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War history: A baptism of fire – first day of the tragic failure that was the Battle of the Somme

09:56 23 June 2014

There is no substitute for walking over the ground and seeing the Somme for yourself.

There is no substitute for walking over the ground and seeing the Somme for yourself.

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Sunday, July 1, 1916 − a time of great losses as a well-laid plan failed spectacularly. Galloway’s resident military historian, Mike Peters on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

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The scale of losses can sometimes be difficult to comprehend; a visit to Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of The Somme is essential.The scale of losses can sometimes be difficult to comprehend; a visit to Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of The Somme is essential.

In my last column I compared the successful events of D-Day 1944 with the cataclysmic failure of the launch of the Somme offensive during the summer of 1916. Since the article went to print I have had a number of questions about the beginning of the battle and why British plans went so badly wrong. These are questions that Galloway’s battlefield guides are frequently asked when they take clients to the Somme.

Most readers will have heard of the Battle of the Somme and many will associate it with a senseless waste of life and perhaps even describe it as a tragic failure that symbolises all that was wrong with the British Army during the First World War. In fact, although there is no denying that the first day ended with the British attack shattered and only a few of the original objectives captured, within weeks Kitchener’s Army emerged from the aftermath as a cohesive and battle-hardened force.

The attack on the Somme was Britain’s first major offensive on the Western Front in 1916. The plan, and the citizen soldiers who were entrusted to execute it, had been in preparation for months. The hoped-for victory was entrusted to the Fourth Army under General Henry Rawlinson. The ranks of this new Army were made up of volunteer soldiers, many of whom had flocked immediately to the colours on the outbreak of war. The momentous offensive would be their first taste of battle and they were confident of victory.

The plan was ambitious; the attack would be launched on a frontage of almost 14 miles. The British would advance alongside French troops with the aim of breaking through German defences to seize new positions on the Pozieres Ridge.

Technical failure? A third of British artillery shells were defective. They did not explode.Technical failure? A third of British artillery shells were defective. They did not explode.

Last week I compared July 1, 1916, with D-Day on June 6, 1944, and there are many similarities between the two plans, not least overwhelming firepower. In the case of the Somme, the attack was preceded by a huge artillery barrage lasting a week. Sadly, staff at Rawlinson’s Fourth Army were unaware that, due to a design flaw in their fuses, a third of the shells fired onto German positions were duds − they did not explode.

In addition to what was thought to be an overwhelming barrage, there was innovation. Royal Engineers had spent months tunnelling under key German positions; these tunnels became deadly mines packed with tons of powerful explosives.

The mines would be blown just two minutes before the infantry of the Fourth Army went over the top into no man’s land. The idea was that a combination of the underground mines and the week-long bombardment by artillery would destroy − or at least silence − any known German position that could interfere with or disrupt the meticulously planned attack.

At 0730 hours, designated “Zero Hour”, British infantry began emerging from their trenches and moving forward towards what they hoped would be a significant victory. In order to maintain communication, and to prevent confusion, the troops were ordered to move at a steady walking pace. It was at this point that the detailed British plan began to unravel.

In spite of the artillery barrage and the powerful mines exploding beneath them, the Germans were still able to fight. A combination of faulty artillery fuses, the depth of German bunkers and the dispersion of Rawlinson’s heavier guns over the entire frontage had all undermined the British plan. The slow-moving waves of British infantry were now exposed and extremely vulnerable.

What followed has been well-documented. With their machine guns, artillery and barbed wire relatively intact, the German defenders were able to pour fire into the oncoming waves.

The attack was further disrupted by German artillery batteries targeting troops waiting in assembly areas and those in the support trenches directly behind the frontline. The attack went on, but was losing vital momentum and casualties mounted at an unprecedented rate. Although a number of British troops succeeded in reaching the German lines, they were quickly cut off from reinforcement by German artillery. German counter-attacks then forced the isolated pockets of British soldiers to withdraw or surrender.

The only permanent gains on the first day were made at the southernmost end of the attack, here supported by French artillery; the villages of Mountauban and Mametz were captured in the manner intended.

The cost of failure was terrible. The British estimated they had suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed. All of this in spite of meticulous planning, massed firepower, use of mines, extensive rehearsals and training.

It is difficult to grasp the scale of these losses and to understand why the plan failed so spectacularly. One sure way to improve your understanding is to actually visit the battlefields and see the ground for yourself. I have lost count of the number of first-time visitors to The Somme who say there is no substitute for actually walking the battlefields. It will change your perception of the events of July 1,1916.

The next day excursion to The Somme departs from Ipswich on Tuesday, October 14. More details can be found at www.travel-galloway.com

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