Battle of the Somme Postcards



 "For they depict scenes in the great Battle of the Somme..."


The above announcement appeared in the Daily Mail on 8th August 1916. The newspaper had just paid £2,500 to army charities for the right to produce a number of picture postcards from images taken by the small band of official photographers on the Western Front. The Mail said, "The first selection of pictures numbers 40, and these represent all phases of the new warfare. They are up to date, for they depict scenes in the great  battle of the somme, which began on July 1. They will form a precious record of the gallantry and devotion of our soldiers in the great advance."


Battle of the Somme

This Daily Mail card was No.56 from series 7. The title thereon,  reads, The Glorious First of July, 1916. - our first prisoners." and attempted to turn the tragedy of the first day of the Somme offensive into a victory. The caption on the back of the card reads, "A great flow of German prisoners into the British camps began immediately with the Great Advance and the picture shows the first batch marching in." This was one of the few pictures taken, not by the official war photographers, but by a member of No.1 Printing Company of the Royal Engineers.  As mentioned above, there was no 'Great Advance'  by the British Army on 1st July and this picture was first released as card No. 43 - four weeks after the start of the offensive.  Moreover, the picture and the title would have been a gift to the British propaganda service, as would a number of other cards in the Battle of the Somme WW1 collection.

For the Daily Mail to speak of a ‘great advance’ was misleading, to say the least. The Somme offensive, scheduled to start on 29th June, was put off for two days. It raged from 1st July to 18th November (officially), and consisted of several battles and actions in the Somme area. It was intended primarily to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, and to break the stalemate that was trench warfare. British and French troops took part, with the former north of the Somme River, attacking with 18 Divisions on a 15-mile front.

The British objective was Bapaume, nine miles behind the German lines. En-route to Bapaume were villages whose names became all too familiar in the weeks that followed the start of the battle – La Boisselle, Ovillers, Pozieres, and Le Sars for example. Prior to the battle, many of these had been saturated by the British artillery.

The British began a prolonged bombardment of the German lines on 24th June, with over 1,500 guns of various calibers. (Several examples of the ‘ big guns’ can be seen in the Daily Mail collection.) Originally intended to last five days, the bombardment was extended to seven, because of bad weather conditions and reports that the German wire was not cut every where.

The British believed that there would be no resistance after the week-long shelling, and at 7.30 am on 1st July 66,000 men went ‘over the top’ to find that the optimistic predictions were appallingly wrong. German dugouts and shelters were deep, most of their inhabitants were unharmed and they rushed up to man their machine guns. The result? Over 57,000 casualties were, suffered by the British on that day, including almost 20,000 killed, amongst whom were 993 officers. The ground gained was a maximum of 1,000 yards.

The ‘Somme’ offensive was persisted with and, in September, the British used a new weapon. This was the tank, which surprisingly is not featured in the Mail collection. There was a delay in revealing to the world what a tank looked like, but photographs of (for example) Creme de Menthe were published in December.

The Battle of the Somme ground to a halt in the mud of November. In the four and a half months since 1st July, British casualties had risen to 340,000. The first day’s objective – Bapaume – had not fallen. The British were still over two miles away. Ironically, in a few months time, the Germans would voluntary give up that place (and many others) and retreat to the so-called Hindenburg Line.


The Somme cameramen

The first stages of the Somme battle were filmed by two well-known cine-cameramen - G.H. Malins and R.B. McDowell. They collaborated on two famous ''Somme' films (The Battle of the Somme and The Battle of the Ancre). Accompanying Malins and McDowell was the official stills-photographer Ernest Brooks. Brooks was a well-known 'society' photographer; who had worked in pre-war times for the Daily Mirror and the Graphic. He had gone to the Somme in May 1916, after having worked for the Admiralty "covering the Gallipoli operation from H.M.S. Queen Elizabeth." Brooks hardly gets a mention in Malins' book How I filmed the War, but he took stills of some of the same incidents that Malins did - including the blowing of the famous Hawthorn mine at Beaumont Hamel on 1st July 1916, Malins returned to England with the film, while Brooks stayed at the Front taking many of the shots that are in the Daily Mail series.

This photograph is thought to depict.Lieut. Geoffrey Malins on the left of the camera - accompanied by R.B. McDowell. The two artillery observers in the foreground are watching shells dropping on the German trenches.

This photograph of Lieut.Ernest Brooks posing in a trench, shows him with his camera and a small haversack around his neck which holds his gas-mask. Other equipment is contained in a case hanging from his shoulder.

Ernest Brooks hardly gets a mention in Malins' book How I filmed the War, but he took stills of some of the same incidents that Malins did - including the blowing of the famous Hawthorn mine at Beaumont Hamel on 1st July 1916, Malins returned to England with the film, while Brooks stayed at the Front taking many of the shots that are in the Daily Mail series.


