ROAD TO WAR -
|The early summer morning on 1st July 1916, was warm and sunny,
there were bright blue skies over the Somme, it was going to be
a scorching hot day, but the short peace of the morning was broken
by the roar of the last few hundred British artillery shells blasting
over their heads, exploding onto the German lines.
Soldiers waiting for the order to “Go over the top”
All along the front line thousands of tired, weary
soldiers rose from the bottom of their cold, damp trenches, where
they had spent the last few days and nights waiting for the terrible
noise of the bombardment to end, they stumbled about trying to
get warm, had a mug of tea boiled on the rear of the trench named
the parado, they kept 1 - 2inches of tea in the bottom to have
a shave with as it was Army regulations that every man shave and
clean his kit or would be on a charge...battle or no battle!
|Every soldier got prepared, checked and loaded their
rifles and readied themselves for the coming advance.
For all soldiers on every side, had the great fear of “hand
to hand” combat when the enemy trenches were finally reached…many
would use their shovels which had been sharpened on stones or grinding
wheels on one side giving the shovel an edge like a razor. This
formidable weapon would chop the enemy down easily by a swift blow
to the head and through the helmet, if the shoulder took a strike
it would slice the body right down to the waist.
Many used wooden stakes made from pick axe handles, wood poles,
whatever they could find with 6” nails hammered into the end
or lead piping would be formed at the “Business End”
…these were extremely devastating weapons ones in which survival
was the key against the enemy whatever form of weapon was used.
One last almighty sound would echo through the Battlefields of the
Somme, at exactly 07.28 a.m. the British blew the three mines at
La Boiselle, Lochnagar, and Hawthorn Ridge, this was the most thunderous
sound ever imaginable and only a few thousand yards away erupted
shaking the very ground like an earthquake, throwing thousands of
tons of mud and enemy bodies into the air for hundreds of feet,
finally cascading down in a tremendous pile of earth, rocks, and
dust. The soldiers witnessing this spectacle before their eyes were
shocked into life by the thunderous roar, and stood in amazement
at the massive blast that had just occurred.
In a matter of minutes all the terrible noise and shelling had stopped,
and suddenly as if an imaginary switch had been thrown…everywhere
was quiet…they all too soon realized it was “Zero Hour”.
|The time was 07.30am as 100, 000 infantry soldiers
each hunched under a sixty pound pack on their backs full of ammunition,
rations, wire cutters, spades, entrenching tools, moved in lines
towards the slip trenches and prepared themselves…for this
massive offensive that would soon begin along the 18 mile front
on the North of the River Somme.
As the thousands of soldiers waited in the front line trenches for
the whistles to blow signaling them to go “over the top”,
hundreds of them were instructed to wear tin triangles on their
for the command to go “over the top”
Many of them are certain to have
questioned this strange order, but none-the-less they obeyed.
The purpose of this order was that when the spotter planes rose
into the skies above the battlefield, the observer could identify
them by the sun glinting off the triangles on their backs, and
monitor their progress and position. The High command could then
discern from the information relayed to them by the spotter/observer,
how the battle was going, and if any advances had been accomplished
|The signal was given…all along the front line
“whistles blew” and the first battalions of infantry,
tired of the constant shelling and noise of the last week dragged
their weak frail bodies with heavy packs up through the slip trenches
and gaps in the barbed wire. As there were so many trying to get
through many scrambled up over the parapet where they all formed
up, and began their march out into…“no-man’s land”.
By 08.30am one hour later, the rest of the 20, 000 infantry troops
began to make their way across “no man’s land”,
following closely behind the first 100, 000 already moving slowly
The German troops had been cowering in fear and trepidation for
the last week in the bottom of their dugouts, deep in the safety
of their bunkers, since the start of the relentless “Hell”
of the bombardment that had erupted above them.
When the mines blew they felt the almighty shake of the ground for
miles around shocking them with total fear and foreboding as to
what would happen next. Suddenly it all went quiet, giving them
a clear indication that the British and French would now attack.
In the quietness that followed the Germans knew that the massed
armies of British and French infantry would soon be heading towards
them. The opposing frontlines were incredibly close in many places
only 300 to 600 yards apart.
The tangled mass of thick barbed wire protecting the German front
line trenches was a minimum of 60 feet / 20 meters deep, in some
areas it had been scattered about by the heavy shelling, but in
most part the barbed wire remained intact, the advancing troops
only realized this as they walked closer. This was a major obstacle,
as it either had to be cut through or clambered over, this created
another severe problem for them hindering any progress that they
tried to make..
