The Battle of the Somme: The First Day

The week long artillery bombardment was largely ineffective. The German troops stayed in their deep bunkers, and the smoke and debris made corrections and assessment difficult. They caught the British on open ground, and once machine guns went into action, they massacred them.

The veterans of the old colonial army, the “Old Contemptibles” as Kaiser Wilhelm II dubbed them, were mostly either dead among the poppies at Ypres, or disbanded to form the cadres for Lord Kitchener’s New Army of volunteers. Most of the recruits joined the “pals” battalions in which they served with those whom they enlisted. In the coming weeks, many a small British village or neighborhood were informed that the entirety of their young men were either dead or wounded.

In the British zone, the fighting around the Tiepval village typified the day. The Ulstermen of the 36th Division captured the Schwaben Redoubt, but the 32nd Division just south at the Thiepval village was pinned down and slowly murdered. The 4th Army commanding general, LieutGen Henry Rawlinson, refused to deviate from the plan and instead of committing the reserves to the Swaben Redoubt and flanking the village strongpoint, he committed them to two unsuccessful and very bloody frontal assaults. To add insult to injury, a hard charging German brigade commander launched a counter attack without waiting for two other brigades to move into their assault positions, who were delayed. They seized the Schwaben Redoubt, and the retreating Ulstermen were massacred crossing back across no man’s land.

Despite the loss of more than 90,000 dead or wounded on 1 July, the largest single day’s battle casualties in history, there was some success. The more experienced French troops south of the Somme River captured most of their objectives, but because the British were so preoccupied with their zone, the French couldn’t exploit its success properly.

All along the front, smaller Schwabens and Thiebvals occurred and the British gained almost nothing on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The Battle would continue for another 144 days.

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