Mitcham’s Somme Legacy

This week a hundred years ago the newspaper headlines proclaimed the “Battle of the Ancre” and the capture of Beaumont Hamel as a stunning victory: the “Germans didn’t know what hit them …”, was one quote.  The Telegraph’s reports were typical of the London major dailies.

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Douglas Haig had his much needed positive news to take to the next Allied conference at Chantilly.

While the Ancre and the Somme remained in the press until the end of November, and beyond, it must have been obvious to newspaper readers that the onset of winter had brought large scale military operations to a halt.  Without fanfare, the great Somme Offensive of 1916 had come to an end.  The newspapers would content themselves with articles of a “now the story can be told” nature, reviewing some of the summer’s main events and adding opinion pieces on the damage wrought to the German Army, while continuing to report the minor activities on all fronts.

The year would end with newspaper reports of Douglas Haig’s dispatch taken for the London Gazette, a dry summation of actions on the Somme front that argued the German Army had suffered a defeat.  The Daily Mirror carried the story on December 30, 1916.

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There was little mention of the staggering loss of life suffered on the Somme in Haig’s dispatch, the few casualty figures quoted do not acknowledge the monumental scale of sacrifice.

Fed on a diet of propaganda and patriotic newspaper reports shackled by censorship, the public had flocked in their hundreds of thousands to see Malin and McDowell’s “Battle of the Somme” film in 1916.

It is estimated that twenty million people, nearly half the population of the UK, had watched it at the cinema.  People had thirsted for knowledge of the reality of war, some even hoped for a glimpse of their “Johnny” at the Front.  1916 was the year of ever growing casualty lists, when the British People had learnt to mourn on an unprecedented scale. Simple shrines to honour the fallen soldiers began to appear on street corners up and down the country.

 

Three long years would pass before such collective commemoration found voice in Mitcham with what was at first a temporary memorial on Lower Green, erected on “Peace Day” 19th July 1919.  The decision to create a permanent memorial on the same site was taken in November 1919 and the Civic Memorial was officially unveiled on Sunday 21st November 1920.

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Of the 550 names on the Mitcham War Memorial that have been positively identified, 70 men died during the 141 days of the Somme, 1 died on the eve of the Somme Offensive and 10 died elsewhere during those 141 days.  These numbers can be put into perspective by the fact that in the preceding two years of war, from 4th August 1914 until 1st July 1916, 117 of those named on the memorial had become casualties.  Mitcham’s total war casualty figures had nearly doubled in just 141 days.

The men had come from all corners of Mitcham and every walk of life and stratum of society. They had fought in Regular Army units, Territorial Force units, Service Battalions of Kitchener’s New Army and “Pals” Battalions like the “Post Office Rifles“, “Civil Service Rifles” and “Wimbledon’s Own“, the 190th Brigade RFA.   For every man who lost his life, several others were wounded, many others who had served on the Somme would not survive the war.  Mitcham was left counting the cost of a war that was set to drag on into 1917 with no end in sight.

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