Battle of the Somme Centenary: Poignant exhibits and stories from UK museums and galleries

| 01 July 2016

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, on July 1 1916, caused more than 70,000 casualties. A century on, these are some of the exhibits and projects remembering those who took part

William Maxwell’s trench biscuit home

A photo of a message on a biscuit written during world war one
© Leeds City Museum
William Maxwell was a soldier in the uniform of the 9th Lancers, joining the regiment alongside his brother, Arthur, in 1914. Within a year they would both be dead – William, a 22-year-old Private, died from wounds sustained near Ypres in May 1915, three months before Arthur was killed in action at Mons.

Before he died, William turned a trench biscuit into a note and sent it back to his family in the Leeds suburb of Meanwood. In Their Footsteps is at Leeds City Museum until January 8 2017.

Field Marshall Haig's diary

A photo of a letter by a soldier written during world war one
© NLS
Field Marshal Douglas Haig was Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, commanding the largest British Army ever assembled. He wrote a daily diary entry throughout the war, recording the details of life on the ground during key battles including the Somme and Passchendaele.

Haig’s aggressive tactics earned him the title, 'the Butcher of the Somme' yet following his death in 1928, crowds lined the streets of London. His account of events is so important that UNESCO has added it to the international register of the Memory of the World Programme. Visit the National Library of Scotland's Experiences of the Great War for more.

Vivienne Westwood's Fashion and Freedom dress

A photo of a fashion dress and an artwork made in response to world war one
© Joel Fildes
In an exclusive work at Manchester Art Gallery, Vivienne Westwood has designed an “iridescent” Laundry jumpsuit, inspired by the ones worn by women working in factories during World War One, a Propaganda uniform coat and a 17th century inspired camouflage dress and boots.

The clothing worn by women, suggests the Fashion and Freedom exhibition, changed significantly after more than a million women joined the industrial wartime workforce in Britain, serving in offices and factories and as bus conductors, ambulance drivers and window cleaners. The exhibition runs until November 27 2016. See www.fashionandfreedom.org for more.
A regimental drum for recruiting

A chalk-carved tribute to the fallen

A photo of a tribute to a soldier carved from chalk during world war one
© Leeds City Museum
The Yorkshire Regiment raised 24 battalions, enlisting 65,000 men. More than a third were wounded. 9,000 died.

The full title of the regiment took the Princess of Wales’s name. This memorial plaque to Thomas Atkins, of the 20th battalion, was created from chalk.

The Green Howards Museum is marking the centenary of The Battle of the Somme with a special exhibition, and free film screenings.

A diary of disaster

A photo of a diary of a day at war written during world war one
© Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Archive Service
Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Meynell, originally from Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire, was stationed at the northern end of the Somme battlefield while his unit, the 232nd Brigade Royal Field Artillery, assisted an assault led by units of the 46th North Midland Division, including the137th Staffordshire Brigade, on the German-held village of Gommecourt.

His diary of the day, written from his position in a cellar in the nearby village of Foncquevillers, starts at 6.25am. “Bombardment begins”, it reads, before a tragic, minute-by-minute picture of the day unfolds.

At 4.34pm, after 10 hours of battle, Meynell reports the “first absolute silence of 20 seconds since 6.50am.” His final entry, just after 9.52pm, reads only: “The proposed attack was not successful.” Visit staffordshiregreatwar.com to read it and follow @archandhert on Twitter for live tweets of the diary.

A death in the family

a photo of an interior with a portrait if a soldier on the wall
Viscount Percy Clive, the eldest son and heir of the 4th Earl of Powis, who was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Somme© National Trust
At Powis Castle an installation has transformed the castle’s empty basement rooms into a full-scale replica trench and officers’ mess. It helps tell the story of Viscount Percy Clive, the eldest son and heir of the 4th Earl of Powis. As an officer in the Welsh Guard, he was fatally wounded during the Battle of the Somme.

In one letter written by the sister of Percy Clive’s mother, Violet, she describes the moment the family were told that Percy wouldn’t recover from his wounds: "Violet and I were called up about 12 o’clock (midnight) and Violet ran down the street in a thin dressing gown… Our darling was unconscious and dying. My poor sister knelt by his side, his hand in hers, her head on his pillow… Dearest Clive never rallied."

The installation at Powis Castle runs until 30 September. See www.nationaltrust.org.uk/powis-castle-and-garden for more.

The AVRO 504 biplane

A photo of an avro biplane used during world war one
© Yorkshire Air Museum
The AVRO 504 came into service in 1914 and was the main training aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service and, when it was formed on April 1 1918, the Royal Air Force.

It is flying to the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, northern France for an international commemoration of the war today. A conservation team at the Yorkshire Air Museum has spent weeks repainting and refurbishing the plane. An exhibition, Battle of the Somme, is at the museum from July 13 - November 18 2016. See yorkshireairmuseum.org for more details

Armoured pram for Derry

A photo of a sculpture of a pram made to look like a tank in a world war one artwork
© PressEye
Part pram, part tank, Éamonn O’Doherty’s khaki sculpture was abandoned by the artist after he completed it 25 years ago, but resurrected as a comment on conflict and a catalyst for similarly charged creative responses to war.

It’s part of a centenary exhibition at Belfast’s Ulster Museum also featuring diaries and drawings by Newry nurse Olive Swanzy, who cared for soldiers on the Western Front, and Jim Maultsaid, who served with the 14th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles and was seriously wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The #MakingHistory 1916 exhibition is at the Ulster Museum until September 18 2016.


A metal leg

A photo of a prosthetic metal leg used during world war one
© Science Museum
In their efforts to compete for lucrative government contracts in the post-war period, limb-making companies experimented with new designs and new materials.

One of the fundamental shifts for amputees came from the move from wood to metal limbs. These lighter metal designs were issued throughout the 1920s.

The leg is one of many poignant objects on show at the Science Museum who are currently exploring the medicine behind the tragedy of the Somme battle in Wounded: Conflict Casualties and Care until September 15 2016.

The big push




Scottish poet and Ted Hughes Prize winner John Glenday has created a new poem in response to The Eve of the Battle of the Somme – a haunting painting by Herbert James Gunn in 1916.

The accompanying film, commissioned by the Poetry Society and Mosaic Flims was made by artist and animator Xin Li, and repeated Gunn’s laborious paint-on-glass method.  “I thought about when people read a book they can imagine something in their mind,” says Li. Find out more at poetrysociety.org.uk

  • Visit Culture24's listings for events and exhibitions commemorating the Battle of the Somme this weekend and beyond.
  • For full listings on the Battle of the Somme and First World War Centenary see the First World War Centenary website 1914.org

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