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 Army when 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 infantry being 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 July marked 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 Middlebrook wrote 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.
The first day was unusual in that the British Army contingent 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 Bermuda and Newfoundland. (The South African Infantry Brigade and an Indian cavalry division 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 warfare to 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 road that ran straight from Albert in the west to Bapaume in the east. The Somme River ran east–west some 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 Army of General Marie Émile Fayolle. The southern-most French army on the Somme was the French Tenth Army of General Alfred Micheler which would play a small role in the battle. These two armies were part of the French Northern Army Group, commanded by General Ferdinand Foch from 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 Corps north 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 Army of 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 June the Russians launched the Brusilov Offensive and 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 wire and 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 Artois in 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 scandal of 1915, quality was poor and many shells failed to explode. Also the proportion of shrapnel to 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 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 mine north of the road and the Lochnager mine to the south. The other large mine was beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt near 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.
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:
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 land before 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.
The task fell to the VII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir 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 Force units.
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 General E.J. Montagu-Stuart-Wortley, was sacked for the failure.
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 Hamel and 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 July by 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 Malins and has since provided some of the most enduring images of the war, including the detonation of the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt which 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.
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 Salient to 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 Commercials Pals battalion, who had also crawled within of the German frontline before zero hour, it was held against German counter-attacks.
The villages of Ovillers and La Boisselle flanked the Albert-Bapaume road and marked the centre of the Fourth Army's front. It was here that the Reserve Army cavalry would advance if a breakthrough was achieved.
The 8th Division, attacking Ovillers, had to cross the of no man's land and advance up Mash Valley which 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 Chums got into the Lochnager mine crater where they were pinned down. The Tyneside Scottish Brigade attacked up Mash Valley and against La Boisselle itself, on a sector known as the Glory Hole.
The Tyneside Irish Brigade was the reserve brigade whose task was to follow through and capture the secondary objectives of Contalmaison and Pozières. At zero hour the brigade started its advance from the reserve position known as the Tara-Usna Line and 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 .
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.
The 21st Division advanced to the north of Fricourt. In an effort to protect the infantry from enfilade fire 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 Howards made an unplanned attack directly against the village and was annihilated. The battalion commander later said:
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 2 July.
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.
North of the Somme, the French XX Corps had attacked with the British at 7.30am. Progress was good though not without difficulties; it took two attempts for the village of Curlu on 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 Corps and 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.
The reaction of the Germans to the British attempts to recover the wounded varied from place to place. On 5 July at Beaumont Hamel two British medical officers approached the German trenches under a Red Cross flag 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 July that 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 July and 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:
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.