A reported 57,470 British soldiers were killed or wounded on July 1st, 1916.
Even by the standards of the First World War, this level of slaughter was staggering.
The emotional toll was made all the worse because it was the first major battle for many of Kitchener's New Army recruits that had volunteered so enthusiastically to swell the ranks in 1914 and 15.
Many of these were 'pals battalions' recruited en-masse around a given profession and workplace, sports team, location or even schools (the 16 Middlesex, for instance, was one of several 'Public Schools Battalions').
Hence, the battle's heavy death toll disproportionately impacted areas of society that had a given pals battalion that sustained a large number of casualties.
So what caused the enormous loss of life?
To begin with, the huge scale of battles and rudimentary methods of communication made command and control very difficult during the First World War.
Radios that allowed for real-time reports to commanders from units actively engaged in combat, and coordination between different fighting units, was not available like it would be in World War Two.
In the meantime, commanders had to rely entirely on pre-battle planning, and three problems plagued first-day planning on the Somme offensive:
1. There was a lack of cohesion. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British forces in France, wanted to push for a larger breakthrough to make the most of the attack. But General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of Fourth Army and planner of the offensive, strongly believing in a more limited “bite and hold” strategy. Additionally, divisional and corps commanders interpreted the plan as they saw fit, leading to inconsistencies in implementation up and down the line.
2. There was a lack of effective artillery support. More than anything else, the First World War was an artillery war, and like their counterparts in the infantry, many gunners were raw and inexperienced. Over the course of the battle, it became clear to British commanders that the French had developed much more sophisticated artillery strategies than they had. The result was that, although the week-long pre-battle barrage was impressive in scale (over a million shells were fired), it was far less effective than it could or should have been.
3. Many shells did not work properly. The increased reliance on artillery had depleted supplies and resulted in the Shell Crisis of 1915. The Ministry of Munitions was established and the quantity issue was resolved, but quality control became the next problem. 30 percent of the shells fired at the Somme were duds. This is why farmers in the Picardy region of France have come across so much unexploded ordnance over the years, and why many of the soldiers attacking on July 1st found sections of barbed wire uncut and many German dugouts intact, despite promises to the contrary.
THE BATTLE IN THE NORTH
At the top of the battlefield, some troops from General Allenby’s Third Army were to move on the village of Gommecourt. This was intended as a feint, to trick the Germans into moving troops and guns away from the real site of the battle further south. Soldiers of the 46th Midland and 56th London Divisions (of VII Corps, under General Snow, relative of TV historian Dan Snow) were to pincer around a bulge in the German line, and close in around the village.
But lack of proper planning, bad luck, and not enough manpower meant that the preparations had not been properly thought through or executed. Thus, men of the 46th Division found themselves confronted by uncut barbed wire, German defenders very much alive, and lack of artillery support because smoke cover made it impossible for their gunners to avoid hitting them instead of the Germans. A few did make it into the German lines, miraculously, but many were cut down in no-man’s-land, suffering 2,455 casualties.
The 56th Division had more success. They had less ground to cover and found that the wire had been cut, partly because scouting parties had crawled out to check it the night before and blown holes in it using Bangalore torpedoes.
Ironically though, the 56th Division suffered more casualties than the 46th.
Up and down the line, the barrage before the attack had failed to properly locate and destroy German artillery, and once the battle started, many German guns started lobbing shells into no-man’s-land. The result was that men who’d got into the German lines, without reinforcement or support from the 46th on their left flank, were cut off and soon overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, commanders kept pushing reinforcements forward to help consolidate those gains, thus dooming many men to be killed by German artillery in no-man’s-land. The division suffered 4,300 casualties that day.
This disaster was repeated almost verbatim on their right flank. Here, an enormous 40,600lbs mine had been blown underneath a German strongpoint at the crest of a hill near the village of Beaumont Hamel.
Today, the site looks like an ordinary circle of trees, but closer inspection reveals an enormous hole hiding inside.
The mine should have given the British the element of surprise, but because of a messy bureaucratic compromise between key commanders, soldiers were ordered to wait a full 10 minutes after it had been blown before advancing.
Hauling heavy equipment that reduced them to walking, and armed with rifles topped with bayonets glistening in the morning sun, much of Somme legend about young lions forced into German fire by donkey commanders is derived from the experience of units here.
At Serre, north of the mine, the pals battalions in the 31st Division found wire in front of them uncut and, with a ten minute head start, German defenders were ready and shot them down in droves: 3,600 of them to be precise.
