“… two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.”
The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest encounters of the First World War. It is chiefly remembered for the 57,470 casualties suffered by the British Army on the first day.
The battle, which raged for four and a half months, was fought to relieve pressure on the French forces, who were engaged in the fierce struggle for Verdun, and to reduce by attrition the German army’s ability to fight.
The British Army that fought on the Somme lacked experience. There were only a handful of Regular battalions that had crossed the Channel with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and a few more Territorials that had already seen action in 1915. The majority of the troops were volunteers of Kitchener’s New Armies: ordinary men from all walks of life, who were enthusiastic but poorly trained. For many of the men who had volunteered to serve in the ‘Pals’ and ‘Chums’ battalions, it was their first experience of war.
In the 7 days before the battle, the British artillery fired 1,508,652 shells against the first German defensive position. A further 230,000 shells were fired in the hour before the attack, and when the attacking troops rose from their trenches ten huge mines were exploded. The aim was to cut the barbed wire, destroy the trenches and dugouts, and silence the enemy’s gun batteries.
In the south, where the bombardment was effective, the Allies advanced rapidly and captured the villages of Montauban and Mametz. In the north, however, German defences were largely undamaged, and the attacking infantry suffered heavy casualties. Some troops managed to reach their objectives, but others were unable to cross No Man’s Land in the face of heavy machine gun fire.
The volunteers of the New Armies advanced into battle in long, close-formed lines, presenting a perfect target to the German machine gunners. The Yorkshire regiments who took part in the attack on the first day lost 9,000 men killed, wounded and missing, more than any other region in the UK. The worst casualties were suffered by:
|10th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)||22 officers, 688 men|
|8th York and Lancaster||21 officers, 576 men|
|8th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry||21 officers, 528 men|
|15th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)
|24 officers, 504 men|
|16th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)
(1st Barnsley Pals)
|22 officers, 493 men|
|12th York and Lancaster (Sheffield City Battalion)||17 officers, 495 men|
|1st East Yorkshire||21 officers, 478 men|
|10th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry||21 officers, 428 men|
|2nd West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)||8 officers, 421 men|
|9th York and Lancaster||14 officers, 409 men|
|9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry||21 officers, 383 men|
Over the next few days, a series of smaller attacks developed. The British captured La Boiselle, Contalmaison and Mametz Wood, and a night attack on 13/14 July broke through the second German defensive position at Bazentin. There followed weeks of bitter fighting at Pozieres, High Wood, Delville Wood, Guillemont and Ginchy before the third position was breached.
In mid-September, the Allies resumed their general offensive. Tanks were used for the first time at Flers-Courcelette, but they were few in numbers and mechanically unreliable. Thiepval was finally captured, and in October the British attacked the high ground overlooking Le Transloy and the River Ancre. On 13 November, they launched their last attack across the Ancre. They captured Beaumont-Hamel, but failed to take the village of Serre. When winter brought the offensive to a halt, the Allies had advanced about 6 miles. The British lost 419,634 men, the French 204,253 and the Germans an estimated 415,000.
To find out more, book a place on our ‘Yorkshire Regiments on the Somme’ study day at the Royal Armouries in Leeds on Saturday 2 July 2016.