1 July 1916

There are few better symbols of desperate courage in the face of war’s futility than the experience of the British troops on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day, 1 July 1916, there were 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of them dead.

This was the worst day of losses in the history of the British army. Most of the men had been mown down by accurate machine-gun and rifle fire as they slowly made their way, weighed down by 30 kilograms (70 pounds) of equipment, across open ground towards the enemy lines. How soldiers could heave themselves out of their trenches and dugouts, already under a hail of bullets, and march off to their deaths still challenges the modern imagination, not least because a better-executed and more tactically adept assault might have left many of those men still alive at the end of the day.

A grim roll-call of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers, taken on the afternoon of 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, after the unit had attacked Beaumont Hamel during the morning. The battalion had suffered 163 deaths, including 7 officers, plus 323 wounded or missing.

The battle that took place north and south of the River Somme, between Gommecourt in the north and Dompierre in the south, was originally part of a general plan by the Allied powers – Britain, France, Russia and Italy – to undertake concerted offensives in 1916 against all enemy fronts.

The German attack on Verdun, which began in February 1916, changed the options in the West. Instead of a general Franco–British offensive, the French commander-in-chief, General Joseph Joffre, asked the British army, now commanded by General Douglas Haig, to make an early offensive to relieve the pressure on the French. The plan was agreed in a meeting at Amiens on 31 May.

The British 4th and 3rd Armies under Generals Henry Rawlinson and Edmund Allenby, with fourteen divisions and four in reserve, would attack the seven divisions of the German 2nd Army, commanded by General Fritz von Below. They would be supported by a more limited French offensive on the right of the British line using five divisions with six in reserve.

The German defence was composed of three trench lines, well embedded in the wooded and hilly countryside. The chief advantage enjoyed by the Allies in this sector was a superiority in air power (386 aircraft compared with the German 129) and in artillery (2,981 guns against 844). Even this would make little difference to the infantry, however. Their task was to capture the bombarded German lines and create the conditions for a possible breakthrough.

In recent years historians have been keen to show that the overall plan for the battle and the tactical instructions given to the front-line troops were considerably sounder than they seemed after the awful bloodletting of the first day. The problem was the gap between plan and reality. The battle began with a seven-day bombardment of the German lines, launching 12,000 tons of explosive. This already invited problems.

A high proportion of the British shells were shrapnel, which had little effect on troops dug deep into bunkers, and at least a quarter of the shells proved to be duds. French artillery fire further south proved to be more accurate and effective. Though the front trenches were pulverized in places, the dense barbed wire barricade was not completely cut, nor were the German troops’ firing platforms eliminated. Worse still, a message sent en clair from Rawlinson to his men on the night of the attack wishing them good luck was intercepted by the Germans so that any element of surprise was eliminated.

The soldiers who were ordered to clamber out of their trenches on the morning of 1 July were not supposed to be mown down in no-man’s land. The expectation was that the artillery barrage, the heaviest British barrage of the war so far, would have so disorientated the enemy that the infantry advance would seize the German trenches without difficulty.

The idea was to use artillery to creep ahead of the troops, who would then move on to the next objective before the enemy soldiers had had time to recover. None of this worked except in the south, where the Germans had fewer divisions and guns. Here the British divisions fighting alongside the French 6th Army made greater progress and the ‘creeping barrage’ worked more effectively.

The iconic images of British soldiers tramping across the killing-fields come from the main part of the British line, where infantry progress was so slow that the artillery barrage hit areas too far ahead, leaving the German troops plenty of opportunity to emerge from their trenches and foxholes, covered in mud and dirt, to man the machine guns. At 7.30 a.m. on 1 July, shortly after the explosion of massive mines laid below German positions by British engineers, officers blew their whistles to signal the advance. Men clambered over the parapets and into the field of fire.

The whole northern line of the battle was a disaster. A diversionary attack on Gommecourt in the far north with two divisions suffered appalling casualties and was back in the British lines again two hours later. The attack by the ‘Pals Division’, composed of brigades drawn from a particular city or area, soon became suicidal. The men were instructed to march in line and only to break and run at the enemy 18 metres (60 feet) from the trench.

According to all accounts, they kept a remarkable discipline even as the enemy artillery and machine guns swept the fields to leave a litter of shattered bodies and dying men. The attack uphill against the village of Serre proved impossible and the 31st Pals Division lost 3,600 men in the space of a few minutes. As each divisional attack failed, so the next division in line found its expected flank support evaporating, opening it up to a merciless fire. Somehow a handful of men made it through even to the German second trench line, but they were captured or killed in the attempt.

In the famous assault on Beaumont Hamel, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, the only Empire force committed that day, was a reserve force ordered forward from behind the British front line. So cluttered were the trenches that they were forced intothe open and were shot down even before they had left British lines. Somehow the survivors struggled forward across a no-man’s land already piled high with corpses and a handful reached the German trenches. The regiment was obliterated, suffering 91 per cent casualties.

The disastrous results of the first day on the Somme must have reminded Haig of the day, eighteen years before, when, as a young captain, he had watched the Mahdist forces at Omdurman surge relentlessly towards the British Maxim guns. Half the forces sent in on that first day on the Somme were casualties, and three out of every four officers. The German troops were also given a terrible taste of modern war.

The week-long artillery barrage was an experience likely to traumatize the hardiest soldier, and despite the ease with which infantry assaults were blunted, the cumulative effect was to impose more than 40,000 casualties on the German side in the first days of the offensive. The campaign went on for a further 150 days, leaving 620,000 Allied and 465,000 German casualties, a terrible bloodletting for a few kilometres of ground, though the campaign did ease the pressure on Verdun.

Attrition warfare made terrible demands of the men on both sides. The capacity to absorb that damage and not to crack was testament to a remarkable degree of social discipline and self-sacrifice among men, many of whom, only months before, had been civilians. Despite the claim of some historians that the battle eventually achieved its purpose, the first day of the Somme was, as one eyewitness called it, ‘monotonous, mutual mass murder’. Another eyewitness, the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, caught the spirit of brave resignation that animated many soldiers that day in a poem written on 3 July, shortly before he was wounded: ‘Crouched among thistle tufts I’ve watched the glow/ Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;/ And I’m content. To-morrow we must go/To take some curséd Wood…’