- First day on the Somme
Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=First day on the Somme
Battle of the Somme(First World War)
Tyneside Irish Brigadeadvancing on the La Boissellesector.
1 July, 1916
Somme, Picardy, France
* United Kingdom
* New Zealand
* South Africa
commander1=flagicon|UK Douglas Haig
flagicon|UK Henry Rawlinson
Fritz von Below
strength1=13 British divisions
6 French divisions
casualties2=8,000 dead or wounded
The first day on the Somme,
1 July 1916, was the opening day of the Battle of Albert, which was the first phase of the British and French offensive that became known as the Battle of the Somme. The middle day of the middle year of the First World War, it is remembered as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Armywhen 57,470 men became casualties of which 19,240 were killed or died of wounds. In terms of British casualties, the first day of the Somme is only surpassed by the Fall of Singapore when over 80,000 Allied soldiers became prisoners of war.
For many people, the first day has come to represent the futility and sacrifice of the war, with lines of
infantrybeing mowed down by German machine guns. While the first day marked the beginning of four and a half months of attrition, it has always overshadowed the days that followed. 1 Julymarked the start of the first phase of the Battle of the Somme, officially known as the Battle of Albert, which continued until 13 July, the eve of the next major attack, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge.
In 1971 British
military historian Martin Middlebrookwrote "The First Day on the Somme", a detailed analysis of events leading up to and during the British attack on 1 July. It remains one of the most influential books on British First World War history.
ignificance of the first day
The Somme was to be the first major offensive mounted by the
British Expeditionary Forceand the first battle to involve substantial numbers of battalions from Lord Kitchener's New Army. Included were many of the famous Pals battalions that had formed in response to Kitchener's call for volunteers in August 1914. Heavy losses amongst these battalions led to a concentration of casualty notices in the communities from which they were formed.
The first day was unusual in that the
British Armycontingent was almost entirely from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Since early 1915 the Canadian divisions had been featuring prominently in British battles and as the struggle on the Somme wore on, the Anzacs and South Africans were called upon but on the first day the only non-British troops attacking on the British sector were small units from Bermudaand Newfoundland. (The South African Infantry Brigadeand an Indian cavalrydivision were in reserve and Canadian artillery were involved in the bombardment.)
For Newfoundland, the first day has special significance. The 1st Battalion of the
Newfoundland Regiment, at the time the Dominion's entire military contribution to the war, was virtually wiped out in a mishandled attack near Beaumont Hamel. After the war the Newfoundland government bought 40 acres (162,000 m²) around the site of the battalion's attack and created the Newfoundland Memorial Park to commemorate the dead.
Little emphasis has been placed on the French contribution on the first day on the Somme. This is partly because the French attack, which was largely successful, was overshadowed by the disaster that befell the British divisions. Also the French at the time were still occupied with defending Verdun. Nevertheless the French contribution on the Somme was substantial and it is significant that the only British successes of the first day came on the southern sector neighbouring the
French XX Corps.
The British plan for the Somme offensive was to achieve a breakthrough that could be exploited by
cavalry. Once the German front was penetrated, a mobile force would sweep north towards Arras, rolling up the German line. However, the British had insufficient experience in trench warfareto be prepared for the battle becoming attritional.
The Allies were confronted by three lines of German defences, the first two being complete while the third was still under construction. The approximate centre line of the battlefield was defined by the
Roman roadthat ran straight from Albert in the west to Bapaumein the east. The Somme Riverran east–west some convert|5|mi|km south of the road.
The main attack was to be carried out by the Fourth Army under the command of General Sir Henry Rawlinson. A diversionary attack was to be made on the northern flank by two divisions of General
Edmund Allenby's Third Army. When the breakthrough was achieved, the exploitation phase would be carried out by the three cavalry divisions of General Sir Hubert Gough's Reserve Army. For all three men, the Somme would be their first battle in command of an army.
The main French effort would be carried out by the
French Sixth Armyof General Marie Émile Fayolle. The southern-most French army on the Somme was the French Tenth Armyof General Alfred Michelerwhich would play a small role in the battle. These two armies were part of the French Northern Army Group, commanded by General Ferdinand Fochfrom 3 July, 1916.
The natural division between the British and French forces would have been the wide marshland along the Somme River but instead the French commander-in-chief, General
Joseph Joffre, placed the French XX Corpsnorth of the Somme alongside the southernmost Fourth Army unit ( British XIII Corps) so that the British were unable to act independently.
