Matt Brosnan
Thursday 14 June 2018
The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a prominent place in British history and popular memory and has come to represent the loss and apparent futility of the First World War. But what actually happened on 1 July 1916?

The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was planned as a joint operation between British and French forces to break the deadlock on the Western Front. But due to the German attack on the French at Verdun, Britain and its Empire would have to take the lead on the Somme.

The offensive was preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment intended to cut German barbed wire and destroy defences. However, the decision of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig to extend the original objectives of the attack meant this artillery fire had to cover a wider area. The British front for the attack stretched from Serre in the north to near Montauban in the south, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt.

The offensive began at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. Many of the infantry who went over the top were volunteers of 1914, including Pals battalions made up of friends, relatives and workmates serving side by side. This was their first experience of a major action in the largest attack the British Army had yet conducted.

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Somme Offensive, Battle of Albert

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Somme Offensive, Battle of Albert

A view of British infantry, visible as tiny dots below the horizon, attacking German positions near Mametz on 1 July 1916. This photograph is rare in showing the infantry attack in progress on the first day of the Somme, in this case in an area that saw British success. The trench lines are visible from the excavated chalky soil.

As the infantry advanced across no man's land, most were met with a hail of machine-gun fire. The British bombardment had largely failed to seriously affect German defences or neutralise German artillery fire, which also took a heavy toll on 1 July. In most places along the front of attack, British infantry were unable to take their objectives. Some made it into the German trenches only to be forced back. Some could not get past the German barbed wire, which in places was still intact.

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Montauban Alley, 1 July 1916

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Montauban Alley, 1 July 1916

This photograph was taken on the first day of the Somme. The original caption read: ‘In Montauban Alley, the final objective of 55th Brigade - taken about 6pm’. 55th Brigade was part of the 18th (Eastern) Division, whose objective on the first day was the French village of Montauban. It was one of the few objectives successfully taken on 1 July 1916.

The British had some success in the south, where the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions took all of their objectives around Montauban and the 7th Division captured Mametz. At Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) Division seized the Schwaben Redoubt, but was forced to withdraw because of lack of progress on its left and right. French forces operating to the south of the River Somme also achieved some success.

These limited gains came at a high cost. The first day of the Somme was the deadliest day in British military history – of the 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 men had been killed. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. Ultimately the Battle of the Somme would continue for another four months. It became an attritional battle of limited territorial gain, but one that taught British commanders important lessons for later fighting on the Western Front.

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