First Day of the Somme

Although writers often summarise the fighting as though it was one battle, the first day of the Somme (sometimes called the 'Battle of Albert') involved fighting along a front of 29 kilometres.   Different things happened at different places.


Moreover, when you study the different engagements individually, you see that the generally-accepted view of the first day of the battle has been oversimplified and - to a degree - misrepresented.


On the map below, click on the links to see what happened at the different engagements:






Myths of the 1st Day of the Somme

The story of the Somme given in most textbooks, is a generalised picture of foolish generals, who - having drilled discipline and 'battlefield morale' into the men - carelessly ordered them to walk into the machine-guns.


This account is typical:

On 1 July an enormous British army began to move slowly across 'no-man's-land' towards the German defences.   The soldiers had been told the enemy trenches would be smashed.   They had expected shell-shocked soldiers ready to surrender...   Everywhere they met a hail of accurate machine-gun fire...   A brave volunteer army had marched to its death.

LE Snellgrove, The Modern World Since 1870 (1968)


You are welcome to challenge me on this, but I think, when you read the accounts, you will find that this is a misrepresentation of the truth:

  1. Few British troops went over the top and walked stupidly into a hail of bullets.   In many places they used Russian saps, or covered as much ground as possible crawling, or advanced under cover of smoke.   It is true that in many places, at first, they did as ordered and went over the top across No Man's Land at a walk.   However, when the machine guns opened up, after a short time of surprise, they adopted the rush/hide techniques of the French and many other tactics of trench attack.

  2. Not all Generals sat out the battle in chateau 50 miles behind the lines.  

  3. Not all the Generals were careless of the lives of their soldiers, many taking decisions contrary to their orders so they could stop the slaughter of their men.

  4. Not all the casualties were the 'New Army' of Pals Battalions.   Three of the 5 worst-hit Divisions (29th, 8th, 4th) were in fact old units of the Regular Army, who showed themselves just as brave as the volunteers of the New Army.


The three major causes of the disaster seem to have been:

  1. Inadequate artillery - particularly using too few HE shells (so that too many German deep dugouts/machine-gun emplacements survived - the key element) and too many shrapnel shells (which failed to cut the wire adequately).   Where the artillery had done its job properly, the British attacks were successful.

  2. Poor communications, which led to Battalions advancing too fast, or charging hopeless causes at great loss, and poor coordination of the attacks with the artillery fire.

  3. The failure of the Generals to act on information coming back from the line.