1st July 1916 - This was to be the big breakthrough. The push that would split the German line in two and relieve the French who were under pressure at Verdun. It turned out that on day 1, Z day, as it was codenamed, the British Army suffered the most casualties they had ever lost in a single day.
The plan was fantastic in its simplicity. General Haig had taken charge of the offensive from the French General Joseph Joffre and had taken over as Commander in Chief of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) from General Sir John French. The British 4th army, led by General Rawlinson, would attack a 15-mile front between Serre and Curlu, just North of the Somme. Meanwhile the French would attack south of the Somme between Curlu and Peronne. Five days of artillery pounding starting on Saturday 24th June, ‘U’ day, would lead to the destruction of the German positions, demoralising and stunning them, allowing the 100,000 infantrymen to walk slowly through no-man’s land to capture German lines. The cavalry would then follow up and capture the Germans as they were fleeing allowing the army to break through to Cambrai and Douai to split the Germans.
As it turned out the shelling of the German positions lasted a week and it stopped on ‘Y’ day, 30th June. At 06:00 another hour and half of shock and awe would take place before the infantry emerged from their trenches at 07:30. What possibly could go wrong?
Unfortunately the German position, on a ridge, was much more heavily fortified than was thought. Also the plan was not a secret and had been talked about for weeks with news getting back to the enemy. The Germans had constructed concrete shelters 20-30 feet underground. They had protected themselves with barbed wire 40 yards wide that was as thick as a finger. Thus when the artillery fire started the Germans escaped into these bunkers and emerged unscathed and the barbed wire intact. Over 1.5 million shells were fired – more than in the whole of the first year of the war. A further 250,000 were fired in the hour and a half of that July morning. The noise was such that it could be heard on Hampstead Heath 300 miles away.
When the shelling stopped it became obvious to the Germans that the ground offensive was about to start. Waiting in the trenches was a new group of British soldiers, sometimes dubbed Kitchener’s Pals battalions, after the campaign to get volunteers in August 1914. Many were fighting side by side with people from the same town and village having signed up en masse. They carried about 66 pounds (33kg) of equipment that included rifle, bayonet, 170 rounds of ammunition, 2 grenades, pick, shovel, 4 empty sandbags, wire cutters, water bottle and gas helmets. Unfortunately most never got the chance to use them.
As they stepped out into no-man’s land they were met with heavy machine gun fire from the enemy who had had time to get back into position and wait for the British attack. By the end of the first day 20,000 soldiers had been killed, 60% of officers had died. Some entire units had been wiped out and a generation from some towns and villages had been lost.
On 11th July Rawlinson had captured the German lines and Haig decided to continue the push into the summer and then on into November. Tanks arrived on 15th September and were deployed. Of the 50 that were there, only 24 were fully functioning but they did make an impact. When snow caused a halt to the offensive on November 18th the Allies had advanced 5 miles. This was at a cost of 420,000 British casualties, 200,000 French and over 500,000 German ones. Every mile captured came at a loss of 84,0000 British soldiers. Ironically enough that ground was lost in the German Spring offensive of 1918.