The ground for hundreds of yards each side of the18 mile front line
was pock marked with deep shell crater holes, as it certainly would
have been with over 1, 500, 000 million shells being fired in the
last seven days at the enemy trenches, mostly if not all were filled
or partly filled with water as the night before there had been a
sudden downpour. It was misery, treacherous, deadly and frightening
for the advancing soldiers.
The front lines being so close only gave the German gunners and
infantry a matter of four or five minutes to leave their dark earthly
tombs of the past week, and come out of the dark depths. These machine-gunners
were the backbone of the German army, their killing potential unlimited
against the enemy
In a mad frenzy they dragged their machine guns and boxes of ammunition
up from the depths of the steep shaft stairs, and emerged into a
beautiful day of sunshine and clear blue skies.
All along the front line the machine-gunners rushed about like demons
setting up their weapons in trenches and shell craters and behind
anything that would give them protection, boxes of ammunition was
stacked one on top the other next to each gun, a canvas belt of
bullets was fed into the top, the cover securing plate was slammed
down, the machine guns were ready to fire…so they sat down
German machine-gunners…waiting for the
British advance on 1st July, 1916
As they looked up from their positions they
saw an unbelievable and amazing sight, lines of men advancing
stretched far in the distance both to the right and left as they
began to form up. The front line soon followed by a second, a
third, and fourth line of infantry, tens of thousands of men wearily
dragging their feet, stumbling over and through the masses of
muddy shell holes, onward and forwards as they had been commanded,
towards the seemingly empty German trenches.
|There seemed and strange eeriness in the air as the
soldiers slogged wearily on, anticipating that it was possibly true
what they had been told, that the wire had completely been destroyed
by the artillery shells and that Germans were all dead. The Germans
had not been destroyed at all, but were waiting for their own commander
to signal them and begin the killing of the men walking slowly towards
them. In a matter of minutes they would all become “easy targets”
for the murderous fire from the enemy guns.
|The signal was given and in a flash a tremendous hail
of rifle and machine-gun fire echoed from the German lines all along
the front as thousands of guns all clattered in devastating unison.
Bullets thudded into the flesh of the men at the front tearing them
apart, hundreds of men incredibly and all at once suddenly fell
to the ground gasping in pain. Many stumbled about screaming in
agony as blood spurted from gaping bullet holes in their frail weak
bodies, hundreds just crumbled when hit and fell to earth. Those
killed outright just went limp hitting the ground with a thud there
were no screams, no sound at all from their dead bodies.
All along the 18 mile front, the four lines of infantry soldiers
continued to be decimated by the machine-gun fire, men fell in thousands
as bullets whipped into their flesh. Those still advancing were
seen to suddenly throw up their arms and fall, never to get up again
as bullets tore them apart.
Those who had been hit tried desperately to drag themselves into
the nearest shell hole, anywhere that would give them cover, even
using dead pals to shield them from the dreaded machine-gun fire
zipping everywhere, holding their wounds and screaming out for help.
Hundreds of men literally bled to death lying in agony in muddy
shell craters as the blood from their horrific wounds flowed into
the mud of France, thousands would also bleed to death where they
lay with horrific injuries screaming, none was to come, they lay
in absolute agony and finally bled to death.
This was horrendous enough for the soldiers but in a few minutes
another terror was to come upon them. The Germans now fired flares
which rose into the blue summer sky and exploded, their smoke trailing
behind the red glowing flare that slowly fell to earth, immediately
signaling the German artillery far behind and well protected from
the front line trenches…to open fire!
The barrage started as high-explosive shells screamed over the heads
of the Germans and landed amongst the lines of British soldiers
still advancing, exploding without mercy and hurling red-hot, razor
sharp shrapnel of differing sizes accompanied by hundreds of red
hot steel balls that filled each shell flew to earth at high velocity
decimating all those below.
But still the brave soldiers kept advancing across “no man’s
land” towards an unseen enemy, all that could be seen was
the continues flash from the enemy machine-gun muzzles spouting
death at them.
Soldiers stood mesmerized by this action, suddenly men screamed
as they were cut in half, arms and legs were sliced off, heads fell
to the ground cut off at the neck, intestines fell out of gaping
holes in their abdomens, skulls and bodies were embedded with metal,
heads crushed in, the shrapnel cut them down in the hundreds and
Dead bodies scattered over the battlefield
|Bodies lay scattered everywhere across the battlefield, in grotesque
shapes and forms horrifically dismembered. British troops ran in
every direction desperate to find some cover, many diving into the
nearest shell hole to escape the ferocious deadly hail of fire and
bomb blast shrapnel.
