Archive for July 2016

The Battle of the Somme, July-November 1916   1 comment

The 18th of November marks the hundredth anniversary of the end of the bloodiest battle in British military history. The Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July, has become the symbol of the war on the Western Front, with its imagery of massed ranks of inexperienced soldiers rising out of their trenches to be mowed down by machine guns or blown apart by artillery. Although intended to produce a decisive strike against the Germans, forcing a gap which British and French forces could drive through. More than being a single battle, it was a drawn-out war of attrition within the Great War, much like Verdun was for the French, which involved twelve separate battles:

Albert, 1-13 July

Bazentin Ridge, 14-17 July

Delville Wood, 15 July-3 September

Poziéres Ridge, 23 July-3 September

Guillemont, 3-6 September

Ginchy, 9 September

Flers-Courcelette, 15-22 September

Morval, 25-28 September

Thiepval Ridge, 26-28 September

Le Transloy, 1-18 October

Ancre Heights, 1 October-11 November

Ancre, 13-18 November

Preliminary Bombardment

The battle followed a preliminary artillery bombardment of the German trenches in which 1,732,873 shells were fired, of which thirty failed to explode.

Lochnagar & Y Sap

At 7.28 a.m. on the first day of the battle, the British detonated two large mines near the village of La Boisselle. The Lochnagar mine was the bigger of two (60,000 pounds of explosives against the 40,000 pounds in Y Sap) and it was reported by Royal Flying Corps pilot, Lieutenant Cecil A. Lewis, that the column of earth reached four thousand feet in height. Despite the force of these explosions, and the week-long bombardment beforehand, the Germans’ deeply dug defences and barbed wire were left mainly intact. They had heard the British tunnelling and moved their machine-gun positions accordingly.

Montauban and the Great European Cup

At the assault at Montauban, British Lieutenant Colonel Fairfax and Commandant Le Petit of the French Army advanced across no-man’s-land with their arms linked on their way to taking their objective. Fairfax survived the war despite being gassed later that month. Le Petit was wounded in August, but whether he survived the war is unknown. Captain Wilfred ‘Billie’ Nevill of the East Surrey Regiment began his company’s attack by kicking a football towards the German lines as they went over the top. The ball was marked The Great European Cup – East Surreys v Bavarians. Nevill was killed minutes into the attack. The day after the offensive began, a ‘semi-official statement’ was published in The Times:

The first day of the offensive is, therefore, very satisfactory. The success is not a thunderbolt, as what happened earlier in smaller operations, but it is important above all because it is rich in promise. It is no longer a question here of attempts to pierce as with a knife; it is rather a slow, continuous and methodical push, sparing in lives the day when the enemy’s resistance, incessantly hammered at, will crumble up at some point. From today the first results of the new tactics permit one to await developments with confidence.

The Pals’ Battalions

When the first ‘results’ came through, far from inspiring confidence among the British public, they undermined it. Many of those who had volunteered to join the British Army had done so as ‘pals’ from the same towns and cities. They fought and died together, often in large numbers, which had a devastating effect on their families and communities at home. Of the Leeds ‘Pals’ battalion on the first day, 248 were killed, 267 wounded and 181 were listed as missing. Only forty-seven emerged uninjured. In the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, 159 men were killed by a single machine-gun at Fricourt Wood. The number of British Army soldiers killed on the first day of the battle, 19,240, remains the the army’s highest death toll for a single day’s combat. Out of the 120,000 that launched the attack, almost half became casualties.

The Film, The Battle of the Somme

While the fighting was still taking place, an hour-long film called The Battle of the Somme,  showing scenes of the actual battle (with several staged sequences), was released in British cinemas. Over the first two months of its run, an estimated twenty million tickets were sold.

Fathers, sons and sweethearts

World-famous for his music-hall stage performances as the canny Scot, Harry Lauder wrote his most popular song, Keep Right on the the End of the Road as a tribute to his son John, who was among those killed in 1916. It later became the traditional song of Birmingham City Football Club, so I remember the words very well from the terraces:

Keep right on to the end of the road,

Keep right on to the end,

Though the way be long,

Let your hearts be strong,

Keep right on to the end.

Though you’re tired and weary,

Still carry on,

Till you come to your happy abode,

Where all you love,

And you’re dreaming of,

Will be there at the end of the road.

John Lauder’s fiancée, Mildred Thompson, never married and left her estate to the Erskine Hospital charity set up for injured service personnel in tribute.

Many fathers and sons fought alongside each other in Pals’ battalion or, like George Lee and his son Robert, served in the same artillery battery, were killed on the same day: 5th September, and were buried side by side in Dartmoor Cemetery. When the Battle of the Somme, the total casualties were:

British:    420,000

French:   200,000

German: 450,000

Captain von Hentig of the German General Staff summed up the view of the German Army:

The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army and of the faith in the infallibility of German leadership.



Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

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