On this day, 1916, hellfire rained down upon the fields of the Somme as one of the most devastating battles in history began.
For many, the Battle of the Somme perfectly encapsulates the horror and futility of the First World War; visceral bloodshed and industrialised violence.
By the time the Battle of the Somme drew to a close in November 1916, more than three million men fought in the protracted struggle, with one million men wounded or killed.
To this day, the Somme remains one of the deadliest battles in human history.
A swift resolution
In the year previous, French and British military planners formulated plans for an offensive on the Somme. The offensive had sought to break German resistance, hasten an Allied victory on the Western Front and formed part of a wider effort to combat the Central Powers.
French, British, Russian and Italian forces would all play a key role in pushing Germany and its allies to breaking point in 1916, and much rested on success at the Somme.
Initially, the plan would see the French Army bear much of the brunt at the Somme, with the British Fourth Army holding the line on France’s northern flank.
Then Verdun happened.
In February 1916, the Battle of Verdun on the Meuse erupted, drawing away French men and matériel. Naturally, French military planners rediverted resources to combat the German offensive.
Following this, the role of the British Army changed rapidly. British troops now formed the core of the offensive at the Somme, and it was a different army to that which had previously gone toe-to-toe with German troops.
The British Army of 1916 was somewhat of a hybrid army, comprised of the pre-war army – which some would argue was the finest British Army ever fielded – and newer elements. By this point in the war, we see many Territorial troops and a surge of volunteer soldiers thanks to Lord Kitchener’s rallying of the British public.
Many units that would fight at the Somme were ‘pals battalions’ comprised of volunteers from towns and cities across the country. Men who volunteered to fight would do so alongside their neighbours, colleagues, and fellow townsfolk.
The impact this had on communities the length and breadth of Britain cannot be understated.
Read on to learn more about pals battalions.
The quiet before the storm
In the days preceding the offensive, a monstrous artillery barrage pounded German positions, turning the earth into a putrid, lead-riddled stramash. This awe-inspiring show of force saw more than 1.7 million shells fired over week-long period.
On the morning of battle, ten mines were detonated under the German positions, producing a cataclysmic roar and devastating the surrounding landscape. The scars these mines produced can still be seen today.
Much of the initial artillery barrage was meant to damage and destroy German defensive positions and fortifications. The formidable web of barbed wire protecting German positions would also have to be destroyed if attacking British troops were to succeed.
Over the top
As morning broke on 1st July, a truly remarkable mass of men began advancing along a front more than 15 miles long. 11 divisions of the British 4th Army advanced while their French counterparts advanced along an eight-mile front to the south.
Drawing nearer the German lines, British troops found that the artillery upon which they had so relied did little to help them. The week-long barrage had been largely ineffectual and failed to destroy barbed wire defences.
Additionally, the onslaught did little to displace or destroy German troops stationed at the front.
Hunkered down in underground bunkers, the German defenders stood firm. Having remerged and prepared for battle, German troops looked down range to see British soldiers floundering in a sea of barbed wire and mud.
The advancing Brits were savaged by relentless machinegun fire as they battled German fortifications.
A ghastly affair
The statistics from the first day of the Somme are almost unfathomable.
Britain sustained more than 57,000 casualties in total, with at least 19,000 of these killed in action. This makes the Battle of the Somme the single most devastating day in British military history – far surpassing anything before or since.
While the first day of the offensive had been visceral, there were limited successes. On the southern flanks both French and British troops made progress.
The weeks following would see more brutal fighting as the Allies desperately clambered to gain ground from the German defenders.
Smaller, isolated offensives on German positions piled pressure on the defenders, which did prompt military commanders to draw troops from Verdun and surrounding positions.
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By that measure, there had been some success. The losses, however, tell another tale.
A bloody, protracted war of attrition quickly unfolded at the Somme. For several months Allied troops bloodied the Germans and continued to sustain heavy losses. A mile gained here, a mile lost there. Senseless carnage.
An infamous incident at Flers Corcelette in September highlights the shocking price paid at the Somme.
A ferocious attack which sought to pierce through German lines saw tanks have a positive – albeit limited – impact on this occasion, providing advancing infantry with vital support. A glimpse of warfare to come.
British troops advanced little more than a mile and a half during this attack, and paid for that with 29,000 casualties.
Is there any price too high to pay when the future of a nation is on the line? This is one of many questions that the Somme – and indeed the entirety of the First World War – raised.
The Allies appeared willing to pay any price to break the Germans, who ordered a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March the following year.
Germany also lost a staggering number of men at the Somme. While exact figures are often disputed, Germany is believed to have sustained more than 460,000 casualties. It certainly seems they were willing to pay.
What both sides were left with, however, was utter devastation and a population traumatised for a generation. In Britain, military commanders bore the brunt of public disdain, with General Haig’s decision making still criticised to this day.
Earlier in this piece, I mentioned pals battalions and the impact these had on communities across the country.
As a means of encouraging men to volunteer, pals battalions worked exquisitely well. Many of these units were thrown into the deep end, however, and sustained heavy losses in battles throughout the First World War. At the Battle of the Somme, it was very much the same.
There are countless heartbreaking stories of pals battalions, but perhaps the one closest to my heart is McCrae’s Battalion.
Led by Sir George McCrae, a former Liberal MP for Edinburgh East, this pals battalion boasted some of the finest sportsmen of their time. Among the first volunteers for McCrae’s Battalion were eleven players from Heart of Midlothian Football Club, the club I support.
Alongside these players fought volunteers from across the city and surrounding areas. Footballers from other clubs, including Hibernian, Falkirk, and East Fife also volunteered to fight with supporters from all walks of life. In total, more than 1,300 men went to war.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, pals battalions from across the country were eviscerated, some times in a matter of minutes.
Pals battalions from London sustained at least 5,000 casualties while some 3,500 Manchester-based volunteers were cut down in the fighting.
Glasgow, Newcastle, Belfast, Birmingham, Leeds; all lost more than 1,000 men at the Somme.
Towns and cities across the country saw their young men killed or wounded in droves. McCrae’s Battalion lost 12 officers and 573 men, which amounted to more than three-quarters of its attacking strength.
Three footballers from Hearts fell on the 1st July; Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis. Another, Jimmy Boyd, was killed one month later.
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