In the spring of 1993 I undertook a cycle journey to the city of Santiago de Compostela in North Western Spain. After landing at Zeebrugge in Belgium I cycled the few miles to the seaside town of Nieuport where I turned my wheels to the west, unbeknown to me I had then been on the line of the old Western Front. For the next couple of days the route, from a cycling point of view was very boring. Across the well-cultivated flatness of Flanders and Northern there was very little to divert my thoughts [excepting the many war cemeteries]. It was not until I arrived in Department of the Somme in Northern France that there was any variation. In my diary I noted: ‘ cycling pleasant today, a few hills to tax me. The down hilling a welcome break from pedalling’. At the time the Battle of the Somme was obviously far from my thoughts and it had never occurred to me the terrible carnage there had been in that dreadful summer of 1916. The very hills that I had cycled up and over in a matter of minutes, the British Fourth and eventually Fifth Armies, fighting a German Army who were well emplaced behind forest’s of barbed wire twenty yards wide, in fact so thick that the sun could barely penetrate, would take months of the most dreadful slaughter, possibly of the whole war to cover the same distance.
The Somme is not only a Department of Northern France, there is also a river that bears the same name, it winds it’s way through Picardy to the English Channel at the Bay of the Somme. The German Army in this sector of the Western front in 1914 had halted at the Somme where they had for a short while occupied the small town of Albert until they had been driven out by French troops. Since those early days the Germans had settled down on the defensive, digging deep shell proof bunkers, fortifying villages until they were almost impregnable, and of course building the barbed wire barriers that the British Army would become to know so intimately. They had also built a network of interlinked and equally formidable machine gun positions, which would exact a terrible toll in the months to come, occupying the most advantageous positions on the high ground to the east. North of the river he ground rises to a broad irregular chalk ridge [Poiziers] some 400 to 500 feet high with outlying spurs and deep valleys. Running north eastwards the ridge is intersected by a ruler straight roman road connecting the towns of Albert and Bapaume. The ridge descends gradually to another river the Ancre, a northern tributary of the Somme, rising again to continue north westwards is a series of rolling hills
The area was, and still is intensely cultivated with groups of small villages with names like Fricourt, Mametz, Montauban, Thiepval, Beaumont Hamel, and Contalmaison, and then as now, scattered with clumps of trees which have names like Mametz, High, Delville, and Trones Wood’s that would become during the battle synonymous with the word, suffering.
The Somme, prior to the offensive of 1916 had been considered a quiet sector of the Western Front, the opposing German and French troops operating an unofficial ‘live and let live policy’ to the extent that troops from a British Brigade fresh from the Ypres sector and taking over trenches from a French Division were astonished to learn that it had suffered a mere seven casualties in as many months. Once in place the British were to put an end to the peaceful coexistence that had prevailed and began harassing the Germans at every opportunity with trench raids, sniping, and the shelling of their positions. The war in Ernest had arrived.
Basically, the initial idea of an offensive on the Somme had been put forward at a conference of the allied Commander in Chiefs at Chantilly in December 1915 by the French C in C, General Joseph ‘Papa’ Joffre. The campaign that he envisaged would involve a massive combined Franco- British offensive on the German positions over a front of fifty miles. The British C in C, General Sir Douglas Haigh however was not in favour of the French plan, preferring an offensive to the north in Flanders where he believed there was more profit to be made, whereas the open downland of Picardy was merely ground to be won, a territorial scalp as it were, but not one with any strategic significance.
The hopes of a massed Anglo-French offensive on the Somme were dashed in February 1916, when the Germans launched a heavy attack on the French at Verdun. The ensuing slaughter was to almost drain dry the manpower of the French Army as thousands upon thousands of men were thrown into the meat grinder. On the verge of collapse the French High Command sent out urgent pleas to the British to mount a campaign to relieve the stranglehold on the French city. The British could not of course ignore the pleas of her partner in the war, and the government was to send instructions to Haig to prepare his Army for battle on the Somme. It would be the first occasion in the war where Britain would shoulder a battle virtually alone. [The French 6th Army would be on the right of the British Fourth Army].
