Podcast 23: The First Day Of The Somme

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And there wasn’t one of us in our battalion that ever got to the German lines. You couldn’t! It was absolutely impossible…

The Battle of the Somme is one of the most famous military events in British history – synonymous with huge loss of life and costly failure. After months of deadlock on the Western Front, a joint British and French offensive was planned to break through the German lines north of the River Somme in mid-1916. Donald Murray became aware of increasing preparations during the summer.

We didn’t realise then what was in the offing, but we soon learned because we started making preparations, preparing for a really big affair. In May they took us from the line, back about 10 km – right away from the fighting. And there they’d got the whole country flagged out, an exact replica of the German lines with little flags. We started practising the attack, ready for the big attack, this big attack that was to come. In the meantime there was a constant procession of guns, guns, guns going up. Instead of the big guns that used to lie right back – miles back – they were bringing them right up, right up into the front.

Charles Quinnell, of the Royal Fusiliers, also noted the signs of an impending offensive.

By this time we realised that something big was being prepared because we could see the number of guns – new guns – that were arriving on the front; the amount of shells that were coming. There’d been a great shortage before but now you could see the railways were loaded up with guns; ammunition; wagons and so forth and so on. And we knew something big was coming off.

British NCO A Wood found out why such a large volume of guns and ammunition was being moved to the front.

We were taken out of the front line and we were taken to an obscure place – I couldn’t tell you where, it were 60 years ago! – and we were told by the generals of the battle that was going to be on the first of July.  And we were also told that there wouldn’t be a German within miles because the front line would be flattened by the artillery, which had been bombarding it.

The British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, planned an intensive week-long bombardment of the German lines. He hoped that this would enable the infantry to break through, and be followed up by a strong cavalry advance. Royal Garrison Artillery officer Maurice Laws described his role in the bombardment.

Well I was an observation officer for the battery in a forward O.P. [Observation Post]. I had a couple of signallers with me and a telephone communication with the battery. My job was to observe the fire of the battery on our various targets all day. I started at dawn and went on until dusk. Every evening a fatigue party arrived with water and food and mail and went away again. We lived there like that and I stayed there until certainly the evening of the first of July. Then I went back to the battery. I could hardly read anything, because my eyes were so strained from looking through prismatic glasses all that time. And you see, shooting at a trench you’ve got to be exact and you’ve got to be very careful. It went on day after day, there were hours and hours of so much daylight, I wished to God it was midnight! It really was very trying.

During the opening bombardment, the Royal Artillery fired over 1.6 million shells. The intensity of the attack was unprecedented. It left a vivid impression on all those who witnessed it. British signaller Harry Wheeler recalled the deafening noise the artillery made.

The firing was going on for weeks beforehand, on and off, and getting heavier. But the bombardment, when that started, it was what I always called the dance of hell. It was Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Shells bursting all the time, you know, guns firing, rather, all the time. It was a dance of hell, right enough. Those poor boys who had to go through it! My God, I shall never get it out of my memory. Yes, the dance of hell.

And for Royal Flying Corps pilot Cecil Lewis, the sight of so many guns in action remained clear in his mind long afterwards.

When you had to go right over the lines, you see, you were midway between our guns firing and where the shells were falling. And during that period the intensity of the bombardment was such that it was really like a sort of great broad swathe of dirty-looking cotton wool laid over the ground. And so close were the shell bursts – and so continuous – that it wasn’t just a puff here and a puff there, it was a continuous band. The whole of the ground beneath the darkening evening was just like a veil of sequins which were flashing and flashing and flashing and each one was a gun.

Stephen Westmann was a German army officer who lived through the barrage

We were under incessant bombardment. Day and night, the shells, heavy and light ones, came upon us. Our dugouts crumbled. They fell upon us and we had to dig ourselves and our comrades out. Sometimes we found them suffocated, sometimes smashed to pulp. Soldiers in the bunkers became hysterical. They wanted to run out and fights developed to keep them in the comparative safety of our deep bunkers. Even the rats became hysterical. They came into our flimsy shelters to seek refuge from this terrific artillery fire. We had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, but constantly, shell after shell burst upon us.

