The battle of the Somme in 1916 was the bloodiest battle in British history with 58,000 casualties- third of these deaths-on the first day alone and over a million casualties on all sides when it finished on the 18th November 1916.
The actual battle itself began on the 1st July 1916 at 7:30am with the blowing of whistles and soldiers emerging from the trenches into the gloomy mist to walk forwards towards the German lines. The week before had seen a massive artillery barrage with over 100,000 shells being fired each day causing the ground to shake and creating a total inferno in which it was thought few Germans would emerge unscathed. Imagine how terrible such conditions would have felt if you were hiding underground unable to escape. “Even the rats were terrified” This barrage was intended to destroy enemy position so that when the allies made their move there would be no-one alive to defend the german positions and no-one there to fight the advancing men who would be able to walk into the German positions. The barbed wire would be cut to pieces and would cause no problem. However as we now know this is not what happened. The artillery barrage was a failure and did not reach most of the German troops who were hidden in bunkers 30 feet underground and did not cut the barbed wire but threw it around tangling it and making it more difficult to cross. The artillery barrage failure was massive reason that so many died and it is why I decided to begin my commemoration work on the 24th June as the artillery barrage began.
Some of the troops had been told “you won’t even need guns when we are finished, You’ll be able to walk over there and take the ground.All the Germans will be dead”
At 7:30am on the 1st July whistles blew and the men began to emerge from the trenches and began to walk in lines with heavy packs on their backs towards the enemy trenches. As the artillery barrage had ended with enough time to enable the Germans to realise that an attack was likely, the enemy were waiting and ready. The troops walking in lines were mown down. In minutes thousands lay dead and over 60% of the officers died within the first couple of hours. If you decided it was too dangerous and turned back there were men behind you who had revolvers and were ordered to shoot you.
Phillip Gibbs a journalist watched and wrote:
“Our men got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown down like grass by German machine gunners who, after our barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the open. Many of our best battalions were almost annihilated and our casuaties were terrible.”
John Buchan described the first day in his pamphlet:
The British moved forward in line after line, dressed as if on parade; not a man wavered or broke ranks; but minute by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge of high explosives, shrapnel, rifle and machine gun fire. The splendid troops shed their blood like water for the liberty of the world.
Deteriorating winter weather made Haig bring the offensive to an end. Since the 1st July , the British had 420,000 casualties, the French nearly 200,000 and the Germans around 500,000 lost. Allied forces had gained some ground but was only 12km at its widest point.
Peterborough lost 131 men in the battle of the Somme. This for a market town was a lot of men. Reading the details of those lost from streets that I know so well the battle becomes the stories of these men and their families who gave so much in this dreadful battle. it loses its numbers and becomes people and their lives. So many families decimated…………It is remembering the individuals that drives my commemoration work…..
A list of all those from Peterborough who died will be remembered in a separate blog and also by a tiny poppy in the installation THE QUEENSGATE SKY OF POPPIES in Peterborough 24th June-13th November. You can make a poppy and be a part of the installation in workshops or by sending for your poppy pack from www.evemarshall.co.uk
May they all Rest in Peace.