One minute Ray Penniman was an officer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the Battle of the Somme, and the next he wasn’t.
“On the 8th of October, 1916, he basically disappeared,” said curator Doran Cart of the National World War I Museum and Memorial. “He didn’t run away. He just disappeared. His parents wanted to know what happened to him. People who were around him wrote to the parents and told them what they had seen that day. They had seen him killed, but there wasn’t any evidence of him left.”
Almost certainly Penniman was killed by an exploding mortar shell in one of the longest and bloodiest campaigns of the First World War. A new exhibit at the museum at Liberty Memorial focuses on the Somme campaign and the simultaneous Battle of Verdun, that other great meat grinder of 100 years ago.
The centennial exhibit, “They Shall Not Pass 1916,” contains material that is more graphic than other temporary displays the museum has mounted. There is a grouping of correspondence concerning Penniman, including the last letter he wrote home on Oct. 4 and the telegram to his parents saying he was missing.
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In a case nearby is a 340 mm mortar shell, more than 4 feet tall. This one happens to be French, but both sides were lobbing them furiously. The British fired an estimated 1.5 million shells during the opening barrage at the Somme. It is reported they could hear it on the other side of the English Channel.
On the first day of the battle, July 1, British casualties were more than 57,000, about a third of them killed. By the end of the campaign, months later, the British had about 420,000 casualties, the French about 200,000 and the Germans an estimated 500,000.
Verdun casualties were about 377,000 for the French and 337,000 for the Germans.
Aerial photographs in the exhibit show cratered terrain, the chalky soil exposed along the trenches from the explosives. Other photos show dead and bloated bodies.
An unnamed French observer at the Somme was almost poetic: “Shells disinter the bodies, then reinter them, chop them into pieces, play with them as a cat plays with a mouse.”
The exhibit includes a British helmet with a bullet hole on the top. It’s an exit hole.
The Somme was an Allied offensive on the Western Front intended to draw German forces away from the Battle of Verdun, which was not confined to that fortress town but included the many forts and strategic roads in the region. “They Shall Not Pass” was the French rallying cry that Verdun would hold against the Germans. Fighting in the area would continue through the German surrender in 1918.
Only three of the 150 or so objects in the exhibit, all of which are from the museum’s own collection, have ever been publicly displayed before. Many are recent acquisitions, such as a French folding bicycle, made by Peugeot. In rough terrain, a soldier would fold the bike in half and sling it from a strap over his shoulder.
There is also a huge and nasty coil of barbed wire, a defensive weapon that the Germans were sending to the Western Front at the rate of 7,000 tons a month by July 1916. An American soldier somehow brought this coil home.
The exhibit includes reminders that the war was going on elsewhere as well, including an imperial Russian pilot’s leather coat and a field cap that belonged to Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, who was in charge of the Austro-Hungarian forces on the Italian front.
“They Shall Not Pass” is included with admission to the museum and continues in Exhibit Hall until March 12. It will be replaced in April by an exhibit looking at the United States’ entry into the war. It was in April 1917 that the United States declared war on Germany.