All too soon the German machine gunners had the infantry troops
pinned down by their constant hurricane of fire, those British soldiers
laying in the bottom of crater holes were too petrified to move,
they remained motionless hoping that they wouldn’t be spotted,
but soon they would be up again advancing forward…then be
|It was without any doubt becoming and did become a
complete massacre of the British infantry.
It was too dangerous to send out the stretcher bearers, they only
had sixteen stretchers to a battalion of men, very little use at
all in helping the tens of thousands now lying wounded, and dying.
The bodies of these men would become food for the thousands of rats
that inhabited the trenches, always scurrying around searching for
food. The rats would gorge themselves on the dead and the dying
that were lying in “no man’s land”…the men
screamed in pain in desperation for assistance...no one would come!
They would all die and the flesh rot from their bones in days
and weeks before
they would be found!
British cemetery soon established to bury the thousands of dead
|Later it would become a known fact that many soldiers thought
that there was of plague of cats, when in reality it was the rats
that had grown so fat, eating the bodies of the dead soldiers.
As the bloody battle raged all along the front line thousands were
killed in the bloodbath of horror, the constant bombardment of German
cannon fire continued the orgy of a complete massacre upon the tired
and weary men, who had given all they could to keep advancing, but
finally gave in to death itself.
Thousands of decimated bodies lay there for many days until the
Medical and Grave Units came to remove them, or parts of what could
be found…tens of thousands would never be found for they had
been completely blown apart and nothing was left of them at all!.
The R.F.C. pilots and observers were ordered to fly over the battlefield
in a final check to find out and report whether there had been any
successful breakthroughs or not. The advance of troops were seen
as the battle still raged far below, the tin triangles on the backs
of the infantry proved invaluable as they were clearly spotted by
In a few places minor breakthroughs were recorded and in some areas
the German lines had been breached successfully, the pilots then
flew back to their bases to inform the High Command of the situation
on the battlefield. But the pilots could clearly see the devastation
clearly below, the thousands of bodies littering the Somme battlefield,
they would soon with great despondency and sadness return to their
bases and make out a report of what they saw and send it to the
High Command…it would be devastating to read!
The French fighting north of the river Somme,
broke through the German defences killing and capturing hundreds
of the enemy, due mainly to their artillery guns giving them constant
A breakthrough at Mametz for the British was a success, still
with many losses.
At Beaumont Hamel, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment had started the
battle with 752 men, by the late afternoon it had been decimated…only
68 were left alive.
The original trenches at Beaumont Hamel
The Memorial to all those who were killed from Newfoundland
Tragically hundreds if not thousands
would die alone on the Somme, murmuring incoherently, many calling
for their mothers and for help, until they finally expired, their
blood ran deep into the soil of France. Of the 35, 000 wounded
on that “Bloody” day, only a mere fraction received
hospital treatment…the rest would be left to die in the
mud and blood filled craters and their cries and screams for help
That is where they died and would be buried …they would
not be going home, this was their resting place for eternity
When the day was done the casualty list was confirmed. 20,000
or more British soldiers killed….57, 470 soldiers had been
seriously wounded and missing, nearly half of the complete battle-force,
a terrible disaster for the British Army!
As far as the eye can see… some of the dead from just one
battle during WW1
(C/R…www.edenbridgetown.com – Ian R Bridle)
Tyne Cot Cemetery to the British…taken in 1986
(C/R-Ian R Bridle)
|The German losses proved to be very light, although
difficult to actually calculate it is estimated that only 8, 000
were killed, and 2, 200 prisoners were taken, a big comparison compared
to the British casualties for the day!.
When the calculations were roughly made the staggering losses of
over I, 000, 000 million casualties were killed, wounded and missing
from the British, French and German Armies.
It was without doubt a tragic loss and waste, but the Generals of
High Command placed little importance on the horrific losses of
the day, the battle continued to drag on through the summer days
of July, August September, October…The “Battle of the
Somme” would continue unabated despite the horrendous losses
until 18th November1916 ….when it officially ended, after
141 days of killing.
It would become known as the “Battle of Disgrace” for
the Generals of the British Army and for those who planned it.
For this would become a tragic, horrendous day, would certainly
be remembered by future generations in the years to come!