The Battle of the Somme and especially its first day – July 1st, 1916 – has long been a byword for military incompetence and senseless slaughter. By the end of that day, the British Army had suffered 58,000 casualties for very small gains.
This is, however, far from the whole story.
On July 1st 1916, 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops attacked German positions along a 17-mile-wide front north of the River Somme. South of the river the assault was continued by the French Army. Great things were expected; a week-long barrage by 1,500 guns had fired 1.5 million shells and it was expected that minimal opposition would be encountered, enemy trenches having been destroyed and the barbed wire cut. Instead, the troops leaving their trenches advanced into a storm of machine gun and artillery fire and found, in many places, the wire still intact.
At Authuille Wood, the Dorset’s 1st Battalion suffered huge casualties even before reaching the British front line and at Ovillers 2nd Devons were decimated in an attempt to advance up “Sausage Valley”.
Further south at Mametz, 8th and 9th Devons were cut to pieces by fire from an enemy machine gun in a position known as Shrine Alley, an event tragically predicted by one of the Company Commanders, Captain Duncan Martin.
July 1st 1916 had been the worst day in the history of the British Army.
The Somme – after the First Day.
Following the disaster of July 1st, efforts were concentrated on the southern part of the battlefield, where some progress had been made; artillery was used in heavier concentrations and new techniques were brought into play, including the “walking barrage”, a lightning bombardment that advanced before the attacking troops.
As the summer wore on, British troops were drawn into the “Battle of the Woods”, desperate fighting, particularly around High and Delville Woods. At High Wood, Pte. Theodore Veale of 8th Devons won the Regiment’s second Victoria Cross.
At Mouquet Farm – Mucky Farm – 5th Dorsets, Gallipoli veterans amongst them, fought a desperate struggle to wrest the shattered remains of the farm buildings from a determined enemy.
As the battle wore on into the autumn, new weapons and tactics were introduced; better use of aircraft, improved battlefield communications and the first use of tanks on September 15th near Flers.
As the British Army gained ground, so the realisation grew in the German Army that this was a battle that could not be won.
“The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army, dug by British industry. The soldier’s trust of the infallibility of the General Staff was broken”.
Hauptmann von Hentig
Imperial German General Staff.