On the eve of the battle, the attacking infantry troops were moved up to the front line. British private Reginald Glenn recalled the feeling as they went forward.

We didn’t know until the actual day that we were going in. We went in at night and we got so far in and then were told no smoking. Everybody had got their big overcoats and a haversack with rations in and everybody was helping to carry something as well. We just went in and relieved the regiments that were in. They came out of one set of trenches; we went down the others because with having all your accoutrements there wasn’t room to pass one another. I suppose we were a bit worried about what was going to happen because the night before we’d been writing letters home…

Many of the men had a heartening tot of rum as they waited for zero hour; some had several. But Donald Murray decided it was best to abstain.

The previous night at about 12 pm, each dugout had a stone bottle of rum put into the dugout – a gallon bottle. And nearly every man was drunk, blind drunk. I thought to myself, ‘This looks to me like a sacrifice.’ And I never touched any; I didn’t have a single drink. I determined to keep my head – and it’s just as well I did.

In the lead up to the infantry assault, a final heavy bombardment was made on the German lines. Royal Garrison Artillery officer W Walter-Symons described it.

At 05.30 the barrage came down. It consisted of light artillery on the front line coupled with light Howitzers. Three hundred yards beyond that came down the heavier natures. The 6-inch, the 60-pounder, the 8-inch, the 9.2s and the 12-inch and the 15-inch Howitzers were allotted special targets and strong points such as fortified villages. Within a few moments, the air vibrated with the concussion.

Zero hour was set for 7.30am on 1 July. As it approached, the men prepared for battle in crowded front line trenches. Private R Mason was among them.

We’d reached our attacking positions overnight and we were all ready for the assault an hour before we had to go. And we sat down crouching in the shallow, narrow trench almost shoulder to shoulder. I was next to the officer and got him something out of his own haversack because he could not turn round to the back. He said, very shortly, only five minutes to go…

Finally, the barrage lifted and the moment came for men like Private Arthur Pearson to go over the top.

We were anxious to be over the top and at Zero Hour, 07.30, everybody, we climbed out of the trenches. Two platoons in advance had been and laid on a white tape and they formed the first wave. Every man climbed out of the trenches at the whistle of the officers and not a man hesitated. But I was lucky. I was in a part of the trench where the parados had been battered down as Jerry sought for a trench mortar. When I ran up the rise out of the trench I was under the hail of bullets, which were whizzing over my head. But most of our fellows were killed kneeling on the firestep – on the parados.

Once out of the relative safety of their trenches, the attacking troops had been ordered to advance slowly towards the Germans in long lines. Maurice Symes – like many others – didn’t think much of this order.

It was just as if we were at… that almost was like a training exercise, which was really, I suppose, absolutely mad when you come to think of it. We were just in extended order with everything on your back, your rifle and bayonet, your entrenching tool and everything else. We were just walking, straight towards the German lines in extended order. Well, we were sitting ducks all the way. Our earlier training you see for open warfare, run so far then lie down and then run a bit further. But this was just walking, straight into the death trap, hundreds of us. Just hopeless.

Officer Alfred Irwin approved an unusual initiative by one of his officers to motivate the troops under his command.

Well Captain Nevill was commanding ‘B’ Company, one of our two assaulting companies, and a few days before the Battle of the Somme he came to me with a suggestion, that, as he and his men were all equally ignorant of what their conduct would be when they got into action, he thought it might be helpful, as he had 400 yards to go and knew that it would be covered by machine-gun fire, it would be helpful if he could furnish each platoon with a football and allow them to kick it forward and follow it. And that was the beginning of the idea, and I sanctioned that on condition that he and his officers really kept command of their units and didn’t allow it to develop into a rush after the ball. If a man came across a football he could kick it forward but he mustn’t chase after it, and I think myself it did help them enormously, took their minds off it. But they suffered terribly. Nevill and his second captain were both killed.

