The Battle of The Somme 1916

In terms of British military history it would be a day like no other.
1st July 1916; Black Saturday for the British Army; The First Day on the Somme.
By the end of the day over 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers would be casualties.

The Thiepval Memorial to The Missing on The Somme.

The Thiepval Memorial to The Missing on The Somme

When the battle of The Somme started the war in Europe, known as The Great War, was almost two years old. As ‘the war to end all wars’ it started very mobile but had ‘gone to ground’ as the two sides faced each other on The Western Front with a line of trenches dug into the ground forming a near-continuous system from the North Sea in Belgium through France to its border with Switzerland.

But during the night of 30th June 1916, as columns of soldiers moved through miles of communication trenches forward to their jumping-off positions in the front line trenches, they must have been deafened by the artillery shells that rained down on the German positions.

The next morning, 1 July 1916, at 0730 along an eighteen-mile British front officer’s whistle blasted, as silence came across the battlefield, the artillery adjusted their guns, moments later fourteen divisions of British and Commonwealth soldiers climbed the scaling ladders and went over the top.

By nightfall, there would be a casualty for every eighteen-inch of that eighteen-mile line.

The 96th Brigade, like the 38th Welsh Division and so many more, was made up of Kitcheners New Army orThe Pals Battalions. New recruits who had joined up since the outbreak of war in 1914, most responding to the famous Kitchener ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster, with the promise that if you join together you can serve together.

The Highlander' Memorial to 51st Highland Division

The Highlander’ Memorial to 51st Highland Division

And join they did; on one day in September 1914 over 33,000 joined, the highest ever on a single day, and on the Somme the Pals Battalions were to be etched into British military history for ever; for many The Somme would be their first taste of battle; for many it would be their last.

But worse was to come and the horrors would last into November; the final battle being for the small village of Beaumont Hamel, an objective of day one in July; but on the 18th November the 51st Highland Division stormed across No Mans Land and captured the village.

Without any doubt The Somme was a turning point in the Great War. A war which started with tactics from Wellington’s Waterloo ninety-nine years earlier, and ended with air, armour and infantry working together, using tactics that even today an Officer Cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst would recognise. And remember it was on the Somme in September 1916 the tank was used for the very first time as a weapon of war.

But the Somme’s cost was enormous, an estimated 450,000 allies casualties; but the Germans feared even worse with an estimated 650,000 casualties and look on the Somme as a British victory and liken it to their own Verdun.

Newfoundland Regt Memorial

Newfoundland Regt Memorial

Today walking the Somme the relics of war can still be found, ‘The Iron Harvest’ of shells and other pieces of equipment of war the farmer brings to the surface with his plough. But life has returned and the battles remembered with the well tendered Commonwealth War Grave Cemeteries that glint in the sun on the battlefield and the memorials, both to the individual and battalions.

Today the Somme horrors of 1916 appear a million miles away. But the battlefield now has a regular stream of pilgrims, many looking to find a long lost relative’s grave, others simply curious to look at the ground over which our forefathers fought in such a bloody hand to hand campaign.

Today’s visitor all have one thing in common; an experience they never forget, the ability to reach out and touch history, and to start and understand what life was like in the trenches almost 100 years ago and the belief of a generation who died there.

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