‘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 sky was clear, the mist that had settled across no man’s land the night before was lifting, only a few stubborn pockets remained, clutching to the splintered stumps and shell holes of the shredded landscape. An eerie silence settled throughout the trenches of the Somme valley, broken only by the occasional cough, or the muffled sound of men making a final check of their equipment; ammunition, canteens, rifles. Huddled on the firing step, the men nervously awaited the high shrill of the whistle that would signal the start of what has come to be known as the worst single day in British military history.
At 0730 hours on 1 July 1916, officers and men of the British and French armies all along the line scrambled up ladders to go over the top. They had been ordered not to run, but to walk, safe in the knowledge that a week long barrage firing 1.7 million shells had pummeled their enemies into oblivion. All that they would have to do, was stroll across the desolate space and occupy what remained of the enemy trenches. As stated by the great German commander Helmuth von Moltke decades before, ‘No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.’
The strategy, tactics, outcome and legacy of the Battle of the Somme is heavily documented (rightly so) in all forms of media so I am not going to discuss these things here. I have chosen instead to focus on some individual stories from the front in an effort to offer my sincerest respect, appreciation and sheer admiration to those who took part on all sides.
A week long barrage of the German lines proceeded the assault which was intended to destroy barbed wire entanglements and other obstacles and cause heavy casualties among the Germans. 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.” (IWM)
W Walter-Symons, a Royal Garrison Artillery officer described the pre-assault barrage;
“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.” (IWM)
At 0730 hours the whistles blew and the men went ‘over the top’. Private Arthur Pearson describes his experience;
“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.” (IWM)
Known to his friends as ‘Billie’, Captain Wilfred Percy Neville came up with an unusual way to motivate his men;
“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.” (IWM)
Frank Raine of the Durham Light Infantry describes here how many of the attckers must have felt on nearing the German wire obstacles, the same ones that they were told would have been destroyed in the barrage;
“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!” (IWM)
Stephen Westmann was a German gunner who survived the bombardment and here describes the moments after it lifted;
“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.” (IWM)
Maurice Symes was one of the almost 40,000 British soldiers to be wounded on the first day of the Somme;
“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.” (IWM)
Donald Mauuray made it across no man’s land and into the German trenches, but like many others in all sectors of the battlefield, found himself alone:
“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.” (IWM)
Alfred Irwin, like many others who survived the first day of the battle found that most of the men that he has served with that day had not returned at all;
“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.” (IWM)
These accounts are just a few of many many more. Every man that took part will have his own story to tell, and I’d sit and listen to every single one if I could. I wanted to post these today because I feel it is our duty to remember what these men and women went through, the terror, the pain, the fear, the exhaustion, the loss, words aren’t enough. But one thing I have noticed while reading through numerous accounts, is the extraordinarily understated manner in which they are remembered, and that also I believe is a credit to the men and women of that generation. This article can in no way do justice to the respect and admiration I have for them but I hope it goes a little way in helping us to remember them and what they did.
All of these accounts and many more, including a podcast (which I strongly recommend you listen to) can be found HERE
Thank you to the Imperial War Museum.
On Sunday (3rd July) I will be going to the Chalke Valley History Festival where I will attend a talk by Dan Snow himself on the Battle of the Somme. I’ll do my best to get some good photos throughout the day so look out for it in a future post!