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Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

This week tributes are being paid across Europe and the world to those who served one hundred years ago at the Battle of the Somme. In this week's post, I look at two extraordinary men who survived both the battle and the First World War, and whose cremation records are found in the Deceased Online database.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, the 1st of July 1916, remains the bloodiest 24 hours in British military history. Those soldiers of the British Empire who went "over the top" on this day a century ago had no idea how devastating this battle would be. Tens of thousands of men walked out of their trenches and straight into German machine-gun fire. On just this one day, 19,240 were killed and around 40,000 wounded.

Those that survived were left with lifelong turmoil. Musicians like Ralph Vaughan Williams and writers such as J.R.R. Tolkein would, famously, transmute their experiences through art. Others were left with "shell shock" or what we now understand as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded for bravery at the Somme. Most were posthumous. Of the few that did survive, Walter Potter Ritchie (27 March 1892-17 March 1965) became celebrated across Britain and lived on until 1965.

Photo of Victoria Cross recipient Walter Potter Ritchie, migrated from the Victoria Cross Reference site with permission. Photo submitted by Martin Hornby - (Gallaher Cigarette Cards).
Walter Potter Ritchie was a 24 year old Glaswegian drummer in the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, Duke of Albany's) on the 1st July 1916. As a drummer, Ritchie was required to sound the "Charge" to rally men whose leaders had fallen. Despite the heavy gunfire and bombing, Ritchie stood on the parapet of an enemy trench, unwavering. Later in the war, he was promoted to drum-major.
Page in the Register for Warriston Crematorium showing the entry (2nd from top) for Walter Potter Ritchie

Ritchie died ten days before his 73rd birthday in 1965. As shown in the register entry above, on the 20th March his body was cremated at Warriston Crematorium in Edinburgh. Full details can be seen in the Deceased Online database.
Index entry on the Deceased Online database for Gunner William Elder
One of the oldest survivors of the First World War, Gunner William Elder, was a veteran of the Somme. Elder died in 2005, aged 108. His body was cremated in Kettering Crematorium in Northamptonshire on the 29th June.

Born in Selkirk in 1897, William Elder enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1915. Prior to the war, he worked as a gardener, being apprenticed at the Buccleuch Estate at Bowhill. He survived Ypres before being sent to Somme in 1916. After the war, Elder met his future wife, Daisy, who worked for the Duke of Buccleuch at his Northamptonshire estate, Boughton, near Kettering. Elder worked as a gardener in Scotland through the interwar years and then served in the Home Guard during the Second World War. Eventually, he and Daisy left Scotland and settled in Kettering. 
Map of the Battle of the Somme 1916
The Battle of the Somme continued through the summer months, finally drawing to a close in November 1916 after 141 days. The largest battle on the western front, it led to the death or injury of more than a million on both sides of the battlefield. Its consequences were felt far beyond the Western Front, in the homes, schools and workplaces across Europe and  beyond in the many countries of the British Empire. The battles on the Somme would continue until February 1918. A total of 72,245 British and South African men who fell during these battles were missing and have no known grave. Their names are instead recorded on the Thiepval Memorial in France.

Were any of your ancestors at the Somme? Were they among the hundreds of thousands who fell between 1916 and 1918, or did they survive? We would love to hear about your Somme relatives. Please get in touch in the Comments Box below, or via our Facebook and Twitter pages.


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