The British and French on the Somme were confronted by the
German Second Armyof General Fritz von Below. The Germans became aware of preparations for an Allied offensive in April but were dismissive of the threat posed by the British forces, considering them of "limited combat value". However, by June the developments were sufficiently alarming for von Below to request permission to mount a preemptive attack to disrupt the Allied plans. However, on 4 Junethe Russians launched the Brusilov Offensiveand the Germans were required to send forces to the east to answer the growing crisis. Consequently few troops could be spared on the Somme; four divisions plus artillery were the only reinforcements provided.
Therefore, von Below had only six divisions manning the front and four and a half in reserve when the Allied offensive was launched by 13 British and six French divisions.
The plan called for six days of preliminary artillery bombardment (later extended to seven days due to bad weather). The Fourth Army had 1,010
field guns, 182 heavy guns and 245 howitzers plus an additional 100 French guns and howitzers. While this was a substantial increase on the artillery used in previous British battles, the array of tasks allotted and the length of front to be bombarded exceeded the capacity of the guns available. In addition to bombarding the enemy's trenches, the artillery had to cut the barbed wireand neutralise the enemy guns via counter-battery fire.
In these seven days the British artillery would fire more than 1.5 million shells, exceeding the total number of shells fired by the British Army in the first twelve months of the war. A further quarter of a million shells would be fired on the day of the attack. Such was the intensity of this bombardment that it could be heard on
Hampstead Heath, three hundred miles away. While this weight of bombardment was new for the British, it was by no means a first. The French Second Battle of Artoisin May 1915 had been preceded by a six-day bombardment in which over 2.1 million shells were fired.
On the Somme, while British shell production had increased since the
shell scandalof 1915, quality was poor and many shells failed to explode. Also the proportion of shrapnelto high explosive shells was high; shrapnel was virtually useless against entrenched positions and required accurate fuse settings in order to be effective in cutting wire.
When the British took over the Somme sector from the French, they had inherited a number of mine workings — the chalk soil of the Somme was ideal for tunnelling. Ten mines were prepared for the first day of the battle; three large mines in excess of 20 tons and seven smaller ones, around convert|5000|lb|abbr=on in size. The purpose of the mines was twofold; to destroy the German defences and to provide shelter in no man's land for the advancing infantry. When each mine blew, the infantry would rush forward to seize the crater.
The largest mines, each containing 24 tons of
ammonal, were on either side of the Albert-Bapaume road near La Boisselle, the Y Sap minenorth of the road and the Lochnager mineto the south. The other large mine was beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubtnear Beaumont Hamel, containing 18 tons of explosives.
The mines were to be detonated 2 minutes prior to zero, at 7.28 am. The exception was the Hawthorn Ridge mine which was detonated 10 minutes before zero at 7.20am. One of the small mines, at
Kasino Point, was mistimed and blew late after the infantry attack had commenced.
At the time the Somme mines were the largest yet detonated during the war but they would be eclipsed by the 19 mines fired during the Battle of Messines.
Prior to the battle Rawlinson's staff published the "Fourth Army Tactical Notes", an instruction pamphlet setting out the recommended assault tactics to be used by the infantry. The notes specified that battalions should advance in waves with two
platoons per wave on a convert|400|yd|m|sing=on front which left about convert|5|yd|m between each soldier. A battalion would therefore advance in eight waves (two per company) plus additional waves for the battalion HQ and stretcher bearers. The advance would be carried out at a steady walking pace of convert|50|yd|m per minute.
Soldiers in the leading waves were required to carry about 70 lb (32 kg) of equipment;
rifle, bayonet, ammunition, two grenades, entrenching tool, empty sandbags, wire cutters, flares, etc. The later waves would also be burdened with the necessary paraphernalia for consolidating the captured trenches such as barbed wire & stakes.
Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, these tactics were clearly misjudged. The reasoning behind them was twofold. Firstly, it was felt that the intense artillery bombardment would destroy the German garrison so that all that was required of the infantry was to walk over and take possession of the objectives. Secondly, the basic tactical unit of maneuver in infantry units in 1916 was still the company of 100+ men, under the control of a single officer. Many of the New Army battalions had received little tactical training, and therefore little in the way of tactical acumen could be expected of the troops who had been in uniform for a relatively short period of time, and with little practical experience of offensive military operations.
Many commanders nonetheless approached the battle with great optimism. The pre-battle speech delivered to the 8th Battalion,
King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry— which would suffer 539 casualties on the first day — included:
:"When you go over the top, you can slope arms, light up your pipes and cigarettes, and march all the way to
Pozièresbefore meeting any live Germans."