As the men crossed no man’s land, many, including Private Mason, became separated from their comrades.

My officer called across to me and said, ‘You stick to me and I’ll stick to you.’ I said, ‘Right,’ but immediately lost sight of him. I didn’t know what happened to him but he was wounded. Very soon I found I was going forward and not many were around me. At this time, a hare ran along in front to my great surprise, with its eyes bulging or apparently bulging in fear – but I didn’t think it was half as frightened as I was.

When those who had survived the crossing of no man’s land neared the German front lines, it became clear why they were so few in number – the defences were still intact. Arnold Dale of the York and Lancaster Regiment couldn’t believe that the deadly barbed wire was untouched.

As we moved forward, having got through our own wire quite easily, and approached the position we were to take up prior to our own bombardment lifting so that we could move forward into the German trenches, we saw what a terrible job it was – or would be – to get through the German wire. It was so thick, it looked solid black. I can’t really say that I could pick out any single strand; it was so solid that in my opinion a rabbit couldn’t have got through it.

The men had been told that the initial bombardment would eliminate the German positions. But it had failed to do so. Walter Cook, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, explained why.

The Germans were down in 30-foot dugouts whilst the bombardment was on. I have personally been in one and they were so constructed that any bomb thrown down if there was Germans in there, it would only go down so far, because it would then go off at a traverse down to the 30 feet. They had selected machine-gun posts and they just mowed down the infantry. And we had a big job on.

Frank Raine, of the Durham Light Infantry, remembered how this affected the attack in his sector.

We were told that there was going to be this bombardment that would knock hell out of the Germans and all we had to do was get up and walk across – and we only had to walk, on no account had we to stop for anything – just walk straight through to Berlin. And there wasn’t one of us in our battalion that ever got to the German lines. You couldn’t! It was absolutely impossible. The jokers, they never learnt. The Germans had these deep dugouts; they were safe as the bank. They were 30 feet down!

The Germans opened up terrific and accurate fire on the advancing British infantry, as Stephen Westmann remembered.

Then the British Army went over the top. The very moment we felt that the British artillery fire was directed against the reserve positions, machine gunners, German machine-gunners, crawled out of the bunkers, red-eyed, sunken eyes, dirty, full of blood from the blood of their fallen comrades, and opened up a terrific fire. The British Army had horrible losses.

Ernest Bryan commanded a Lewis gun team during the attack. He and his men made it through no man’s land – but were met by strong German fire.

The majority of their wire wasn’t cut at all, not by our artillery at all, not even by our trench mortars. So what happened, all that was in there, there was no riflemen but there’s machine-gunners. When I say the machine-gunners, I don’t mean Lewis gunners, machine-gunners who had static machine guns; you could fire 250 rounds on one belt. Well, the first thing I did, I put me gun on me shoulder and I sprayed the top. Ah! The German gunner went down, whether he was hit or not I didn’t know and I didn’t care. He was down, they were all down.

Nearly 40,000 British soldiers were wounded on 1 July. Maurice Symes, a private in the Somerset Light Infantry, was one of them.

Well we just scrambled over the trench and walked forward. I could see people going down all the way round you know getting shot. It wasn’t a very pleasant feeling. And then I got hit myself, it knocked me out. They said I was more surprised than anything else, really. I wondered what the devil had happened. It felt just like somebody had kicked me in the stomach; a funny sort of feeling but I knew couldn’t go any further. I just dumped everything except my water bottle and crawled into a shell hole and stayed there for a bit. I had a bullet straight through, then I got into a shell hole for a bit of shelter and got another shrapnel wound there.

With dead and wounded all around, and the attack faltering, it was no wonder that many, including NCO Frederick Higgins, felt overwhelmed by the situation.

