7.30, 1st of July 1916. Along a 20 kilometre front 19 divisions, 13 English commonwealth – 6 French, stood ready to attack. Hundreds of thousands of men and boys, husbands and sons, ready to go “over the top”. The attack itself had been brought forward in an attempt to relieve the French forces at Verdun, though it is the Somme, despite a lower total casualty count, which is held as the worst example of WW1’s year of attrition.
The previous year had been marked by attempts on both sides to gain the upper hand away from the western front. The British lead invasion at Gallipoli and the great German offensive in Russia are clear examples of this. However Battles at Ypres, in April, and Loos, October, should not be forgotten and indeed are important in understanding how and why the Somme was fought as it was – and therefore why it had such an impact.
After battles such as Mons, the 1st and 2nd battle of Ypres and Loos the British Expeditionary Force had been drained of its resources, especially man power. The solution to this problem was the introduction of the Pals Battalions. Introduced in 1915, these were battalions connected to geographical locations or certain occupations from which their soldiers were enlisted. In this manner a huge number of soldiers were gained and trained before being shipped out to France.
By July 1st 1916 many of the units on the front line were the inexperienced Pals Battalions.
The battles of 1915, especially Loos, had created a rift between the British and French commands. Thus British commander General Haig made it clear when planning that the offensive in the Somme sector would be a British lead operation with French support.
This brings us to the plan itself which, for 1916, was actually fairly modern. Indeed Haig utilised many new technologies such as telephone communication – connecting front line commanders to their seniors -, aerial artillery spotting and, eventually, tanks. The attack was to be preceded by the largest artillery bombardment in History, designed to take out the German defenders as well as the barbed wire barring entrance to their trenches. Even the tactic of having soldiers walking over to the German trenches had solid reasoning behind it. Given that the German trench would be empty it was decided that many first wave soldiers would carry kit with them so that they could easily defend ground taken, which made running and dodging near impossible.
However the British high command had overestimated the effect their artillery would have on the well developed German line. German strategy post 1914 had been to hold their ground in the west whilst they knocked out Russia in the east. As such they had spent much of 1915 reinforcing their defences, making their trenches much deeper and more difficult to knock out, and developing defensive tactics and technology (such as machine guns).
Thus at 7.30 on the 1st of July 1916 the stage was set for the darkest day in British Military history. 19 divisions rose from their forward trenches and moved towards the German lines. They were greeted by the full might of the defensive German army. In many places barbed wire was still intact causing bottlenecks around the entrance to trenches. Along the line soldiers were mown down in droves. On that first day, along that 20 kilometre front, 19,240 British and commonwealth soldiers were killed, with a further 38,230 injured. The Germans in contrast suffered 8000 casualties and lost little ground.