THIS DAY IN HISTORY: First Day of Battle of the Somme

On this day in history, 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme; the British Army suffers its worst day, losing 19,240 men (WWI).

The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a prominent place in British history and popular memory and has come to represent the loss and apparent futility of the First World War.

The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was planned as a joint operation between British and French forces to break the deadlock on the Western Front. But due to the German attack on the French at Verdun, Britain and its Empire would have to take the lead on the Somme.

The offensive was preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment intended to cut German barbed wire and destroy defences. However, the decision of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig to extend the original objectives of the attack meant this artillery fire had to cover a wider area. The British front for the attack stretched from Serre in the north to near Montauban in the south, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt.

The offensive began at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. Many of the infantry who went over the top were volunteers of 1914, including Pals battalions made up of friends, relatives and workmates serving side by side. This was their first experience of a major action in the largest attack the British Army had yet conducted.

The British had some success in the south, where the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions took all of their objectives around Montauban and the 7th Division captured Mametz. At Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) Division seized the Schwaben Redoubt, but was forced to withdraw because of lack of progress on its left and right. French forces operating to the south of the River Somme also achieved some success.

These limited gains came at a high cost. The first day of the Somme was the deadliest day in British military history – of the 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 men had been killed. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. Ultimately the Battle of the Somme would continue for another four months. It became an attritional battle of limited territorial gain, but one that taught British commanders important lessons for later fighting on the Western Front.



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