Haigh’s intention was that on the first day of the offensive, set for June 25th 1916 Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army should take the German front line defences from the village of Serre in the north to the village of Montauban in the south. In addition the attacking troops were to secure the German second position on the ridge stretching from the town of Pozieres to the river Ancre and on the slopes before the village of Miraumont. After that, if all went well, Haig hoped to break through the second position on the right, on the high ground between Pozieres and the Village of Ginchy. That might also in turn, facilitate the capture of the German third position in the Morval-Flers-Le Sars sector, uncovering the town of Bapaume and allowing the Reserve Army, under the command of Lieut General Sir Hubert Gough, to wheel northwards to roll up the German lines in the direction of the town of Arras. In addition, there would also be a diversionary attack by Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army in the direction of Gommecourt in the North.
As the generals pored over their maps and made their preparations for the forthcoming battle the Divisions of infantry who would bear the brunt of the battle began arriving. Some came from the Ypres sector to the north, others came directly from the ill fated campaign at Gallipoli which had recently closed down in an ignominious evacuation at the beginning of 1916, but the majority of the men earmarked for the attack on the first day would belong to the New Armies, Kitcheners men. Arriving from England directly from England, eager, but with very little training, and no battle experience whatsoever. The divisions continued to arrive until the whole area was saturated with troops, nothing like it had been seen before. Eighteen would be ready for the first day of the battle, each would contain roughly thirteen Battalions of infantry [about 13,000 men apiece], on the day Fourth Army would field 519, 324 men, most would be New Army men, there would be no Guards Regiments, Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, or Canadians, they would be held in reserve and would take their places in the subsequent one hundred and forty one days of bloodletting.
Behind the British lines the whole area was a scene of seething activity. The troops who would spearhead the attack were meticulously rehearsed in the part that they would play in the assault on a mock up of the battle zone, tapes marked the position of German trenches and notices represented redoubts and villages, sweating hour after hour, over and over again the men formed up, advanced and ‘captured’ German positions under the watchful eyes of senior officers.
There were also extra trenches to be dug to hold the great number of assaulting troops. These were dug at night, the soil and chalk spoil being bagged up and carried to the rear so as not to alert the Germans to what was going on. Light and regular gauge railways were laid to bring up ammunition, men, and stores. Huge stocks of ammunition, food, and fodder for horses were brought up and dumped as near the front as possible. Over 7,000 miles of telephone cable were buried, a poor water supply necessitating the laying of over a hundred miles of piping and the installation of over a hundred pumps. Field Hospitals were also set up to deal with the estimated 10,000 men a day casualty rate.
There was also great activity underground as tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers began the laborious and very often dangerous task of digging mineshafts towards the German strongpoints at ‘Y Sap’, and ‘Lochnagar’, near the village of La Boiselle in the north of the sector. Each would eventually be packed with Ammonal, [46,0000 and 60,000 lbs respectively]. Mines were also placed under the positions known as ‘The Triple Tambour’, near the village of Fricourt in the southern part of the sector, and ‘Maxse’s Casino Point’ between the villages of Mametz and Montauban. Between the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre [also in the northern sector] the Engineers also placed a 40,600 lb Ammonal mine under the ‘Hawthorne Ridge Redoubt’.
The success or failure of the offensive hinged on the cutting of the dense fields of enemy barbed wire and the destruction of their trenches and strongpoints. To achieve this Fourth Army were allocated nearly one thousand five hundred artillery guns [a hundred 75mm field guns were also loaned by the French Army] ranging from eighteen pounder field guns, who’s role was to smash the wire, to heavy howitzers who were to deal with the strongpoints etc. Standing almost wheel-to-wheel they would fire a staggering two million rounds [many of which would fail to explode and be still found to this day as dangerous as they were in 1916] in a terrific bombardment that would begin on the 24th of June and end on the 29th, the day of the assault.