This card, featuring Ernest Brooks famous picture of a “BRITISH MINE EXPLODING AT BEAUMONT HAMEL.” was No.13 from the second series in the Daily Mail collection. At 7.20 a.m. on 1st July 1916, ten minutes before zero hour, the British exploded the huge mine that had been placed under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt - which dominated the approach to Beaumont Hamel - The Hawthorn mine contained 45,000 Ibs. of high explosive.Eight minutes later another eleven mines were fired. At precisely 7.30 a.m., whistles blew along the British front line and the first wave of assault troops climbed out of their trenches.The caption on the reverse of the card says, "The preparation and explosion of immense mines have been a feature of this war of high explosives. The great smoke cloud pictured is from a British mine."

 A new information guide

As the Battles of the Somme raged on the Western Front, the Daily Mail newspaper secured the rights to print and publish a long series of picture postcards. The images thereon, were of scenes and incidents which occurred during the Somme offensive.  A guide is now available with new information about this remarkable collection of Great War picture postcards. It consists of more than 80-pages (as a downloadable PDF file that can be printed-out) and looks at the photographers, the selection, printing, publication and distribution of these popular WW1 picture postcards.  The information contained in The Daily Mail Official War Postcards eBook, make it essential reading for anyone interested in the Battle of the Somme 1916.  The eBook can be purchased on the 'Buy the Guide' page.  A number of FREE WW1 eBooks are included with the guide.

A special "WAR PICTURE DEPARTMENT" was set up at the Daily Mail offices to issue the cards. On 6th September the first series were released and by all accounts proved extremely popular and the Mail may well have benefited by the amazing success of the Somme film. It had been released in London on 21st August 1916 and the rest of the country a week later. The film had achieved over 2,000 bookings and was eventually shown to huge audiences all over the world. At one time, it was showing at 30 London cinemas simultaneously.

                          This page may interest Family Historians

On 29th July 1916 the Daily Mail commented on the Somme war postcards and said,   

"...the photographs are works of art, and will in them- selves make a precious historical record of the great war..." 



The Guide comprises of...

  • More than 80 pages - which can be printed out and read as a physical book.
  • More than 160 images, including postcards, newspaper clippings, photographs, maps and other items.
  • A number of photographs of the official war photographers and details of their equipment and work in the field.
  • Contemporary 'cuttings' from the Daily Mail newspaper that kept the public informed about the production and release of the cards.
  • Coloured maps showing the position of British and German troops on 1st July 1916, and later.
  • Illustrations with captions of many of the cards in the collection.
  • Examples, showing how easy it can be to misinterpret an image on a postcard.
  • A list of the 176 cards in the collection and the series number in which each one appeared.
  • A chart showing the distribution of the 105 photographs on which the collection was based and also the format(s) in which each photograph appeared, on any individual card.
  • Notes on the production and distribution of the Somme cards..
  • Notes about the official war photographers and their work on the Somme.
  • A brief outline of the Battle of the Somme 1916 and first-hand witness accounts of 'going over the top' on the first day.
  • Images of cards from the collection depicting German prisoners of war, medics on the Somme, King George at the Front, labor battalions & kite balloons, the big guns, Anzacs in France and many other categories.
  • And a brief look at fake photographs as well as one or two other topics.


 “HELPING AN AMBULANCE THROUGH THE MUD.” was No.5 from Series 1. The caption on the reverse reads, "Heavy rains have often made the British front a quagmire, and our ”Tommies” have had to put their shoulders to the wheels of ambulance and other wagons." The image has also been described as the "16th (Irish) Div ambulance in difficulty, Somme 1916." In a larger version of this photograph,  a shamrock sign is visible below the Red Cross.


 "AN ATTACK: AWAITING THE SIGNAL." Card number 169 from Series photogravure. The caption  reads: "Scenes in a British trench on the Western Front before an attack. Time is nearly up and every man is alert." The photograph has also been described as "British troops waiting to attack on September 25th of the most successful days in the great Somme advance."  On this day began the Battle of Morval 25th-28th September.

The Daily Mail Somme cards offered a variety of images which were full of interesting detail and were not posed but reflected scenes and incidents as they were taking place. The themes ranged from the King's tour of the recent battle zone, to images of troops preparing to go 'over the top'. The Anzacs in France were well represented in the collection, with two series dedicated to them  - including the card shown below,

 In the New Year (1917) two new series of Daily Mail cards appeared. They were titled "ANZACS IN FRANCE." On 27th January the two series got a mention in The Times when it said "They are numbered 19 (Australian) and 20 (New Zealand) respectively and each contains eight photographs in photogravure." The above card  sub-titled "Hot Work in hot weather." was No.148 from Series 19. The caption on the reverse reads: "Hot weather and hot work at their big guns have induced these splendidly built Anzacs to strip to the waist." This was the same Australian gun-crew that appeared with their backs to the camera on two versions (a photograph and a painting) of card number 113 in colour. There the picture was also described as "Australian gunners at Fricourt.They are supporting the attack on Pozieres, which fell on7th August at the cost of 23.000 Anzac casualties."


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