First World War Galleries and the Battle of the Somme
IWM sees the 1916 Battle of the Somme as a turning point in Britain’s experience of the First World War. As a result, we will explore the battle in detail in our new First World War Galleries, opening in summer 2014.
The battle’s opening artillery barrage was the most powerful display of firepower in British history. Visitors to our new galleries will be able to see, up close, a key weapon in that bombardment; the enormous 9.2-inch heavy howitzer. The 9.2 was a precise and devastating weapon, able to collapse underground dugouts and shatter concrete pillboxes.
On 1 July 1916, Britain’s volunteer army climbed from its trenches to attack the Germans. Along much of the front line, British troops were met by a rain of German fire. As visitors explore the displays, a German MG 08 machine gun will stand, ominously, a short distance away.
We won’t only be displaying technology, however. Among the most moving objects of our gallery is a simple British flag. It was used near Mametz by a chaplain, E C Crosse, as he buried the dead of the Devonshire Regiment. Another object, the bloodied jacket of Harold Cope, wounded in Delville Wood, testifies to the violence of the battle, and to the quick battlefield medical treatment that saved his life.
The terrible losses suffered by Britain’s infantry on the Somme have left a long legacy. Sometimes remembered as a futile waste, British troops didn’t necessarily see it that way at the time. Throughout the five-month battle, after capturing an enemy position, British soldiers often searched for souvenirs. German spiked helmets were especially desirable. Whether sent home to family, kept by regimental museums, or traded for treats to soldiers who worked on the supply lines, these trophies remind us that for some, the Somme was an experience of victory.
But the Somme was not only experienced on the battlefield itself. At home, for the first time, British audiences saw a real battle on their cinema screens. The Battle of the Somme, released in August 1916, was a ground-breaking film, the first ever combat documentary. Preserved in IWM’s film archive since the war, it is a film of global historical significance. Shown uncut in the First World War Galleries, visitors will be able to watch this extraordinary film surrounded by the letters, souvenirs, uniforms, equipment and weapons of the men who experienced the battle first-hand.
The Battle of the Somme was a turning point of the First World War. In our new Galleries, we hope you’ll find new ways to think about it.