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Webmatters : The First Battle of the Somme: 1916
Rough Map of Area

The Somme

July – November 1916

The Thiepval Memorial

The Thiepval Memorial

Just to the north of Albert lie the main battlefields of the Somme.

Driving north-east from Albert towards Bapaume along the intended line of advance, the memorial at Thiepval is easily visible on the left.

The road is marked with a number of signs showing the extent of the advance and a number of monuments and memorials adorn its route.

The British never did reach Bapaume that year.

On the morning of 1st July 1916 the allied guns poured 250,000 shells into the German lines within the space of an hour. Famously reported, the barrage (which had been going on for a week) is said to have been so loud that it could be heard on Hampstead Heath in London.

At 0728 hours ten mines were detonated along the front and within minutes the British and French troops began their attack along a 40km wide front.

The French presence (usually forgotten or ignored) had been greatly diluted by their involvement in the fight for Verdun but nevertheless they would greatly assist the British in their southern sector.

Poppies are thrown in every 1st July

Poppies are thrown in every 1st July

One of the more easily visited craters is the Lochnagar crater at La Boisselle on the opposite side of the Albert – Bapaume Road from Thiepval.

It is sign posted as La Grande Mine. It was created by over 60,000 lbs (27 tonnes) of explosives and was one of the largest on the Western Front, the shock wave being felt for huge distances.

What had not been foreseen was the fact that the Germans in their deep dug-outs and armoured emplacements had hardly been touched by the bombardment. They knew that it was the prelude to a grand offensive and although physically reasonably safe, mentally they wanted the shelling to stop and the battle to begin so that they could repay in kind for their suffering. As the British advanced they were met with murderous fire from the German machine gunners.

Soldiers at the time carried an enormous amount of equipment as they advanced: rifle, ammunition, grenades, empty sandbags, pick or shovel, rations and water bottle plus mess tin, steel helmet, gas masks, a pair of goggles, and a waterproof cape in case it rained!

Explaining the kit carried by a Tommy

The Ulster Tower: Explaining the kit carried by a Tommy

Between the weight of equipment and the shell torn ground over which they had to advance, rapid movement as we see in modern adventure films was made almost impossible – but in places along the line it did happen.

In many cases the advancing line had been forced to negotiate narrow gaps in their own barbed wire and where these gaps had been spotted by the Germans their machine gunners were finding targets with consummate ease. The deliberate slog across no-man’s land by many of the untested men of Kitchener’s New Army also increased the casualty rate.

The cost of this first day’s attack was the greatest during the entire war, with 21,000 killed and 40,000 wounded.

It was the worst disaster ever to befall the British Army. In comparison the French lost approximately 27,000 dead on the 22nd August 1914 in the prelude to the Battle of Mons.

 

The theory behind the plan

The initial plan had been to reach Peronne and Bapaume on the first day. A distance of about 16km (10 miles). The reality of the first day was a partial advance in places of about 300m.

This for the men of the 36th (Ulster) Division was the equivalent of marching from Armagh to Portadown, but only managing the length of the Mall, whilst the ill fated Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out within 30 minutes.

The detonation of the Hawthorn Mine was responsible for the entire attack by the 29th Division crumbling. The famous war film showing men of the Lancashire Fusiliers in the Sunken Road behind Hawthorn Ridge, unwittingly recorded men who were going to suffer heavy casualties rather than sweep the field.

Astride the main Albert to Bapaume Road, troops were trying to capture the fortified villages of Ovillers on the left, and La Boisselle just to the right. Further on and situated along the ridge of the main road lies Pozières. It was to hold out for weeks and become a place of pilgrimage for future generations of Australians.

Elsewhere on the right of the main road the fighting was just as fierce, and soon names such as Mametz and Delville had become common knowledge to all.


 


The first day of the Somme marked the 132nd day of the Battle for Verdun in the east, and whilst failing to take the ground intended, the battle did succeed in keeping thousands of German soldiers away from Verdun.

A second battle rages in history as to whether the result was worth the cost in human life.