The First World War Battle of the Somme began on this day, July 1, 1916. It was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history and the worst ever for the British army. About 19,240 men died on that first day, an incredible report of one killed every five seconds.
Trench warfare along the western front in France had been going on for nearly two years, locking in stalemate the Germans on one side and the French and British on the other.
The front had hardly moved but for a number of months the French had been taking severe losses at Verdun, east of Paris. It was decided to attack the Germans to the north of Verdun at the Somme so that the Germans would move men away from the Verdun battlefield, thus relieving the French.
The battle at the Somme started with an artillery bombardment of the German lines: using 3,000 guns, more than 1,738,000 shells were fired constantly over a period of eight days in the expectation of destroying the German trenches and barbed wire mounted in front of them. Moreover, gigantic underground mines were detonated under German positions.
The expectation was that when the British infantry left their trenches they would be able to cross “no man’s land” with little or no resistance. And, indeed, at “zero hour” of 7.20am, soldiers from the East Surrey Regiment kicked footballs as they began to advance towards the German lines, which they believed would be empty after the week of shelling.
However, most of the barbed wire remained intact and the Germans had deep dugouts. All they had to do when the bombardment started was to move their men into them. When the bombardment stopped, they knew it was the signal for an infantry advance, so they moved from the relative safety of their dugouts and manned their machine guns.
As 100,000 British soldiers, each carrying 30kg of equipment, climbed out of their trenches and began to advance they met a barrage of machine gun and artillery fire by the Germans.
George Coppard, a British soldier who served with the Machine Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs: “The next morning [July 2] we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of us. It became clear that the Germans always had a commanding view of no man’s land.
Our attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work.”
Despite the terrific losses, Britain’s High Command, led by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, decided to continue the assault. The Battle of the Somme, along a 15-mile front of Northern France, lasted for 141 days, finally ending on November 18, 1916.
The official number of British dead, missing or wounded during that period is 419, 654. For France, the figure is 204,253 and for Germany, about 500,000, making the total casualties 1,123,907. The furthest advance of any Allied force was five miles.
Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of men and resources to the stalemate along the Western Front did eventually contribute to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.