would be the ‘blackest day’ in British military history.

Gallantry medals

For the British Army, the utmost gallantry was marked by the award of the Victoria Cross (VC), first instituted in 1856 in the wake of the Crimean War. Some 628 awards were made in the First World War, granted for ‘conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy’. Clearly, to be eligible for the award, the service had to be of the highest order – one-quarter of those awarded the honour died in the act of winning it. The Victoria Cross was also not controlled by rank or status. The Distinguished Service Order (DSO) was available for officers of captain and above, for rewarding ‘meritorious acts in war’. The Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for non-commissioned officers and men was instituted in 1845 for ‘distinguished conduct in the field’. However, with great acts of bravery by all ranks in the early part of the war, this was clearly inadequate.
The Military Cross (MC) was initiated on 31 December 1914 for junior officers and warrant officers ‘in recognition of distinguished and meritorious services in time of war’. A Greek Cross in silver, the medal incorporates elements of vertical Art Nouveau style that was popular in the run-up to the war. As the Military Cross was awarded ‘in recognition of distinguished and meritorious services in time of war’ it could therefore be awarded to those not in the thick of action; over 37,000 awards were made, with 3,155 bars (additional awards of the same medal) also granted. In addition, there was the Military Medal (MM) for NCOs and men instigated in March 1916.
The MC is illustrated here along with three Great War campaign medals and a DCM awarded to Second Lieutenant William Wharram of the Leeds Pals. Wharram received his DCM for actions on the Somme on 7 October 1916. Whilst serving as a private with the 11th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, Wharram was awarded his medal for ‘conspicuous gallantry in action’, having ‘bombed down an enemy trench and assisted in the capture of over 100 prisoners’ on the Somme. These medals were cherished and well worn by their recipient.

Mark I Tank

 If the Germans had pinned their hopes on gas being a breakthrough weapon in 1915, then it was the introduction of tanks that was to be the miracle weapon of 1916. The tank, a British invention of 1915, was designed to cross trenches of at least 8ft 6in wide (and climb obstacles of 4ft 6in high), thereby puncturing the German lines. The tank had been introduced to the world in 1916, when it was deployed at the Battle of Flers, during the Somme campaign in 1916. This metal monster was a relevation: it was capable of crossing trenches and flattening barbed wire, and it was capable of protecting its occupants from both rifle and machine gun fire – though it could be stopped in its tracks by field guns. The German response was initially to develop a large calibre ‘anti-tank’ rifle that was capable of propelling a high-velocity round at the armour of the tank, with the hope that it could be disabled. They also built their own tank, the A7V, which was a top-heavy and unwieldy machine, mostly unsuited to its task. The Germans instead resorted to capturing British machines and deploying them against their former owners.

Tank mask

Each tank had a crew of eight: commander and driver, two gunners and four men to command the complex gears that were required to drive what was essentially a steel box across the rough terrain of the battlefield. The tanks were hot, crowded and dangerous at the best of times – with plenty of protruding metalwork that could lead to a man knocking himself unconscious in action. To combat this, tank crews were issued with leather helmets to protect their cranium, and chain mail masks to protect their faces and eyes. A rare set is illustrated. The chain mail mask was tied around the face, the metal and leather visor (this one has a replacement leather face piece) bent into position to protect the eyes and nose, and the chain mail hanging from it to protect the cheeks and face. The purpose of the mask was to prevent shards of metal flying into the face, these shards being an inevitable consequence of bullet strikes on the outside of the tank leading to the spalling of hot metal ‘splash’ inside the tank.

War Grave

 The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a history that dates back to the early part of the war, and to one man, Fabian Ware. At the outbreak of war, Ware was rejected for military service, but volunteered to command a mobile unit of the British Red Cross, which supplied motor ambulances to the battle front. With casualties mounting, it was obvious to Ware that the British had no effective means of maintaining a record of the battlefield graves of those soldiers who had died in action – and who had been buried by their comrades. Ware set about collecting and marking the position of such burials, and in 1915 he was transferred to army control, leading the newly formed Graves Registration Commission (GRC). By October 1915 it had recorded 31,000 graves; within eight months, 50,000. And with so many men posted as missing, and so many families wanting to see the graves of their loved ones while the war still raged, Fabian Ware’s GRC also acted to send out photographs of graves in an attempt to alleviate some of the suffering – 12,000 had been dispatched by 1917.
At first, graves were marked with simple wooden crosses. That for Lance Corporal Kettlewell of the 10th Battalion West Riding regiment is typical. Killed in action on the Somme on 28 July 1916, his simple grave marker was placed in Gordon Dump Cemetery, near Ovillers on the Somme. Weather-beaten and worn, the cross was returned to his family when the IWGC commenced their long job of replacing the crosses with headstones. In France and Flanders this was a momentous task; replacing the crosses demanded 4,000 stones per week to be sent from Britain in 1923; just four years later, 500 cemeteries had been completed and 400,000 headstones were in place. Admired the world over as havens of peace and tranquillity, Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries are maintained to the highest standards; fitting tribute to the men and women who lost their lives.

This selection is taken from the book The First World War in 100 Objects by Peter Doyle

Visit our dedicated Somme webpages to learn more about the battle


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books