First Day of the Somme

8th Division



The 8th Division was charged simply with a direct assault on the village of Ovillers.   Few of the men managed to cross the 400 yards of No Man's Land.   About 70 men of 23 Brigade, attacking south of the village, reached the German front line, but they were forced out of it by a German counter-attack after 2 hours.   The 70th Brigade north of the village, attacking up a sunken road called 'The Nab' (labelled 'd' on the map), managed to reach the German Front line, but were stopped 80 yards short of the German second line by a single machine gun at the top of the valley.   In the centre, 25 Brigade were slaughtered as they tried to cross No Man's Land; very few of the reached the German line, and they failed to hold onto it.

Of about 300 officers and 8000 men, the Division lost 189 officers and 4719 men dead or wounded* (of whom almost 2000 were killed outright).

(* Middlebrook gives the total casualties slightly higher at 5121, making it the 3rd worst-hit Division of the 16 used on the day.)


This famous account of the attack survives, written by a German officer:



The intense bombardment was realized by all to be the prelude to an infantry assault sooner or later.  He men in the dugouts therefore waited ready, belt full of hand-grenades around them, gripping their rifles and listening for the bombardment to lift from the front defence zone on to the rear defences.   It was of vital importance to lose not a second in taking up position in the open to meet the British infantry which would advance immediately behind the artillery bar­rage.   Looking towards the British trenches through the long trench periscopes held up out of the dugout entrances there could be seen a mass of steel helmets above the parapet showing that the storm troops were ready for the assault.  

At 7.30 am the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun.   Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts lead­ing from the dugouts to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters.   The machine-guns were pulled out of the dugouts and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns.   A rough firing line was thus rapidly established.  

As soon as the men were in position, a series of extended lines of infantry were seen moving forward from the British trenches.   The first line appeared to continue without end to right and left.   It was quickly followed by a second, then a third and fourth.   They came on at a steady easy pace as if expecting to find nothing alive in our front trenches… The front line, preceded by a thin line of skir­mishers and bombers, was now half-way across No Man's Land.  

'Get ready' was passed along our front from crater to crater, and heads appeared over the crater edges as final posi­tions were taken up for the best view, and machine-guns mounted firmly in place.   A few minutes later, when the lead­ing British line was within a hundred yards, the rattle of machine-gun and rifle broke out along the whole line of shell holes.   Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, whilst others, in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety, to fire into the crowd of men in front of them.   Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in the rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines.   Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in close order, quickly scattered.  

The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shells and bullets.   All along the line men could be seen throwing up their arms and collapsing, never to move again.   Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others, less severely injured, crawled to the near­est shell hole for shelter.  

The British soldier, however, has no lack of courage, and once his hand is set to the plough, he is not easily turned from his purpose.   The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster.   Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double.   Within a few minutes the lead­ing troops had advanced to within a stone's throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point­blank range, others threw hand grenades among them.   The British bombers answered back, whilst the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets.  

The noise of battle became in­describable.   The shouting of orders and the shrill cheers as the British charged forward could be heard above the violent and intense fusillade of machine-guns and rifles and bursting bombs, and above the deep thunderings of the artillery and shell explosions.   With all this were mingled the moans and groans of the wounded, the cries for help and the last screams of death.   Again and again the extended lines of British in­fantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back.