First Day of the Somme



On WP Nevill  


XIII Corps Commander General Congreve




The 18th Division and the 30th Division (including the East Surreys of 89th Brigade).




The attack was a simple frontal assault along a line almost 2 miles long.




The attack had the benefit of excellent field observation, together with reconnaissance from the air by the RAF.

Six Russian saps had been built into No Man's Land to cover the men's attack.  

Three minutes before zero hour, at 7.28am, a mine was exploded on the German front line – in the ‘Austrian Trench’.   The officer charged with detonating another mine - at 'Kasino Point' - however, was horrified at 7.30am to find British soldiers rushing past him on the attack.   Realising that the mine was designed to take out a critical German machine-gun, he detonated it anyway, showering the British troops with huge clumps of earth and causing many casualties.

Generally, however, the attack on Montauban was an example of good communications between the different ‘arms’ of the Army - infantry/ artillery/ RAF.



Artillery bombardment

The bombardment had succeeded in destroying most of the German artillery – when the British attacked, only 10 field and 13 heavy batteries available, and many of the German guns had been knocked out - and had also blown up the German artillery command post with a heavy shell.  

The wire had been well cut, and the French heavy artillery had destroyed many of the German’s deep dugouts - which were not as good in this sector - by using HE, not shrapnel, shells.



Advance (7.30)

The attack began at 7.30am.   The 8th East Surreys were led off by a football (kicked out by Capt WP Nevill).  

Because of the shellfire, the Germans had been unable to relieve the Regiment defending this section of line, and the German soldiers had been reduced to exhaustion and shell-shock.   The Germans were mostly caught in their dugouts, and the attackers met only pockets of stiff resistance.   Instead, they found many places full only of dead bodies - particularly in the Glatz Redoubt (labelled 'g' on the map) and in the cellars of Montauban - which shows how successful the artillery bombardment had been.   (The only living thing found in Montauban was a fox.)


By 8.30am the 30th Division had joined up with the French Army at the Glatz Redoubt and consolidated their position, ready to move on.  




The attack continued to proceed according to plan.   The attackers used appropriate strategies to remove different obstacles:


Lewis guns were used to enfilade and clear German machine-gun posts.  


In places, the men attacked under a smoke-screen cover.  


Teams of bombers were used to clear German trenches or difficult machine-gun emplacements.  


A flame-thrower was used to clear the badly-cratered ground along the main road.

The troops advanced so quickly that at points they had to wait until the artillery lifted (compared to further north, where the artillery ran on ahead of the attack).   In all, 1882 German prisoners were taken and the HQ of the Germans' 62nd Regiment was captured.

Montauban was captured by 12.30pm, and the men moved out to establish a front line along their objective - a trench known as Montauban Alley.  The soldiers looked out over a broad plain deserted except for fleeing Germans.




The 18th and 30th Divisions were the most successful on the first day of the Somme, but they also suffered the least casualties.   The 18th lost 3115 men killed or wounded, and the 30th 3001, making them among the least worst-hit on the day.




WP Neville's attack with the football was celebrated by the British newspapers as an example of British dash and spirit; by the Germans as an example of British stupidity.   Billy Nevill, however, was never able to enjoy his fame - he was killed before he reached the German front line.


The most glaring thing about the Montauban attack was the LACK of a result.   Having taken Montauban, the XIIIth Corps could have outflanked the German armies further north and achieved the 'breakthrough' Haig had wanted.   However, while Haig had planned for a breakthrough, the commander of the 4th Army, Rawlinson, had preferred a 'bite and hold' strategy.   Congreve, being a careful commander, preferred to follow Rawlinson, and so he ordered his men to consolidate, and the opportunity of 1 July was lost.