On this day in 1916, the First World War experienced one of its bloodiest days
July 1 is a day which is synonymous in the history of the First World War. In a four year conflict which had a series of infamous dates, this is the one which arguably conjures the biggest sense of dread.
More specifically, July 1 1916 is a day which typified the war as the ruthless, wasting of human life the conflict has come to be remembered for.
Today marks the 106th anniversary of the first day of The Battle of the Somme, a day which would end with 60,000 Allied soldiers lying dead or wounded in the fields of Northern France.
Initially planned as a diversion strategy to relieve French troops in and around Verdun, the Somme is the epitome of ignorant British leadership refusing to adapt to new methods and, as a result, allowed tens of thousands of soldiers to be brutally slaughtered.
The battle started in earnest a week before 1 July, with a seven day bombardment of German lines.
The Allies, from generals down through to the men in the trenches, were wholly confident that the Germans couldn’t possibly have survived a barrage of this magnitude.
It was this overwhelming confidence of the leadership which led to, when the time came, soldiers told they would be able to go over the top and walk towards the German lines.
There was this idea created that there was nothing left of the German lines, and that the long march to Berlin would soon begin. However, tragically, this was not the case.
At 7.30am, whistles sounded and the first wave of British troops climbed out from the relative safety of the trenches and into no man’s land.
Those who did walk towards the German lines would swiftly realise that their leaders, many of whom were based in headquarters buildings often located miles behind the lines, had got their predictions and expectations for the attack horrendously wrong.
The deep German dugouts provided adequate cover to troops for the duration or the bombardment, resulting in a small number of casualties.
This, combined with the large number of shells failing to explode during the bombardment, meant that the minute the shelling ceased the Germans had ample time to get back above ground and set up their guns for the attack they knew was coming.
On what was a clear, bright summer morning, the slow moving British troops would have made easy targets for German machine guns. Throughout this first day of the battle, 20,000 soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 became casualties on the British side alone.
In many places, three waves of soldiers went over the top in a hapless attempt to swamp the German lines. On each occasion, attacks broke down as soldiers were cut to pieces.
What added to the tragedy of the Somme is that much of the attack waves consisted of what had become known as ‘Pals Battalions’.
These were groups of soldiers who had joined up together as friends, family, co-workers etc in villages, towns and cities across the UK. Going off on the adventure of war was made more appealing to men knowing that they would be doing it with others they know.
However, the huge number of casualties on the Somme resulted in many soldiers watching their close friends die around them.
The wholesale slaughter resulted in near whole male populations of some areas of the UK being killed in quick succession not just on the Somme, but across the battlefields of the First World War.
Night fell on the first day and the cries of the wounded filled the air of Northern France. The bloodiest day in the history of the British Army had finally come to an end, but the battle had only begun.
As Verdun continued to rage, so must the Somme. Or at least, that’s how the allied command saw it.
The Battle of the Somme would drag on for four months, petering out to a bloody end in November 1916. In total and on all sides, over one million soldiers had become casualties.
Yet despite this horrific loss of life, the war would be no closer to a conclusion and millions more would need to be killed or wounded before the autumn of 1918.
The Somme did drag on for weeks and months, but it is this first day which must always be remembered in particular for the example of poor leadership leading to the mechanised slaughter of thousands.