First Day of the Somme




Canadian account of battle


VIII Corps Commander General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston

GOC 4th Division: Major-General Lambton

GOC 29th Division: Major-General H de B de Lisle




The 4th and the 29th.




The plan was to mount two attacks on either side of the village - the 4th Division along Redan Ridge to the north, the 29th along Hawthorn Ridge and a deep valley called 'Y-Ravine' to the south.

In the centre, a huge mine had been dug.   Hunter-Weston wanted to explode the mine 4 hours before the attack, so that the Germans would stand-to, expecting an attack, but would then have time to decide that the attack was not going to happen and stand down; the British attack ay 7.30 would then take them by surprise.   Haig denied this request, but agreed that the mine be blown ten minutes before zero hour.   Farrer-Hockley calls this 'a fatal error' - all it did was warn the Germans that an attack was coming, and it led to the disastrous decision to lift the artillery bombardment along the whole line ten minutes early.




Five access trenches had been built towards the German lines.  

Because they were attacking over a ridge, the British did not have a proper appreciation of the German defences.   In fact the German trenches were so well constructed by deep dugouts that they considered the whole line impregnable, except for a section which jutted out into No Man's Land which they called Heidenkopf and the British called 'the Quadrilateral'.   This section of the trench the Germans had allocated only one machine gun, and they had mined it to blow it up when they had to abandon it.



Artillery bombardment

In the north sector, the wire had been cut in many places, but in the south the 29th found much of the wire was uncut.   The artillery bombardment utterly failed to destroy the German deep dug-outs, so the British attack found itself opposed by huge numbers of enemy soldiers.

Hunter-Weston later blamed the failure of the attack on poor artillery fire - though Travers suggests that it was his decision to lift the artillery fire off the German front trench at zero-minus-10 minutes was a chief cause of the failure.

Also, after the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine at zero-minus-10, the heavy barrage was replaced by shrapnel shells, which had no effect at all on the Germans getting ready to stop the coming attack.

A 'creeping barrage' had been planned, but simply to advance 100 yards every two minutes - so it quickly became useless when the advance was held up.

Sixty-six German artillery batteries had been ordered to fire only if there was a general attack; the British commanders therefore knew nothing about them until they attacked, and the British counter-artillery was unable to locate and destroy them.



Advance (7.30)

At 7.20 the Hawthorn Redoubt mine was exploded, and the first wave went over the top.

4 Division: the German machine guns caused heavy casualties in the first wave but the wire had been cut and, using the approach trenches (called 'Cat' and 'Rat') and Stokes mortars, the men - dashing and crawling alternatively - were able to fight their way into the German front line.   The Germans in the Quadrilateral blew themselves up by accident, and the area was occupied by British troops.  

29 Division: When the Hawthorn Redoubt mine was exploded, some men moved forward and ran towards the crater; they were however, laden down by heavy kit, and before they reached their objective they were killed by German machine-gunners coming up from their deep dug-outs.   Rising from their trench at 7.30am, most of the men of the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers were shot within 20 yards of their approach trench, by German soldiers who had been at their positions for 5 minutes, warned by the explosion of the mine.  The 2nd South Wales Borderers, attacking up Y-Ravine, were mowed down by three German machine guns; they tried to rush the German line, but not one of them got within 30 yards. 

The whole attack had been destroyed in 5 minutes.




4 Division: The supports were ordered up at 7.40am, and made rapid progress, quickly getting as far as Feste Soden, 300 yards behind the German line.   Some men even got as far as Pendant Copse, 2000 yards behind the German line.   There was confusion about what to do because so many commanding officers had been killed.   Lambton later said that his men were 'too keen' and had advanced 'too rapidly', allowing them to be cut off and destroyed by the German defenders.   However, large numbers of German troops came up from the deep dug-outs, and the men were cut off and killed.

By 9.30am the order was given to halt the attack.   Lambton tried to call back his reserve, but he was too late, and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers advanced and suffered heavy casualties from German artillery and machine-gun fire into No Man's Land; some were also killed by British troops inside the Quadrilateral who though they were Germans.

The British were  gradually driven back to their own front line by heavy German counter-attacks, although the Quadrilateral was not abandoned until 11.30am on 2 July.

29 Division: A support attack had been planned for 8.05am.   It went ahead as planned, but the men were cut down in No Man's Land by heavy German machine-gun and artillery fire.   At 9.05am Lt-Col Hadow, in charge of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, was given urgent orders to attack; 752 Newfoundlanders went over the top from their support trench (300 yards behind the British front line) and marched forward.   They were met by a hail of bullets, but bowed their heads against them, as though walking into a gale.   Most of them were killed or wounded before they reached the British font line, and not one of them reached the German line; Martin Middlebrook comments: 'not a single German soldier was killed or wounded by their attack and no friendly unit had been helped to improve its position'.   The 1st Essex Regiment, delayed by the number of dead and wounded in the communication trench, went over the top to a similar fate.


By 10am, Hunter-Weston realised that the attack had failed utterly.




There were so many casualties that the Germans allowed a temporary truce for the British to clear their dead and wounded from No Man's Land.

The 4th Division suffered 4692 casualties (making it the 5th worst-hit Division out of 16 used on the day) and the 29th suffered 5240 (the 2nd worst-hit Division).




Hunter-Weston's VIII Corps suffered the highest casualties and failed to capture any of their objectives.