I think I got a nasty stomach feeling that I can’t describe… abject fear. You’re not paralysed, actually, but it takes all the stuffing out of you. You just don’t know what to do, what to do for the best – whether to get up and go or stop where you are or what to do. Everybody was in the same boat, I mean big men and little men all suffered the same. It was a terrific, terrible feeling really.

Officer casualties were high. This led to further confusion for the attacking troops, such as Private Glenn.

We were getting just the same machine-gun fire and we really were not knowing, we weren’t getting any orders at all, because of the officers were shot down and we were getting this machine-gun fire. It was just simply mowing them down. I lay down and there was nobody to give any orders.

The British attack failed in many places along the Somme battlefront. Even if men reached the German lines, they were unable to consolidate their position, and were soon forced to return to their own trenches. Donald Murray gave a vivid account of the chaos of the fighting.

It seemed to me eventually that I was just one man left; I couldn’t see anybody at all. All I could see was men lying dead, men screaming, men on the barbed wire with their bowels hanging down, shrieking. I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I was just alone in a hell of fire and smoke and stink. And so I began to creep back towards the line, through shell holes, through the mud and down into the trench. And still there was nobody there. Gradually we congregated in one’s and two’s.

Although the Germans withstood the majority of the British attacks, in some places the German trenches were reached and objectives captured. But such gains were only achieved with heavy casualties. NCO D Cattell remembered the impact this had on his regiment.

Well I crept back on my belly into the trenches, about 9 o’clock, well it was getting dusk. And that was that. I went to a dugout in a trench a lot further back, there were some officers there, they were surprised to see me – they didn’t think there was anybody left! I went down into a bunk and I think I slept for 18 hours. The Germans could have walked through if they wanted, there was nobody there.

In addition to the nearly 40,000 who were wounded on the 1 July, around 20,000 men were killed. By nightfall, the devastating losses were clearly felt by Alfred Irwin.

Well we were so lamentably few that there was very little you could do that night. But I posted the men as well as I could and we were not attacked. We were heavily shelled that night, but were not attacked. And so we got away with it. The next day we were relieved. We’d come down from something like 800 to something under 200 in that attack. It seemed to me a dreadful waste of life.

During the night, Arthur Pearson went out to retrieve casualties from no man’s land.

The 10 per cent who’d been left were called into the line as stretcher bearers and we were carrying out our wounded all night until it was dawn, and even then we carried on. There was evidently some sort of truce in the dawn because the Germans were carrying out their casualties.

Stanley Parker Bird helped the wounded that night as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Some had already been brought in but the no man’s land was littered with casualties. They weren’t as thick as peas, I couldn’t use an expression like that… But some had themselves been able to crawl back to our trenches. Of course they were trying to keep cheerful, some of them were saying, ‘Oh, shall I get to Blighty?’ We had to encourage them to think they would.

The Battle of the Somme raged until mid-November 1916. But the tragic events of its first day became notorious. The casualties were the heaviest ever suffered by the British Army in any 24-hour period, and news of the losses had a huge impact upon those back home in Britain. Marjorie Llewellyn was a schoolchild in Sheffield.

Shortly after the first of July, the newspaper boys in the streets were shouting the news of the wounded, the killed and the battle on the Somme. And everybody rushed to buy the papers and were horrified to find that so many of our city battalion were involved in this offensive. The news came through very slowly but there sheets and sheets in the paper of dead and wounded; photographs, where they could get them, of the men and I personally was brought out of class to be told that my cousin had been killed.

Although Royal Engineer Thomas Dewing was in the Somme area on 1 July 1916, he didn’t take part in the attack. But he realised soon afterwards just how devastating it had been.

Frankly the Battle of the Somme was a ghastly mistake. We didn’t realise that at the time but at the first church parade after that we’d an idea what a shambles it had been. We fell in as usual for the church parade and then the infantry came in – a mere handful. In each battalion, a mere handful of people. And the colonels sat in front of what was left of their battalions, sat there sobbing. And we were completely taken aback, didn’t realise it was anything like that.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 24