Story By TMB Artmetal
The First Day of the Battle of the Somme July 1, 1916
The first official day of the Battle of the Somme was July 1, 1916, a date that was to see the heaviest loss of life in a single day’s fighting in British military history. The battle, fought by British Empire and French forces against Germany, lasted 141 days and finished on 18, 1916, with huge human cost.
The Allies’ plan was to break through the German lines north of the River Somme, but the German defenses proved more robust than was anticipated.
On 24 June the British commenced an unprecedented artillery bombardment during which 1600 guns of various calibers fired over 1,500,000 shells in an endeavor to destroy the German barbed wire defenses together with trenches and defending soldiers therein, prior to the British going ‘over the top’ at zero hour at 07.30 on July 1st.
The men who went over the top that sunny summer morning had been told that their enemy would either be dead, dying or desperate to surrender when they arrived at the German front line but, unfortunately, that plan failed. Many of the shells didn’t detonate, but the ones that did, a mix of shrapnel and high explosive, often failed to cut the barbed wire defenses, through which the British and Commonwealth soldiers would need to pass.
Anticipating a lengthy stay in their strategically advantageous trenches, the Germans had excavated deep bunkers and dug outs, in which they sheltered during the bombardment. Although shocked and shaken, most sat out the shelling largely physically unharmed.
Going “over the top”
At 07.30 on July 1, 1916 the bombardment lifted, an uncanny silence took its place, the silence cut along the front line by the officers’ whistles as they ordered the men, bayonets fixed, to go over the top – the first men to set foot on “No Man’s Land” during daylight hours for nearly two years.
But the lifting of the bombardment left the Germans in little doubt as to what was to happen. So confident were the British generals in their plan that the men were told to walk, not run, for there would be no need for haste. In actuality most of the British soldiers were so heavily loaded with equipment that it would’ve been difficult to hasten over the shell scarred ground anyway.
“When the English started advancing we were worried; they looked as though they must overrun our trenches. We were very surprised to see them walking, we had never seen that before. I could see them everywhere, there were hundreds. The officers were in front. I noticed one of them walking calmly, carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. If they had only run, they would have overwhelmed us.” A German soldier’s view of the Sheffield City Battalion and Accrington Pals’ advance at Serre.
The German retaliation
As soon as the British emerged they were greeted by the ‘tac-tac-tac’ of machine gun fire. Some of the German Maxim guns were deployed on high ground to provide enfilade fire, by which two guns a few hundred meters apart would direct their fire to cross, the advancing troops had to proceed through the stream of bullets.
The shelling had mostly failed to cut the German barbed wire, so many of the soldiers fortunate enough to survive the gauntlet of “No Man’s Land” found no break and nowhere to go – and where there was a break in the tangled wire, men would bunch up, making a perfect focus for the enemy guns.
The soldiers at the Somme
Whilst in some sectors along the 18 mile (25km) Somme front line there was success, the day was a very costly one for the British Army, with around 60,000 casualties, of whom 19,240 had been killed. Many of the poor souls died of their wounds trapped within “No Man’s Land,” unable to be rescued until the dark of night when it was too late.
Although by July 1916 conscription was in force, most of the soldiers who fought on July 1st had volunteered, many forming Pals Battalions, coming from the same town, even the same street, the same trade, as it was thought a good thing for friends to serve together with their pals, side by side. Whilst indeed beneficial for morale it was to prove disastrous on July 1, 1916, when at places such as Serre many a town’s young men were wiped out side-by-side within minutes.
It’s right to also touch upon the losses sustained by our allies who fought side-by-side with Britain at the Somme, many of whom suffered heavily. One such was the 1st Newfoundland Regiment who, during their attack on the German front line on the morning of July 1st at Beaumont Hamel sustained 680 killed or wounded from 780 officers and men, their force decimated by machine gun fire.