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Battle of the Somme

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Adrienne Doyard | 09:00 UK time, Friday, 1 July 2011

The national collection of paintings is a rich record of British history. Some paintings are like reportage, capturing scenes with high realism; others add an artistic interpretation which communicates the emotional impact of what it was like to be at key historical events.

Over the coming months, we'll be making selections of paintings showing some of these events. And we've started with 8 paintings to mark the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest encounters of the First World War.

Half of them are from the Imperial War Museum, which has the most comprehensive collection of 20th century war paintings in the UK, but we've also uncovered some striking pictures from other museums around the country.

The first picture in this selection was painted in 1913, a year before the start of the First World War. It shows the peaceful fields and trees, that just three years later would be transformed into a hellish fighting ground. There is something eerily prescient about its title.

The battle began on July 1st 1916, when Allied forces led by Britain attempted to overrun a 15 mile long stretch of German trenches, near the River Somme in North Eastern France. Despite heavy shelling by the Allies in the days before the battle, the German defences remained largely intact. Even worse, the bombardment created large craters that made it harder for Allied troops to reach the German trenches. The artist William Orpen painted the following picture, and many others that captured the physical scarring of the Somme.

The British Commander, General Douglas Haig, thought that the shelling would have weakened the Germans, and the battle would be short and decisive. His troops soon found out that the plan had failed. The taking of every town and feature, resulted in days of fighting and heavy casualties. Trones Wood was one of these - a strategic point outside a small town that the Allies needed to take to make progress. Eventually after two days of fierce fighting, the British 18th and 30th divisions managed to capture the wood.

Another closely fought encounter was at Mametz Wood, where the 38th Welsh Division fought hand to hand with the Germans. The fighting was so intense, that veterans recalled the soldiers crying in each other’s faces. The poet Robert Graves fought at Mametz Wood, and wrote:  ‘It was full of dead Prussian Guards, big men, and dead Royal Welch Fusiliers and South Wales Borderers, little men. Not a single tree in the wood remained unbroken.’

(You can hear Dan Snow talk about this painting in his Guided Tour of the nation's art collection: The Art of War)

In September 1916 at the Somme, tanks were used for the first time in history. Despite the surprise element, they provided little help. Many of them were faulty and inefficient, and were left broken down on the battlefield.

The number of casualties was unprecedented. On July 1, the first day of the battle, over 19,000 British soldiers were killed. By the time the Battle of the Somme ended, there were over a million casualties on both sides, with over 300,000 killed or missing.

The soldiers had volunteered with dreams of returning home victorious and full of adventure stories. Those who came back were scarred for life. Here we see the wounded silently escorted out of Charing Cross station, in a very different atmosphere to the one they left in.

After over four months fighting, the battle ended. Neither side had made a significant breakthrough. The Battle of the Somme has come to stand for the horrific slaughter and stalemate that characterised so much of the fighting in the First World War.

This article was corrected on 04/07/11 after comments by WFA Web Editor.

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