Though these flawed tactics have been blamed for the failures of the first day, they were not universally adhered to by the attacking divisions. It was left to the individual commanders to decide on the method to be used. Many units moved out into
no man's landbefore zero hour so that they could rush the German trenches as soon as the barrage lifted. Whether a particular unit's attack succeeded or failed depended not so much on the infantry tactics but on how well the wire had been cut, the intensity of the German defensive barrage in no man's land and whether or not the defenders could swiftly bring their machine guns into action.
Diversion at Gommecourt
British Third Armyof General Sir Edmund Allenby occupied the front-line to the north of Rawlinson's Fourth Army. The two armies met just south of the villages of Foncquevillers(British-held) and Gommecourt (German-held). At Gommecourt the German trenches curved around a chateauand its parkland, creating a salient that marked the most westerly point of German territory. General Haig instructed Allenby to mount a diversion to pin German forces to their trenches and attract artillery fire away from the main attack. The Third Army was also to capture Gommecourt thereby reducing the inconvenient salient.
The task fell to the VII Corps of
Lieutenant GeneralSir T. d'Oyly Snow. A gap of one mile (1.6 km) existed between the Gommecourt diversion and the northern edge of the main attack and preparations were made as obvious as possible in an effort to distract German attention away from the Fourth Army but this only made the task of VII Corps all the more difficult. The plan called for a pincer movement, pinching out the base of the salient and capturing the garrison in a pocket. The northern pincer was the 46th (North Midland) Division and the southern pincer was the 56th (1/1st London) Division, both Territorial Forceunits.
The 56th Division had prepared jumping-off trenches in no man's land and when the attack commenced at 7.30am, progress was initially good. The first three German trenches were captured and a party pushed on towards the expected link-up point with the 46th Division, east of the village. Once a heavy German barrage descended on no man's land, it proved impossible for reinforcements to reach the captured positions or for a trench to be dug to form a defensive flank to the south. Finally the survivors were forced to withdraw.
In contrast the 46th Division's attack started badly and got worse. The German wire was uncut (the ground was littered with dud mortar shells) and the smoke that was meant to aid the British only managed to hinder them. Furthermore the ground on this sector was particularly wet and muddy, making movement difficult. A few groups made it to the German trenches but not in sufficient numbers to hold them. The division's commander,
Major GeneralE.J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, was sacked for the failure.
erre & Beaumont Hamel
The northern flank of the Fourth Army's sector was held by Lt.Gen.
Aylmer Hunter-Weston's VIII Corps. Three divisions of VIII Corps would attack on the first day while the fourth, the 48th (South Midland) Division, was holding the one-mile (1.6 km) gap between the Third and Fourth Armies.
The 31st Division had the job of forming the defensive flank of the Fourth Army. This involved driving east to capture the village of Serre and then turning north and consolidating. The 31st was the quintessential New Army division, made up entirely of
Pals battalions such as the Accrington Pals. Small groups reached Serre village and another party penetrated 1¼ miles but by the end of the day they had been killed or captured and the division was back at its start line, having suffered 3,600 casualties.
The 4th Division attacked between the Serre and
Beaumont Hameland managed to capture the German strongpoint known as Quadrilateral Redoubt. However as this proved to be the only gain on this sector it was subjected to intense German counter-attacks and the position was abandoned on the morning of 2 Julyby which time the division had suffered 4,700 casualties.
The 29th Division, which had served with distinction at Gallipoli, attacked towards Beaumont Hamel. Part of the division's attack was captured on film by
Geoffrey Malinsand has since provided some of the most enduring images of the war, including the detonation of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubtwhich was blown at 7.20am. The British failed to completely seize the mine crater and the explosion alerted the defenders such that when the attack commenced, the infantry were mown down in no man's land without even reaching the German wire.
Another attempt was made mid-morning by two battalions from the 88th Brigade including the 1st
Newfoundland Regiment. The Newfoundlanders, completely unsupported and attacking from the reserve line because the communications trenches were blocked, took casualties from the start but most were killed as they tried to file through the gaps in the British wire. The battalion suffered 684 casualties, 91% of its strength and the second worst battalion loss of the first day.
The only significant first day success on the northern sector was made by the northern Irishmen of the 36th (Ulster) Division, attacking between the Ancre and
Thiepvalagainst a position known as the Schwaben Redoubt.
