Bad weather has forced a delay of the Somme offensive but now at last the British attack, supported by their French allies. The British plan of attack conforms to the ambitions of Haig, the commander of British forces in Belgium and France. Haig sees this as a breakthrough battle in which mobility will be restored to the Western Front. He thinks the infantry should be able to push through the German defences, whereupon the cavalry will be released to exploit the success.
The offensive is a huge undertaking. 55,000 British and French troops will assault the Germans in the first wave, with more following on behind them; all told 13 British and 5 French divisions are attacking. Some 2.5 million shells have been fired at the Germans since the bombardment began, to destroy their defences and cut the barbed wire in front of their positions. Mines are detonated under enemy positions. The Germans have also been subjected to intermittent gas attacks. In the skies above the battle the Allies have concentrated their aircraft and achieved total air superiority.
Things do not go as well as Haig expected. As the attacking troops move forward, they find the German barbed wire entanglements are still largely intact. And the artillery has failed to knock out the enemy’s machine gun nests. Soon the British are being cut to ribbons by machine gun fire and shrapnel as they try to find a way through the wire.
Things go the worst in the north and centre of the British sector. Here most British troops are killed in large numbers without coming near the German positions; shockingly, some 30% of British casualties are suffered by men still behind their own lines. Here and there some soldiers make it across to the enemy trenches but there is no breakthrough. Such advance parties find themselves cut off, easy prey for German counter-attacks. The disaster is compounded by a breakdown in communications: thinking that their men are pushing back the Germans, senior officers send forward subsequent waves to be killed.
Only in the southern sector is any success achieved. German positions are less well fortified here. The French have a higher concentration of heavy artillery. Unlike the British, they have more realistic goals: merely to penetrate the German defences rather than push through them. The British in the south benefit from French artillery’s targeting of German batteries in front of them. The British here also make use of experimental creeping barrages, where the infantry move forward just behind an artillery barrage that keeps shifting ahead of them. In the southern sector the British and French suffer relatively few casualties, taking many prisoners and pushing forwards in places more than a kilometre.
Such successes however cannot disguise that this day of carnage has been a disaster for the British. They have taken 57,740 casualties, of whom 19,240 are killed. French casualties may be as low as 1,600. The Germans have suffered too, taking some 13,000 casualties.
This is not the bloodiest day of the war so far. That dubious honour goes an episode in the Battle of the Frontiers in 1914, when the French lost 27,000 men killed in one day of butchery. But the British have not seen blood-letting on this scale previously: not in this war, or any other. Today is the worst day in the British Army’s history.
Drawing by Joe Sacco (French Embassy in the Netherlands)