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The First Day

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.

2 - 13 July

In the early morning of 2 July 1916, the British 30th Division, holding the newly won Montauban Ridge repulsed two determined German counter-attacks. Both British and German commands recognised it was here, in the cramped southern sector of the battlefield (where most of the meagre British successes of 1 July had been achieved), that offered the most likely opportunities for further exploitation. But in the immediate aftermath of 1 July Rawlinson sanctioned repeated assaults against unbroken German defences over the battle-strewn uplands of the entire line of his original attack.

The period 2-13 July was characterised by a series of grindingly slow and costly British subsidiary attacks (principally in the southern end of the line), made to secure the flanks for a later major assault on the German second line positions. In a succession of bloody encounters the Fourth Army sought to secure Trônes Wood, Mametz Wood and Contalmaison; operations characterised by vicious hand to hand fighting, within devastated villages and shell-thrashed woods riddled with concealed strongpoints. Heavy rain on 3 and 4 July produced the first quantities of the infamous Somme mud and hinted at the difficulties which terrain and weather would pose later in the campaign.

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