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Zero Hour
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 back packs.
Ready 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 or not.
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 forward.
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 and waited.
Deadly 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 thousands.

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 shot down.
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 the observer.
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 support.
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 unheard.
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!
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