Ignoring the recommended tactics, the infantry had crawled into no man's land before zero hour and, with the aid of an effective smoke screen, were able to rush the German frontline when the barrage lifted. The advance briefly reached the German second line at
Stuff Redoubt. However, once the German barrage descended on no man's land it was impossible to reinforce the captured position and, as the attacks on either side had failed, the men were subjected to counter-attacks from three directions. Having held out all day, the survivors retired in the evening.
Thiepval village, and the
Leipzig Salientto its south, were attacked by the 32nd Division. Thiepval was a fortress that would haunt the British for most of the Somme fighting and the assault on the first day was an utter failure. Leipzig Salient was the one enduring success on the northern sector. Captured by the Glasgow CommercialsPals battalion, who had also crawled within convert|40|yd|m of the German frontline before zero hour, it was held against German counter-attacks.
Ovillers & La Boisselle
The villages of
Ovillersand La Boisselleflanked the Albert-Bapaume road and marked the centre of the Fourth Army's front. It was here that the Reserve Army cavalrywould advance if a breakthrough was achieved.
The 8th Division, attacking Ovillers, had to cross the convert|750|yd|m of no man's land and advance up
Mash Valleywhich was a veritable killing ground. Despite the almost impossible task, the brigades did temporarily penetrate as far as the third trench of the German front-line system, and a small group did manage to capture a section of the German front-line trench and hold out until after 9am, but by midday the attack had failed.
Attacking along the axis of the Albert-Bapaume road was the 34th Division which was aided by the blowing of the two largest mines on either side of La Boisselle. South of the village, some infantry from the
Grimsby Chumsgot into the Lochnager minecrater where they were pinned down. The Tyneside Scottish Brigadeattacked up Mash Valley and against La Boisselle itself, on a sector known as the Glory Hole.
Tyneside Irish Brigadewas the reserve brigade whose task was to follow through and capture the secondary objectives of Contalmaisonand Pozières. At zero hour the brigade started its advance from the reserve position known as the Tara-Usna Lineand had to advance one mile (1.6 km) over open ground before they even reached the British front-line. They were machine-gunned all the way but amazingly a small group, 50 men or so, made it all the way up Sausage Valley, south of La Boisselle and almost to the edge of Contalmaison. The survivors were captured but they had the distinction of making the furthest advance of the day, about convert|4000|yd|m.
The 34th Division, by committing all three of its brigades to the attack on one of the toughest objectives, suffered the worst casualties of any division on the day; 6,380 men killed, wounded or captured. This figure exceeded the next worst loss, that of the 29th Division, by over 1,000 men. So badly devastated were the Tyneside brigades that they were withdrawn from the division until late August, replaced by brigades of the 37th Division.
Fricourt, Mametz & Montauban
The fortified village of
Fricourtlay in a bend in the front-line where it turned eastwards for two miles (3 km) before swinging south again to the Somme River. If the attacks by XV Corps on either side of Fricourt reached their objectives, the village would be isolated in a pocket so it was deemed unnecessary to make a frontal assault.
The 21st Division advanced to the north of Fricourt. In an effort to protect the infantry from
enfiladefire from the village, three mines, collectively known as the Triple Tambour mines, were blown beneath the Tambour salient on the northern edge of the village. The sole purpose of these mines was to raise a protective "lip" of earth that would obscure the view from the village but the benefit was minimal.
The 21st made some progress and penetrated to the rear of Fricourt. The 50th Brigade of the 17th (Northern) Division held the front-line opposite the village. One battalion of this brigade, the 10th
West Yorkshire Regiment, was required to advance close by Fricourt and suffered 710 casualties, the worst battalion losses of the day. A Company from the 7th Green Howardsmade an unplanned attack directly against the village and was annihilated. The battalion commander later said:
:"I got a message to say that A Company on the right had assaulted at 8.20. ... I could only account for this by supposing that the company commander had gone mad."
East of Fricourt, the village of Mametz was captured by the 7th Division though the line of objectives beyond the village were not reached. The loss of Mametz made the German position in Fricourt precarious so the garrison was withdrawn during the night and a patrol from the 17th Division took possession of the village early on
The southern flank of the British line was held by XIII Corps whose objective was the village of Montauban. The two assault divisions — the 18th (Eastern) and 30th Division, both New Army formations — seized all their objectives at the cost of over 3,000 casualties each.
There were a number of reasons for the success on the southern flank. The 18th Division, despite being New Army, was impeccably trained by Maj.Gen.
Ivor Maxse, widely regarded as one of the finest British generals of the war. The German defences in the south were not as formidable as those north of the Albert-Bapaume road and lacked the terrain advantages. The British were also aided by support from the superior artillery of the neighbouring French army.
