7 December 2016: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme

At Wye Historical Society's December meeting 45 members and friends heard Maurice Sherreard speak on "The First Day of the Battle of the Somme". The battle began on 1st July 1916 and became the worst day for the British Army in the entire war, with the deaths of nearly 20,000 men and over 37,000 missing or wounded. The battle was fought after the British decided to attack nine German controlled villages in the area of the river Somme. The French also planned to launch forty divisions but ended up with only five. There were colossal preparations involving 500,000 men in fifteen divisions, and the battle front ran to sixteen miles. The idea was to bombard German lines for five days non-stop with heavy artillery. The British commanders believed that this would kill most of the Germans in their trenches and the British could then walk across no-man's land unimpeded. The battle began, two days late due to bad weather, at 7.30am. Whistles blew and the men went over the top 100 yards apart. The artillery bombardment was supposed to have cut through the barbed wire but it was soon found that this hadn't always been achieved. Even more seriously the majority of German troops had survived the bombardment as their trenches were cut deeper than envisaged.

The soldiers were hampered by carrying 60-70 pounds of equipment; they couldn't run, and walking over the top in broad daylight were met with German machine gun fire. Other reasons for failure were lack of experience; the British force was largely made up of volunteers whereas the Germans had a system of National Service so had received more training. In addition the Germans had better intelligence and a less top-down structure. The British were 'boneheaded' in their instance on using bombardment.

Mr Sherreard gave a number of detailed descriptions of the battle. At Theipval the idea was to capture a local farm. By disobeying orders and dumping their equipment some Irish troops were able to capture a redoubt. However, they received no help and success turned to failure as they were fired on from behind; after fourteen hours they retreated with 5,000 casualties. At Fricourt, which Sigfried Sassoon called a "sunlight view of hell", forty men survived out of 700 when troops attacked the north of the village. At Montauban German lines were weak; Lieutenant-General Congreve asked to push on when gains had been made but commander of the Fourth Army Sir Henry Rawlinson told them to stay where they were, thus losing their advantage. Medical equipment was in short supply. It had been estimated there would be 10,000 wounded so supplies fell far short. It took three to four days for the men to be treated - the lucky ones were shipped home on hospital trains.

The Battle of the Somme ended on 19th November due to bad weather. It resulted in 420,000 British casualties and 164,000 German. At Theipval there is a Lutyens memorial for 73,000 men who have no known grave, and in Theipval Wood a reconstructed trench is open to visitors.

Ellie Morris