Friday July 1st 2016 marks the centerniary of the commencement of The Battle Of The Somme. It is fair to say that July 1st 1916 might possibly the most horrific day in British history and most likely in the top two or three anywhere given the dreadful events of the day.
The Battle of The Somme sends chills down the spines of everyone who know anything about military history. With over 1 million casualties, it is quite simply one of the very bloodiest battles in the history of mankind and one that epitomises the bloody and futile slaughter that is a signature of The Great War.
The battle had long since been planned as a joint British and French effort against the Germans on the Western Front but when Germany engaged France at Verdun, many of the French units were diverted there, leaving The Somme to be a predominantly British affair.
The Somme is also notable for the first use of tanks and also the use of air-power. Though the Allies succeeded in pushing the Germans 6 miles back it came at the most terrible cost and General Sir Douglas Haig was criticised for his tactics, the loss of life and failure to achieve objectives almost immediately and these criticism continue to the present day.
The Germans were well dug in with numerous lines of defence and the widespread introduction of telephones allowed each sector commander to communicate with the Generals further back. The British decided on the tactic of launching a massive five-day long artillery barrage onto the German front lines. Incredibly they fired 1.6 million shells in those few days and it was hoped that this terrible bombardment would lead to an easy British victory.
The video below is one of the large mines that were detonated to not just co-ordinate the attack but also to disorientate the Germans… though it was strong enough to shake the windows in London, on the whole it just prepared the Germans for the attack.
However after the initial shells landed, the Germans retreated underground, safe in the knowledge that the British couldn’t attack on foot until the shelling stopped. When at last, the British troops went over the top and entered no-mans land, the British commanders were so confident that they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. In reality most of the German troop strength was unaffected and the bombardment had only had the effect of making no-mans land entirely battered making it in many places impassable. To make matters worse, much of the barbed wire remained intact and the advancing Tommies had to either cut them as they advanced under fire or worse get stuck there and look for a gap in the defences.
There were 13 British Divisions lined up ready for action at The Somme with five more from France facing off against over ten divisions of Germans. At 7.20am the first of the massive British mines went off under no-mans land with others going off at 7.28am just two minutes before the planned offensive. They were intended to shock the German troops and provide cover for the British troops though one mine went off too late and blew up Allied soldiers as they were passing overhead. These were the biggest man-made explosions of all time and could be heard in London, 300 miles away, where they made windows rattle as the soil was thrown 4,000 feet up into the air. All day the intense noise from the 250,000 British artillery shells fired on that first day could be heard back in England.
The Battle of The Somme was to last 141 days but it all started in earnest at 7.30am on 1st July when throughout the long front line whistles were blown to signal the start of the attack. With the shelling over, the Germans left their bunkers and set up their positions.
Due to the inexperience of the British recruits, the British General Sir Henry Rawlinson rather contemptuously believed they were not up to attacking the German positions at speed and so they had been ordered to walk calmly across no-mans land due to the expectation that there would be no German resistance. As the British walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started firing and the mass slaughter began as Musketier Karl Blenk of the German 169th regiment recalled.
“We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before,” he told the British historian, Martin Middlebrook, more than a half-century later.
“I could see them everywhere. There were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick,” he went on.
“When we started firing, we just had to reload and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If only they had run, they would have overwhelmed us.”
Although a few British units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit their gains. Ironically the only British units that fared well that day were those whose junior officers had broken their orders. The men from Ulster were ordered by their commanding officer to run across no-mans land and they had also been told to ditch their 60lb packs before doing so. This allowed them to spring across in a matter of seconds. Similarly, another group of men had already entered no-mans land whilst the artillery barrage was still in action and so when the firing ceased they were able to reach the German front lines relatively unscathed.
By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on that first day were killed. Not all of this was due to terrible tactics; the British simply didn’t realise that the height advantage which the Germans positions had in the relatively higher ground meant that the Germans were in some cases able to see what was going on in British positions and so prepare their defences accordingly.
The Germans had largely discounted any French attack and the early French artillery strikes damaged and destroyed many German guns and equipment leaving the way open for the French troops to make relatively rapid progress. Later in the morning, the French let off a large mine and simultaneously launched a gas attack which caught many of the German soldiers sheltering underground. The French advance was much more successful than the British. They had more guns and faced weaker German defences yet without similar advances by the British, they were unable to exploit their gains and were compelled to fall back to earlier positions.
It was a baptism of fire for Britain’s new volunteer armies. Many ‘Pals’ Battalions, comprising men from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses particularly in the Serre sector with whole units dying together.
The planned and hoped for ‘decisive breakthrough’ was now a decisive failure and General Haig decided that attacks would concentrate on the southern sector with the British taking the German positions there on the 14th July. For two months there was a bloody stalemate with the Allies gaining little ground until on 15th September Haig ordered a renewed the offensive which for the first time made use of tanks. These tanks, however, were few in number, lightly armed and, unfortunately, liable to mechanical failure meaning that they made less impact than what they should have.
October saw the weather take a turn for the worse and continued torrential rain turned the battlegrounds into a muddy quagmire and in by the middle of November the battle petered out with the Allies having advanced only five or six miles. Only in the sense of stopping a French collapse at Verdun can the British have claimed any measure of success which in human terms was an unmitigated disaster.
Some historians believe that this war of attrition wore down the German Army so that it never again recovered to be the force it was before The Somme and that it set up the British Army for not just the rest of The Great War but for WW2 and the more recent operations. With the technology of the time as opposed to that which came slightly later on, there is also an argument that there were few alternatives for the Allied generals who had to find a way past the stalemate on the Western Front.
The Somme wasn’t just one megalithic battle but rather series of smaller battles and campaigns that play as a role-call in WW1 history: Albert, Fromelles, and Delville Wood or Devils Wood as the British called it as the trees were entirely destroyed and because the ground became to resemble hell on earth. It was also notable for the introduction of South African and Rhodesian soldiers. Other cursed names include but are not limited to Serre, Morval, Ancre Heights and Thiepval where on 1st July every year, commemorations are held to the fallen of the Somme.
The Somme is the blackest name in British military history and even in WW1 can only be compared to the Battle of Verdun for the casualty rate and intensity of artillery shelling. Let us hope its awful casualty list will never be surpassed.
If you’d like to read more about The Somme, WW1 and other often forgotten but important subjects that occurred 100 years ago then check out my concise history book Lest We Forget published by Endeavour Press of London and available in Kindle and Paperback formats.
If you are interested in photos of how The Somme looks today then you might to look at my other WW1 book, In The Footsteps of Heroes. The best editions are the electronic ones as the photos come out clearer digitally than when blown up onto paper though the paper edition is good too!
In The Footsteps of Heroes comes about as a result of on-site research into Lest We Forget and provides a casual photo guide to the main British and Commonwealth locations of the Western Front.
My Tour Company, Ye Olde England Tours can provide personal private guided tours to the region but for those who prefer to sightsee from the comfort of home then this book is for you. Please note that though every effort was made to provide the highest quality photos, that I am not a professional photographer, and this book is much more a casual photo guidebook and not a photography book.
My books are also available direct from their respective publishers and also through Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords and Createspace. You can also purchase this book through Apple iBooks store by clicking on the logo below.