‘Amid Death’s harvest on France’s Plain’

The Barnsley Pals Memorial at Sheffield Memorial Park, Serre

104 years ago this very evening in Picardy, a new and inexperienced British army marched towards the trenches of the Somme. This unique volunteer army raised by the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener was preparing for its first major battle of the First World War. They were waiting for the moment for which they, for the best part of two years they had trained and laboured for. These men were fresh, high in morale, full of confidence and were preparing for the ‘Big Push’. On a 16 mile front from Serre in the north to Montauban in the South, this raw and never been challenged British volunteer army were preparing for an assault they believed would change the course of the war.

24 hours later, 60,000 British Soldiers were casualties, nearly 20,000 men were killed in one single day, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army before or since. The dream of a walk to Berlin was shot away in seconds, as multiple machine gun bullets hurtled with ferocity into the lines of advancing infantry cutting rank and file into pieces. 1st July 1916 left a psychological scar that still although past living memory, leaves an indelible scar on our national psyche. The innocence and ideals of that generation that was sacrificed on that day has haunted us ever since. After that one single day everything changed. Some see it as the beginning of the end of our Imperial journey, some see it as a massive error in judgement and over expectation. In the case of a future Field Marshal in a war a generation later, the experience of the Somme made him more determined to protect his own soldiers when they advanced and provide every means at his disposal to keep them alive. So that the nightmare would never again be repeated.

Plans for a combined British-French on the the Somme had been agreed at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915, in which both armies would attack together side by side along the banks of the River Somme. When Germany struck at Verdun on 21st February 1916, France’s priority was centered around the survival of the citadel. Britain for the very first time would have to take the leading role. It was time for Britain to prove her capability to make battle on her German adversary. In France’s opinion it was time for Britain to pay her war effort with blood.

The German positions on the northern uplands of Picardy were arguably the best defensive trench systems on the Western Front. Using the high ground and incorporating occupied villages into their defensive systems, the German army had used two years of occupation to develop their trenches and create defensive redoubts. In front of their front line trenches and redoubts vast belts of barbed wire were placed to hamper any potential attacks. Near Serre was the Heidenkopf, which to the British was called the Quadrilateral. At Beaumont Hamel was ‘Y’ Ravine. At the soon to be infamous village of Thiepval there were 2 defensive redoubts. To the north was the Schwaben Redoubt, to the south the Leipzig Redoubt and the Wunderwerk section of trenches. Villages such as Ovillers, La Boisselle, Fricourt, Mametz, Montauban and Carnoy were converted into mini fortresses by the Germans, each were interconnected by trenches, defensive dugouts, interlocking fields of fire, barbed wire entanglements and most importantly deep underground shelters for the soldiers manning the front line trenches.

This new inexperienced British Army was very different of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the early days of 1914. They comprised of the finest generation of men that Britain arguably had ever produced. This generation of men was the first to be educated by the state, the first to be given a hot school meal, and had very high hopes for the future. The upper class officers had been taught the exploits of Wellington at Waterloo, Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim in 1705 in their respective universities and military colleges. They had total belief and conviction in that what they were doing was for the King and most importantly their country and Empire. This attack, they believed would signal the beginning of the end of the war and finally bring Germany to its knees. It would be a glorious return home.

Using similar tactics which had been used to some success at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, the British High Command believed that Artillery alone could smash and destroy one of the most elaborate trench systems on the Western Front. Vast quantities of Shrapnel shells would be used to cut the barbed wire entanglements, whilst the heavier artillery guns would be used to destroy the German trench system. Then after a significant bombardment which was supposed to last five days, (it became seven after bad weather) the advancing British infantry would cross No-Mans-Land and literally walk through the German defences without seeing any German troops alive. Rather than take these trenches, they would be consolidated before moving on to the next objective.

The overwhelming problem was that the British did not have the sufficient amount of guns per yard of the 16 miles of German trenches, a historian later wrote ‘It probably would have taken several small nuclear devices to achieve the objectives’. The vast majority of shrapnel shells, cases of shells filled with lead balls were not properly capable of cutting the German barbed wire entanglements, and that the high explosive shells did not detonate on impact due to faulty and rushed manufacture. Over a million Shells were fired at the German defences on the Somme Battlefront in the period 24th June-1st July 1916, the estimate is that probably 1 in 10 shells actually detonated on impact. Reports were made saying that the shrapnel shells were having little or no impact on the barbed wire defences. But the plan was kept the same, and nothing was changed. As a result the barbed wire would be as much as a nuisance than the rattle of a German Maxim machine gun.

German soldiers, hidden in underground shelters up to 40 feet deep waited for the seemingly unending hell of artillery bombardment to cease. They waited under tremendous strain, nerves wracked with the noise and vibration of constant shell fire, as well as the fear of being buried alive. They were also very hungry as food and water supplies were none existent. Food ration parties were killed on their way up to the bombarded front line positions. The tension was slowly racking up to breaking point.

Just before 7.30 on the morning of July 1st 1916 the bombardment stopped and the Germans emerged unscathed from their underground shelters. In the skies above the larks were singing their song. Waiting for their adversaries to advance towards them. They loaded their rifles and machine gun belts. Then the whistles blew to signal the beginning of the attack. Stunned that the attacking British Infantry were walking casually towards them, they waited until the very last moment. The machine gunners prepared for the order to fire.

The rest is as they say history,

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