The First Day
The Battle of the Somme: the first day, 1 July 1916
The Battle of the Somme was the British Army's major offensive on the Western Front in 1916. It was entrusted to General Rawlinson's Fourth Army which included thousands of confident citizen volunteers, keen to take part in what was expected to be a great victory. The main line of assault ran for 25,000 yards, nearly 14 miles, from Maricourt in the south, northwards to Serre, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt two miles further north. The intention was, in co-operation with the French, to establish as a first objective a new advanced line on the Montauban to Pozières ridge.
After an intense week-long artillery bombardment of the German positions, the storm of British shells increased just prior to zero-hour and, with staggering effect, merged with huge mine explosions to herald the attack. At 7.30am, on a clear midsummer's morning, the British infantry emerged from their trenches and advanced in extended lines at a slow steady pace across the grassy expanse of No Man's Land. There they met a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire from the surviving German defenders. Accurate German barrages, immediately added to the pandemonium, as shells engulfed the attackers and wrecked the crowded British assembly trenches. The advancing infantry (and many waiting to attack) suffered enormous casualties.
During the day German defences were broken at various points and occupied by the attacking British troops only for German artillery barrages to cut off their support and enemy counter-attacks force later withdrawals. The only permanent gains were made at the southernmost end of the battlefield, where in conjunction with the well conducted French assault, Montauban and Mametz were captured. By evening it gradually became apparent that the day had been a disaster for the British Army.
1 July 1916 witnessed extraordinary gallantry, immeasurable suffering and an unprecedented number of casualties. Despite the terrible setbacks Fourth Army HQ at 10pm ordered its Corps to continue to attack and set objectives for the next day.
Campaign map Army structure Terminology