First Day Somme Part I



On 1 July 1916 the barrage swelled up to a crescendo at 06.30 and the men got ready to advance across No Man’s Land. This is the moment that has come to symbolise the whole of the Great War. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ school see it as a savage indictment of the stupidity of British generals; the long lines of overburdened men stumbling towards the German machine guns are painted as victims, dying for no reason. However, it is crucial to dispel this myth. The British generals’ tactics were the best that could have been conceived at the time given a vibrant German defence that incorporated all the lessons from the fighting of 1915. This would only become truly apparent when the British troops emerged from their trenches at 07.30.

The attack was a disaster. On the left and in the centre of the Allied advance the artillery had not achieved its objectives. The wire was not always cut. The German trenches, although battered, were still functioning as defence works; their machine gun posts and artillery batteries had survived; their systems of command and control, although disrupted, were not shattered. It was a fully functioning German defence system that awaited the British assault. The experience of Lieutenant William Colyer and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers was not untypical.

Here goes. I clamber out of the front of the deep trench by the scaling ladder, and face my platoon. I am smoking a cigarette and superficially am serene and cheerful – at least, I hope I appear so. As I give the order to advance a sudden thought occurs to me: will they all obey? This is instantly answered in the affirmative, for they all climb out of the trench, and the advance begins. We are on top of the ridge and under direct fire. I am trying not to mind it, but it is impossible. I am wondering unpleasantly whether I shall be killed outright or whether I shall be wounded; and if the latter, which part of me will be hit. A traversing machine gun rips up the ground just in front of us. That’s enough for me; we can’t remain in this formation. ‘Extend by sections!’ I shout. The men carry out the movement well. The Bosche artillery and machine guns are terrific. The anticipation of being hit has become so agonising that I can scarcely bear it; I almost wish to God I could be hit and have done with it. I have lost some of my men. I feel an overwhelming desire to swear, to blaspheme, to shout out the wickedest oaths I can think of, but I am much too inarticulate to do anything of the kind. A shell bursts near and I feel the hot blast. It seems to me this is a ghastly failure already. A trench runs diagonally across our path. Half of my remaining men are already in it. My whole being cries out in protest against this ordeal. I am streaming with perspiration. I think I shall go mad. I am in the trench, trying to collect the rest of the men together. Where the devil have they all got to?

Lieutenant William Colyer, 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers

All along the line the moment of decision had come for the German front line garrison troops. Rushing headlong from their dugouts they began to avenge their last few days in hell. Corporal Otto Lais of the 169th Infantry Regiment was facing the ‘Pals’ Battalions of the 31st Division as they made their ill-fated attack on the village of Serre.

Wild firing slammed into the masses of the enemy. All around us was the rushing, whistling and roaring of a storm a hurricane, as the destructive British shells rushed towards our artillery which was firing courageously, our reserves and our rear areas. Throughout all this racket, this rumbling, growling, bursting, cracking and wild banging and crashing of small arms, could be heard the heavy, hard and regular ‘Tack! Tack!’ of the machine guns. That one tiring slower, this other with a faster rhythm – it was the precision work of fine material and skill and both were playing a gruesome tune to the enemy.

Corporal Otto Lais, 169th Infantry Regiment

It became an utter slaughter. His men had to change the worn-out machine gun barrels again and again. They also ran out of cooling water and had to resort to urine to refill the water jacket. But the guns were kept firing and he noted that one gun fired some 20,000 rounds in the course of that awful day.

In a sense the story of 1 July has been inverted. This was not a tale of incompetence by the British, but rather a reflection on the strength of the German defences, coupled with the malleable resilience of their soldiers. Where the British over-ran their front line system, the Germans just moved smoothly into the next phase of their defensive plans: robust counter-attacks pressed home diligently, covered by a barrage that cut off the attacking British troops from reinforcements and then gradually eradicated these enclaves in the German lines. Even when the British tried something different, harvesting the incredible sustained effort of their Tunnelling Companies in laying deep mines under the German front, success was not guaranteed. This was best illustrated in the attack on the La Boisselle Salient. A pincer attack had been planned based on the Y Sap containing 40,600 pounds of explosives on the north flank and to the south the Lochnagar containing 60,000 pounds of explosives under the Schwaben Redoubt. It had seemed a good plan – the mines tore gaping craters in the ground – but the effect was far too localised. The surrounding barrages had not removed the threat of the German machine guns and artillery. When the Tynesiders of the 34th Division attacked, they were ravaged.

Silently our machine guns and the infantrymen waited until our opponents came closer. Then, when they were only a few metres from the trenches, the serried ranks of the enemy were sprayed with a hurricane of defensive fire from the machine guns and the aimed fire of the individual riflemen. Standing exposed on the parapet, some individuals hurled hand grenades at the enemy who had taken cover to the front. Within moments it seemed as though the battle had died away completely. But then, initially in small groups, but later in huge masses, the enemy began to pull back, until finally it seemed as though every man in the entire field was attempting to flee back to his jumping-off point.

Senior Lieutenant Kienitz, Machine Gun Company, 110th Reserve Infantry Regiment

This was a true massacre of the innocents.

Further south, the situation was more mixed as British troops attacked the fortress villages of Fricourt and Mametz on two of the spurs running down from the higher ground of the Pozières Plateau. Here the German artillery had been better targeted and, to some extent, silenced. The attacking troops were supported by a series of small mines being detonated and also covered by a creeping barrage with the wall of shells edging forward at a rate of fifty yards per minute. However, the barrage was too thin to have the required suppressing effect. Only in the far south of the British line was there any real success. Here the configuration of the line was such that the Maricourt Ridge behind the British lines provided good observation over the German lines and at the same time shelter for the massed guns of the Royal Artillery augmented by a deadly fire from the more experienced neighbouring French batteries. Acting in concert they achieved an artillery domination that eradicated the German batteries. Not only was the German artillery silenced, but the wire was cut, their trenches badly battered and the German garrison was caught sheltering for too long inside its dugout, leaving little or nothing that could seriously threaten the British troops as they crossed No Man’s Land. Here, too, mines and another early version of the creeping barrage were employed. As a result, the troops soon captured the village of Montauban. When the Germans tried to counter-attack the British guns came into their own again, pouring down an effective defensive barrage of shells to bar their way.

South of the British, the French attack was launched on both sides of the River Somme by their Sixth Army under the command of General Émile Fayolle. The Germans were not expecting an assault here and had thinned out their troops, but the French also had the inestimable advantage of copious experience of offensive action over the last eighteen months, in contrast to the callow British troops. In particular the French artillery was a truly lethal beast which ruthlessly targeted and then silenced the German batteries. In the last hours before the attack the German gun positions were deluged by a combination of gas and high explosive shells designed to suppress their ability to return fire when the moment arrived – another inkling of a future when suppression would become much more important than destruction.

The French were able to deploy a far greater proportion of heavy guns than the British, which meant that the destructive force of their shells was magnified accordingly. The German guns were soon put out of action or rendered incapable of firing, leaving their infantry to resist as best they could from their smashed trenches and dugouts. Many of the dreaded machine guns were out of action well before the French infantry emerged. The French had also delayed their start time of 09.30, which had confused the defenders, who were well aware that the assault north of the river had already begun. The French infantry were by this time possessed of a collective experience that greatly advantaged them in comparison to the British.

Our artillery preparation was wonderful. It completely destroyed the German defences and our assault waves managed to cross the lines without much resistance. Only an enemy counter-barrage claimed a few victims. As soon as the first wave had set off, we advanced over the heavily cratered ground, ready to help out those in front. The enemy continued to send over a heavy barrage so we dug in when we reached the outskirts of Fay to avoid taking too many casualties. The shells fell very close by, but we were right at the bottom of our trench and they didn’t touch us.

Joseph Foy, 265th Infantry Regiment

The French infantry smashed through the German front lines and soon over-ran the villages of Frise, Dompierre, Becquincourt and Fay, before pushing on to Herbécourt and Assevillers by the late afternoon. Here they were hit by vicious counter-attacks which for the moment stemmed the tide. Aware that the British were falling behind, the French paused. By the time they were ready to resume the offensive the Germans had reinforced their positions and the Somme had become as hard a slog for the French as it was for the British.

The pattern of the fighting on 1 July appears clear enough from our perspective, but the breakdown in communications on the day was such that few of the senior British generals had much idea of what was happening to their troops. Certainly, the briefings forwarded on to Haig lacked both detail and accuracy – yet he had to make an almost immediate decision as to what do next. In essence he had two choices: reinforce success in the south where, for all their achievement, the Germans’ Second Line System on Bazentin Ridge still lay ahead, or make a second attempt to storm up on to the more significant tactical objective on Pozières Plateau, Thiepval Spur and Redan Ridge in the north. What Haig did not know was the scale of the disaster that had befallen the Fourth Army, which had suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were dead. It is this inconceivable loss that can cloud our judgement in assessing the fighting on 1 July.

The British tactics were not ill-considered, but they proved inadequate to cope with the augmented strength of the German defences. The millions of shells expended in the bombardment might have been sufficient to deal with the German defences at Neuve Chapelle, or even Loos in 1915, but that was last year. The new German concrete reinforced deep dugouts proved resistant to all but the very heaviest shells – and heavy artillery was still in short supply. Also, many of the shells failed to explode. This was not surprising given the rapid expansion of British munitions factories in order to meet demand, with a commensurate reduction in quality control standards. But most of all the bombardment was fatally diluted in the attempt to attack on a wide front while at the same time reaching back to cover the German Second Line System as well as the series of lines and redoubts that made up the Front Line System. The risk, as at Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos, was that in being ambitious one risked catastrophe.

Yet there was no question of abandoning the offensive. To abandon that was to abandon France. The French likely reaction to any backsliding can be judged from the strongly expressed views of Joffre when he met Haig on 3 July. Joffre considered that the value of the high ground in the north far outweighed the likelihood of further savage casualty lists. In this he may well have been right: the Germans themselves certainly knew the importance of the Schwaben Redoubt behind the Thiepral front lines.

The Scbwaben Redoubt was a point of decisive importance. If the enemy succeeded in establishing himself here on a long term basis, not only would the whole position of the 26th Reserve Division on the southern bank of the Ancre have been extraordinarily endangered, but also the entire operational viability of the divisional artillery on the northern bank would have been called into question, because from the Redoubt all the batteries there would have been in full view.

Captain Herbert von Wurmb, 8th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment


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