By Steve Corbett
Early last year, at a vintage collectors’ fair being held in a village in Sussex, an elderly lady approached one of the stall holders and offered him a small Kodak vest pocket camera – often referred to as the ‘Soldier’s camera’. With the camera came two cases: one in leather and marked with the name ‘Harold Tookey’, and the other was a rather battered canvas case with a piece of paper inside, which bore a regimental number and just a few details of the soldier.
The elderly lady explained to the stall holder that the camera had belonged to her relative in the Great War and had been passed down through the generations, but no one was now interested in it. Out of curiosity, the stall holder checked the details on the medal index for First World War soldiers, and this confirmed that what was written on that scrap of paper was indeed correct, but this was as far as the dealer went with his research.
At 7:30 a.m. on 1 July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began, and from Maricourt in the south to Serre in the north, the British troops attacked the German lines after a preliminary seven-day bombardment of the German defences. At the northern end of the assault, the 11th East Lancashires – ‘The Accrington Pals’ – launched their disastrous attack upon the fortified village of Serre. The tragic outcome of this battle is described in detail in my book: An Accrington Pal: The Diaries of Pte Jack Smallshaw.
Just north of Serre lies the Gommecourt salient, and this too was the scene of bitter fighting on the morning of 1 July 1916. The assault carried out by the 46th (North Midland) Division and the 56th (1st London) Division on the Gommecourt salient was a diversionary attack – launched with the primary aim of protecting the northern end of the main battle, but it had another aim too, as revealed in a letter sent after the battle on 3 July 1916 by Brigadier General F. Lyon of VII Corps:
The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate all ranks of the 56th Division on the way in which they took the German trenches and held them by pure grit and pluck for so long in very adverse circumstances.
Although GOMMECOURT has not fallen into our hands, the purpose of the attack, which was mainly to contain and kill Germans, was accomplished, thanks to a great extent to the tenacity of the 56th Division.
Sgd/ F. Lyon, Brigadier-Genl 3rd. July 1916, General Staff, VII Corps.
The 56th Division had some initial success: the first two lines of German trenches were soon captured, and the third line – at Nameless Farm – also came under attack, but the Germans put up a stubborn resistance. By now, the defenders were regrouping and a heavy artillery barrage from the German guns – combined with machine guns and grenade attacks – prevented reinforcements reaching the besieged survivors of the assault Consequently, their situation was hopeless – and those that could, began to withdraw to their own lines; many of the wounded men had to be left behind. A total of 569 officers and men were listed as dead, wounded or missing by the end of the battle.
Second Lieutenant R.E. Petley wrote an account of the battle at the request of his CO. In it, he makes reference to the fate of the wounded:
There is an incident I should like to mention which shows that we had a decent lot of HUNS [sic] opposite and which would prove a source of consolation to the relatives of the missing. About 9.45 p.m. (early twilight) a German came out to us, and as I saw his red cross I prevented our men from firing. He came up, saw I had been roughly dressed, and went on nearer to our own lines to attend to one of his own men. Some of our men got up to go and he shouted out and stopped one of their machine guns. I think his action showed pluck and decency and augurs well for our wounded which we had to leave behind.
4092 Private Harold Tookey, of the 5th London Rifles, was one of those wounded men who had to be left behind; he was captured by the Germans. On 27 July 1916, he died of his wounds; he had been in France just four months. His personal effects – including his pocket camera – were returned to his family. Private Tookey was interred by the Germans at Caudry Old Communal Cemetery.
 TNA: ref WO 95/2961/1.