In the final week of June 1916, the British and French forces would fire somewhere close to a million a and half shells at the German lines in the Somme sector, as part of their plans to soften up the target and hopefully make things a walkover for the hundreds of thousands of troops scheduled to go over the top and cross no man’s land on the 1st of July. While not unique to the campaigns of the western front, the sheer scale of this bombardment is staggering, a feeling that can be matched only by its colossal failure in its initial objective.
So many things went wrong with the artillery in the British sectors, that it was almost farcical. In order to get as many shells as possible, quality was sacrificed for quantity, and a huge proportion of the shells fired were duds, that failed to explode and did little more than make limited impressions on the earth. The British used large amounts of shrapnel shells, not high explosive, that were ill-suited to the job of churning up barbed wire lines and destroying fortifications. And the Allies completely under-estimated the strength of German defensives: the enemy had dug-in deep in the soft earth of the Somme and Ancre basin, building bunkers and advanced trench systems where the shells couldn’t destroy them. When the guns finally fell silent, the Germans were rattled, maybe deafened in some parts, but they weren’t knocked out of the fight. Indeed, the length of the bombardment was warning enough, British leadership preferring to devastate over time rather than try and catch the Germans off-guard with a limited “lightning strike” assault just before the infantry attack.
When the 1st of July dawned, half a million Allied troops over a twenty-five mile front were ready. The last of artillery was fired off, and mines that had been carefully placed in extensive digging operations were detonated, to little tactical gain, but to great benefit to the Germans, who now had ample warning for what was minutes away from occurring. Zero hour was set for 0730, and it was then, on a day of clear skies but some mist, that the majority of the infantry clamoured over the top of their trenches and began their advance. Some had decided to set out a few minutes early, so they could form up in proper formation in no man’s land and try and surprise the enemy. Unnervingly for some soldiers, in parts of the line of the attack the Germans were already counter-attacking with their artillery, clear evidence that the massive bombardment hadn’t done its job.
For the purpose of this entry, I will take an objective-by-objective approach, focusing first on the Irish unit that is most associated with the “Battle of Albert” (the more formal title for the first day of the Somme Campaign): the 36th (Ulster) Division. Having been in the trenches for most of the year thus far, the advance on the 1st of July was the 36th’s proper baptism of fire.
As discussed, the 36th were part of the forces that was aimed squarely at the fearsome Schwaben Redoubt, an intimidating assembly of machine gun posts and barbed wire. Across the line of advance, the troops advanced in different ways: the traditional narrative of soldiers ordered to mass in lines and walk to the opposing trench lines, over fears they were too inexperienced to do anything else, is only partially true. The 36th, utilising smaller groups of soldiers to go through the galps in the wire, emphasized mobility over mass of men, tactics that were largely in use by the French at the time.
Despite this, the German infantry and machine gunners had a large range of targets. Fire opened up, and the British fell in droves. Entire companies in the first ranks were wiped out. And yet, they went on, through the fire, through the tangled nets of barbed wire, through the mortars and the artillery and into the teeth of the Redoubt. The 10th Royal Innsikilling Fusiliers and 13th Royal Irish Rifles were among the first to attack into and take positions inside the Redoubt, before having to dig-in as best as they could and repel German counter-attacks.
Successive waves of other 36th Division units were mown down as they left their trenches and the small amount of protection granted by the Thiepval Wood area, a few surviving to join the fighting around the Redoubt, the others left where they fell in no man’s land. Other units were attacking nearby, taking the German front line a few minutes after leaving their own trenches, but at an appalling cost in lives. Still, the Ulstermen’s impetus cannot but be admired: the 11th and 15th Royal Irish Rifles took little more than an hour to reach the third German trench line, shooting and bayonetting as they went, before they were the unfortunate victims of friendly artillery fire, the British batteries moving slower than the infantry.
All across that section of the line, the 36th and other units saw their soldiers come under withering fire almost as soon as they had left the trenches, and no amount of “No surrender!” sentiment could save them. Worse still, failures on either side of the 36th’s section of assault meant that whatever gains the Ulster Division had made were perilously exposed from both flanks.
The fighting in the Schwaben Redoubt was back-and-forth with a particularly vicious character. A disproportionate amount of officers, many of them young men leading from the very front, and so the first to be targeted, were dead, and the leaderless units lacked command and information about what was happening elsewhere. More battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles would reach the Redoubt, and what British troops were there fought as valiantly as they could to clear it out and reach the “Crucifix” section at its rear. But under fire from all sides, and with the Germans in a better position to launch attacks, failure was inevitable.
As night fell, the 36th was in control of a significant section of the Redoubt and of large sections of the German line, but their position, without reinforcement and with supplies running low, was completely untenable. They were ordered back across no man’s land and into their original positions, the expense of the day counting for naught in their section of the attack.
To the north, the 4th Divisions contingent of the Royal Dublin and Royal Irish Fusiliers were flung into the fray near Beaumont Hamel, to find that the German wire was still largely in place. Many died trying to clear a path through the impediment, funnelled into narrow gaps that were easy targets for German machine guns. What few made it to the initial objective were soon forced back. The tragic farce was added to by the fact that later attacks were countermanded too late, and some companies advanced to slaughter needlessly. Later still, the 1st Royal Innsikilling Fusiliers attacked the nearby Hawthorn Redoubt, as threatening as the Schwaben, and were the subject of murderous enfilade fire from both flanks. Reaching barbed wire, they were stuck, and all but wiped out.
To the south, the 1st Royal Irish Rifles were part of the attack on the Ovillers-Pozieres line. Getting out of their trenches and through their own lines of wire accounted for many: the rest somehow managed to take the first two German lines, only to have to abandon their gains when the efforts on either flank failed. Staying in place in such circumstances was suicide, and thus was the pattern of the fighting: the big offensive needed a unity of advance in order to succeed, and this simply didn’t happen.
At Boisselle, the Tyneside Irish went forward, having one of the longest stretches of no man’s land – nearly a full mile – to cover. Under fire all the way, a bare amount of troops were still in a fit state to fight when they reached the German lines, but in no state to actually take their objectives. Their division, the 34th, would have the highest casualties of any division on the first day of the attack. One of the clearest surviving photographs taken that day is of the Tyneside Irish, taken just as they left their trenches.
Further south, and under-reported in British-focused histories of the event, the French contingent of the advance had actually made excellent progress, taking most of their first day objectives, benefitting from the greater use of high explosive shells in their part of the advance, along with their more appropriate infantry tactics. But with the lack of success further north, the French gains were hamstrung, being little more than a new salient to have to defend from flanking attacks.
The first day of the Somme is the worst single day in the history of the British military. Over 57’000 of the men involved were casualties: over 19’000 of those were dead, many of them members of Kitchener’s New Army, taking part in their first proper engagement, and never to take part in another. Two and a half thousand of them were Irish, predominantly members of the 36th, who lost 2’000 dead and several thousand more injured in their section of the fighting alone, a third of the divisions strength. Unsurprisingly, they were pulled out of the firing line soon after. While not the worst day in Irish military history, the day ranks highly enough. And, taking into consideration the amount of blood that was shed and men lost who could not easily be replaced, the gains that had been made along the entirety of the line were catastrophically limited.
And it was just the beginning. More offensives would soon be launch, more efforts to re-capture the initiative and force the gap that the opening days fighting had failed to do. The British and the French would still be throwing themselves at the German lines 140 days later. And the Irish, new and old, would be right in the middle of it.
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