First Day of the Somme




Accrington Pals


VIII Corps Commander General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston

GOC Brigadier-General Hubert Conway Rees




The 31st, consisting of the 93 Brigade - 15th West Yorkshires (Leeds Pals) and 18th Durham Light Infantry, with the 18th West Yorkshires in reserve - and the 94 Brigade - 11th East Lancs (Accrington Pals) and the 12th York & Lancs (Sheffield City Battalion) with the 13th and 14th York & Lancs (Barnsley Pals) in reserve.




The plan was to burst through the German front line and take Serre, whereupon the men would wheel round to the left to stop any German counter-attack from the north and so protect the flank of the main thrust towards Beaumont-Hamel.

Rees was later to claim that the timetable for his men was far too ambitious.




They had tried digging secret tunnels to get them closer to the German lines, but they had been seen, and the Germans had raided and demolished them.   Only a thinly covered trench (a 'Russian sap') remained undetected.  

In the meantime, holes had been cut in the British wire, and white tape laid down to show the British troops where to go.   These had been easily spotted by the Germans, who had trained their machine guns and artillery on these points.



Artillery bombardment

The wire had been cut in many places, although in the event this made no difference.

Hunter-Weston later blamed the failure of the attack on poor artillery fire, which failed to destroy the German trenches - 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.



Advance (7.30)

At 7.20 the lead waves took their places in No Mans Land.   At 7.30 they stood up to attack and were promptly mowed down by German machine-gun fire (especially enfilading fire from Gommecourt Wood in the north) and a very heavy German artillery barrage into No Man's Land.   Smoke which had been expected to cover the advance did not appear.   After a moment's pause (?surprise), orders were shouted down the ranks, and then men dashed for the German trench.   Although No Man's Land was only 100 yards across at this point, however, most of the men were cut down.   It was of this attack that Hunter-Weston wrote: 'not a man wavered, broke the ranks, or attempted to come back' (a quote often attributed to Rees).




The 31st Division quickly collapsed into a series of unco-ordinated detachments  fighting their way towards their objectives.   We know from the position of graves (dug by the Germans) that one group of Accrington Pals fought their way into Serre, and a party of Durham Light Infantry reached its objective, Pendant Copse, 2000 yards behind enemy lines, before they were destroyed by enemy reserves.

Because of reports that there were British troops in Serre, the British artillery did not bombard German positions there, and also failed to find the location of the German artillery.

When the German artillery barrage on No Man's Land eased off, Rees ordered the 13th Yorkshire reserves to attack, but this only brought down a fresh reserve.   One company suffered heavy casualties, the other took cover.   Rees then called off the attack.




By the end of the day, the Division had lost 3599 men, of whom only 8 were prisoners of war - the rest were killed or wounded (making it the 9th worst-hit Division of the 16 used on the day).   Of 720 Accrington Pals who attacked, 584 were killed or wounded.   The Sheffield City Battalion seems to have lost 500 men.




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

Rees was relieved of his command the next day.