With a tremendous roar the bombardment duly began at zero hour on the 24th of June 1916. The noise we can today only imagine, [at times the bombardment was to be heard across the channel in London] but an insight can be gathered from:
‘ Day and night the bombardment went on, and the next day, and the day after that, but still no attack took place. To those in the gun pits, the whole life seemed to merge into one clanging, clashing roar of sound. Covered with sweat and grime, the slaves of the gun toiled and laboured, ate, lay down and slept, and toiled and laboured again, to the roar and rush and scream of hundreds of hurrying shells. Their horizon was bounded by the vast and insatiable engine, which they continually fed. Their minds were numbed and deafened by the never ceasing clamour of their gods’. *1
Unknown to the British most of the opposing German Second Army were at that moment safely riding out the storm in deep underground bunkers impervious to all but the heaviest of shells, however the psychological effect of the bombardment must have been devastating. A soldier who was there wrote:
‘A culminating point was reached which was never again approached. What we experienced surpassed all previous conception. The enemy’s fire never ceased for an hour. It fell night and day on the front line and tore fearful gaps in the ranks of all the defenders. It fell on the approaches to the front line and made all movement to the front line hell. It fell on the rearward trenches and battery positions and smashed men and material in a manner never seen before or since. It repeatedly reached even the resting Battalions behind the front line and occasioned their terrible losses. Our artillery was powerless against it’
Due to heavy rainstorms during the week of the bombardment the offensive had been postponed until Saturday the first of July to allow the ground to dry, thereby prolonging the shelling by two days The culminating point mentioned above came in the early hours of the first with the firing of 250, 000 rounds of ammunition. At 7-30am the bombardment abruptly ended. There followed soon after the ear splitting roar of the mines ‘going up’. Probably the most famous of the mines, the one under Hawthorne Ridge, was filmed by Army cameraman Geoffrey Malins, who later recorded:
‘Then it happened, the ground where I stood gave a mighty convulsion, it rocked and swayed, I gripped hold of my tripod to steady myself. Then for all the world like a gigantic sponge the earth rose in the air to the height of hundreds of feet. Higher and higher it rose, and with a horrible grinding roar the earth fell back upon itself leaving in it’s place a mountain of smoke’…
There followed a great silence, the survivors would later recall what a beautiful day the first had been, they would remember the singing of birds as they skittered over the trench parapets, and of a cloudless sky, and also the sun glinting off thousands of bayonets.
The men waiting to ‘go over the top’ were clad in fighting order, steel helmet, rifle and bayonet, entrenching tool, and a haversack on their backs, in addition they were carrying 200 rounds of ammunition, two empty sandbags two gas helmets, wire cutters, enough rations for two days and two grenades, all in all a combined weight of around 66 lbs, making it difficult to get out of the trench and impossible to move in anything faster than a slow walk. In any case this would not matter, they had been told that nothing could have survived the bombardment and it would be only a matter of ‘mopping up’ in the wake of it. Their officers had told them to take their time, ‘light up your pipes if you wish’. Some of the troops had also been issued with footballs to dribble across ‘no man’s land’.
Unfortunately the ‘Tommies’ had been lulled into a false sense of euphoria, in most places the wire in front of the German positions remained as impregnable as ever. Historians now say that the 1,547guns on a 15-mile front was far from adequate for the task, and furthermore the majority of the guns tasked with destroying the wire had been using shrapnel rounds instead of the more appropriate high explosive. Noted historian John Keegan goes so far as to suggest that it would have taken ‘several small nuclear devices to achieve what Rawlinson had expected his artillery to achieve’.
At zero hour [7-30am] on Saturday July 1st 1916, whistles blew all along the British line to signal the beginning of the offensive. 60,000 men, the first wave of the attack rose ungainly from their starting points and began to walk out into no-man’s land.