Meanwhile, the 4th and 29th Divisions (the latter featuring the origional Public Schools Battalion, 16th Middlesex Regiment, perhaps the most famous pals unit), were tasked with seizing the crater and the line around it. The ten minute gap similarly doomed many in these units to carnage in no-man’s-land, slaughter that was compounded by further command errors. As with the 56th at Gommecourt, the few men from the 4th Division who made it into the enemy lines only encouraged the sending of reinforcements. White flares fired up by the Germans as a signal for their gunners to shell no-man’s-land were also misinterpreted by commanders behind the 29th Division. They thought it was a signal for them indicating that the British attack had been successful (both sides used white flares). Reinforcements were sent in support, and ran straight into the German fire.
Total casualties for the 4th, 31st, and 29th Divisions (VIII Corps) were 14,000.
The 36th Ulster Division had more luck at Thiepval, finding the German wire well cut and pushing a mile into the German lines (though they eventually ran out of ammunition and, without re-supply, had to return to their own lines that night).
Meanwhile, the 32nd Division, from Northern England and Scotland, were, like the 56th and 4th Divisions to the north, victims of their own success. They sneaked into no-man’s-land during the bombardment then rushed the Germans the moment it lifted. Unfortunately, with those flanking them being held up, their single success became the focus of multiple reinforcements who were cut down trying to reach them.
Total casualties for X Corps (36th and 32nd Divisions, with the 49th in reserve) came to 9,000.
THE BATTLE IN THE SOUTH
In general, attacks in the south were far more successful than in the north, but these successes did not come without great loss of life.
The 8th Division, composed of regular soldiers, headed for the village of Ovillers north of the Albert-Bapaume Road, and many of them managed to get into the German trenches before having their progress checked by stiffening German resistance.
The 34th Division, to the south of the road, were able to overwhelm the Germans and get around the village of La Boiselle before being pushed back.
The 101st Brigade, on the right of the division’s frontage, had a wide gap to cross over no-man’s-land and suffered an incredible 80 percent casualties.
Some did manage to make it to the edge of the Lochnagar crater, caused by the day’s second largest mine of 40,000lbs that was blown right before the attack.
Despite some successes though, all progress had been checked by 10.00am and the divisional commander decided that nothing further could done until nightfall. Total casualties for III Corps were over 11,000, almost an entire division’s worth out of a total of three divisions in the corps, and of the two attacking that morning (one was in reserve).
Soldiers attacking the villages of Fricourt and Mametz further south had more luck. Lieutenant General H.S. Horne had used the same preparations as his counterparts commanding the other corps – mines, gas, smoke – but in one area, that of artillery, he had made a slight alteration.
He’d arranged for artillery to continue to rain down in front of attacking troops but rather than simply lifting off and thudding over to more distant targets, he had it fade out in a smaller series of lifts, giving his men room to advance, and providing them with the suppressant fire they needed to get to the enemy. This became known as the ‘creeping barrage’ and was eventually adopted as the standard artillery technique throughout the Army. Because of this the 21st, 17th, and 7th Divisions had considerable successes but were eventually pushed back.
At Montauban, XIII Corps were even more fortunate. German trenches here were clustered more closely, making them easier targets for the British artillery. Additionally, units here were adjacent to the French and benefitted from some of their superior artillery preparation. Many German guns were knocked out, dugouts smashed, and survivors clustered unevenly in surviving shelters, unable to properly man the line when they emerged.
The two divisions in XIII Corps were the 30th and the 18th, the latter of which was a New Army pals division trained exceptionally well by the famous and innovative Major-General Ivor Maxse.
For their part, the 30th benefited from being adjacent to the French, and Colonel Fairfax, leading the 17th King’s went forward arm in arm with Commandant Le Petit of the 153rd Infantry Regiment. Here too, the troops followed a creeping barrage and, because of good intelligence, were expecting to find the German wire uncut. The attack was so successful and rapid that the 21st Brigade had to pause to wait for its own creeping barrage to lift off in front of it. Under a smokescreen, the 90th Brigade captured Montauban village by 11.00am – the only occupant was a fox.
Meanwhile the French captured virtually all of their objectives on their narrow sector to the south. British objectives here were largely taken, but because of some resistance to 18th Division’s advance, they didn’t come without loss of life. The corps lost a total of 6,000 men from its two divisions.
The battle ground on for another four and a half months, seeing tanks introduced for the first time in September. The total casualty roster came to over 420,000 British, 195,000 French, and 400 to 650,000 German.
Many see the slaughter as a pointless waste of life, while some historians argue that, with the French being pummelled at Verdun, and simultaneous offensives being struck by the Russians and Italians, Haig had to support his allies and attack when he did. Whether he should have done it how he did it is perhaps another question. Historians will continue to debate the issue for years to come.
Information in this article and the cover image, 'The Attack on La Boisselle', come from 'Somme 1 July 1916 Tragedy and Triumph', written by Andrew Robertshaw, and illustrated by Peter Dennis. To buy a copy and learn more about the first day of the Somme, visit: ospreypublishing.com/somme-1-july-1916-pb - To learn more about military history, visit Osprey Publishing: ospreypublishing.com