The Battle of the Somme: The First Twenty Minutes

At exactly 0729, 1 July 1916, 1800 British and French artillery pieces bombarding the German trenches ceased firing. At 0729:42, the last echoes of the explosions from the last shell ended. For the next 18 seconds, as maddeningly long as only the second hand on a pocket watch can be, an eerie silence drifted across the Somme battlefield, as thousands of hushed and tense men waited for the signal. When the hand ticked to 12, junior officers blew their whistles, and 90,000 men went over the top, a number larger than the populations of Watertown NY, Leavenworth KS, and McKeesport, PA, combined.

They didn’t charge, or even jog. They walked. Some even formed ranks like their great-grandfathers did at Waterloo. They were heavily burdened with extra food, water, and ammunition, and they had 400 meters of no man’s land to cross. It was a long walk over open ground, but they were told that no Germans could have survived the week long bombardment. Also, their officers thought it prudent that they at least have the energy to engage at the end, if need be, in that most tiresome of activities, close quarters combat.

Most units were barely 20 meters from their trenches when they heard the first distinctive “crack” from a German Mauser rifle. Maybe a minute later the first Maxim machine gun opened fire. Very soon, many units came to the horrific realization that the wire to their front hadn’t been cut by the artillery. Within seconds, great swaths of men were cut down, as they continued to trudge forward, or jog slightly but only as far as one could carrying 70lbs of kit. Then German artillery, largely unaffected by the bombardment, began to fire. From 0732 until 0750 16 July 1916, about 450 men would die and more than 1300 wounded every minute. That is at least 1750 bleeding and horrifically mangled men in less time than it took you to read this.

The Battle of the Somme had begun.

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