Unlike their British comrades, the French divisions enjoyed complete success on the first day, even surpassing their objectives in places south of the
Somme River. The French possessed overwhelming superiority in artillery with 84 heavy batteries to Germany's eight on this sector. They were also aided by a river mist which obscured the early stages of the battle.
North of the Somme, the
French XX Corpshad attacked with the British at 7.30am. Progress was good though not without difficulties; it took two attempts for the village of Curluon the Somme to be seized and the Germans resisted stubbornly in Faviere Wood. The French were only restrained from advancing further because the British had halted on their objectives around Montauban.
South of the river the
French I Colonial Corpsand XXXV Corps attacked two hours after the main attack which granted them the benefit of surprise. In the centre the French pushed beyond their objectives and got close to the German second position. Over 4,000 German prisoners were taken while French casualties were relatively light by the standard of the day.
As night fell — and there were only six hours of darkness in July — many survivors began to make their way back to the British trenches and stretcher-bearers went out in search of the wounded. Some bearers continued to operate the following day, despite the risks. Two
Victoria Crosses were awarded to Robert Quiggand Geoffrey Cather(posthumously) for recovering the wounded. Even Maj.-Gen. Ingouville-Williams, commander of the 34th Division, participated in the search. Some of the wounded survived for up to a week in no man's land before being rescued.
The reaction of the Germans to the British attempts to recover the wounded varied from place to place. On
5 Julyat Beaumont Hameltwo British medical officers approached the German trenches under a Red Crossflag and arranged an informal truce with their opposite number which lasted until the remaining wounded had been brought in. Elsewhere no such mercy was shown and anyone moving in no man's land was fired on.
The British Army's hospital system failed badly on 1 July. Prior to the battle General Rawlinson, preparing for the worst, had requested 18 ambulance trains to be provided to evacuate the wounded throughout the day. He was assured by the Quartermaster General, Lt.Gen.
R.C. Maxwell, that the needs of the Fourth Army would be met. However, only three trains stood by during the day and these departed, partly filled, before the bulk of the wounded had been brought to the Casualty Clearing Stations, which only had collective capacity for 9,500 cases. Consequently many wounded were left untended in the open. It was not until 4 Julythat the Fourth Army's medical services were brought under control. Such was the strain on the system that some of the wounded reached hospitals in England still wearing their original field dressings.
Due to the primitive battlefield communications, the extent of the catastrophe that befell the British Army on 1 July was not immediately known to the generals. At 7.30pm Rawlinson figured his casualties at 16,000. The figure rose to 40,000 by
3 Julyand the final tally of 60,000 was not determined until 6 July(though exact figures were not reached for some time).
As an example of how far from reality the limited information reaching the headquarters was, on the evening of 1 July, General Haig wrote in his diary:
:"North of the Ancre, VIII Corps said they began well, but as the day progressed, their troops were forced back in to the German front line, except two battalions which occupied Serre Village, and were, it is said, cut off. I am inclined to believe from further reports that few of VIII Corps left their trenches."
VIII Corps had indeed left their trenches and over 14,000 men had become casualties. This statement of Haig's has been used repeatedly to portray him as being callous and indifferent to the plight of the soldiers under his command, though at the time he could only make an assessment based on the information given to him.
The following were awarded the
Victoria Cross(VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces, for deeds on 1 July 1916.
Eric Norman Frankland Bell, 9th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliersat Thiepval
Geoffrey St. George Shillington Cather, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliersat Hamel
John Leslie Green, Royal Army Medical Corps(att'd 1/5th Bn Sherwood Foresters) at Foncquevillers
Stewart Walter Loudoun-Shand, 10th Battalion Alexandra, Princess of Wales's Own (Yorkshire Regiment) at Fricourt
William Frederick McFadzean, 14th Battalion Royal Irish Riflesat Thiepval Wood
Robert Quigg, 12th Battalion Royal Irish Riflesat Hamel
Walter Potter Ritchie, 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders (Ross-shire Buffs, Duke of Albany's) at Beaumont Hamel
* George Sanders, 1/7th Battalion
West Yorkshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales's Own)at Thiepval
James Youll Turnbull, 17th Battalion Highland Light Infantryat Authuille
* "The First Day on the Somme",
Martin Middlebrook, 1971, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-139071-9
* "Somme 1 July 1916: Tragedy and Triumph", Andrew Robertshaw, 2006, Campaign Series #169,
Osprey Publishing, ISBN 1-84603-038-2
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