First Day of the Somme
The 1st of July 1916 AD
The first day proper of the terrible Battle of the Somme was preceded by a weeklong barrage, during which 1.7 million shells were fired at the German lines. The aim of the barrage was to destroy the forest of barbed wire in protecting the German trenches, wreck the trenches themselves, and penetrate the bunkers in which the German troops sheltered. It failed dismally, as had all such barrages in previous battles of the war.
The Germans had built complex shelters deep in the chalky terrain. Anything other than a direct hit by a heavy shell was ineffective, and the British lacked heavy artillery. They were also inexperienced and technically backward as regards artillery, so they had to maintain a safety distance of 300yds in front of their own front line, thus often firing beyond the German front. When the wire was hit it may have broken, but remained a tangled and impenetrable mass, often as thick as a finger and needing special tools to cut.
The Somme was fought under political pressure for results. Originally it had been planned to make a surge in Flanders, but the Somme was agreed on as allowing a joint British and French effort, this being where their lines met. Before the arrangements were made the Germans attacked Verdun, thus the Somme campaign was intended to relieve pressure on that zone.
At 7.30 on July 1 1916 the barrage ceased, and along a 20 mile front the British and French advanced. Though scouts had reported that the German line was little damaged, the commanders refused to believe it. Never has the invisible question mark after the phrase military intelligence been so merited.
Most of the British soldiers were recent volunteers, unused to conflict – those who began the war in 1914 had largely been wiped out. The officers were equally inexperienced in many cases, the British commander Haig having risen rapidly, and far further than his abilities merited. But he did have social standing and drank champagne every night, which makes it alright. Many of the troops went over the top in straight lines, at walking pace, in a style suited to the warfare of a century earlier and questionable even then. They were mown down by the German machine gunners in their thousands.
Equally stupidly many British and Newfoundland troops began their advance from way behind the front line, giving the Germans time to prepare for them.
The ability of the British command to grasp the nature of the new warfare (though hardly new as the war began in 1914) is demonstrated by their decision to have a cavalry regiment ready to charge any gaps created by the infantry.
By the close of July 1 1916 19,240 British were dead. The press reported what the command told them, that casualties were low and the advance a massive success. As the British were so poorly organised they may even have believed this. The enormity of the fiasco did not become apparent for several days.
By the end of the battle in November 420,000 would be dead, plus 200,000 French and half a million Germans.
More famous dates here
8881 views since 20th February 2007
On this day: