Battle of Somme Sixty Thousand British Casualties Day One



“A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a communication trench during the Battle of the Somme. The date is believed to be 1 July 1916, the first day on the Somme, and the unit is possibly the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles (25th Brigade, 8th Division).” photo and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

The Royal Irish Rifles was a regular British Army regiment recruited primarily in the northern Irish counties and one of the eight regular British regiments raised and stationed in Ireland before the partition of the country. The regiment was stationed in Belfast.

These men have obviously finished taking rations to the front line trenches since few are carrying anything and they would not be so relaxed if they were close to the front line. Usually the ration parties went up at night. A communication’s trench would be exactly that: a trench running perpendicular to the main trench. No trenches were dug in a straight line. They were all dug in a zig-zag pattern so that if the Germans overran a trench, they couldn’t shoot every soldier in the trench.

First day of the Battle of the Somme British troops go over the top. Many were hit as they climbed out of their trenches.

The first day of the Somme has become a symbol of military incompetence. Both British and French artillery had pounded the German trenches for days but this only gave the Germans notice that an attack was being prepared. German engineers had created very deep and fortified dugouts for their infantry which Allied artillery shells did not penetrate.

British troops leaping a trench on first day of the Battle of the Somme. If the first wave captured a trench the second wave then took their turn. They leapt over the captured trench and endeavored to capture the next one.

When young British subalterns stood up and blew their whistles to signal their men to go over the top, many never made it very far from the trenches since they were shot down by German machine gun fire as soon as they exposed themselves.  Numbers of men were killed as they were climbing up out of their trenches and fell back in, on top of the other men waiting to climb the ladder.

20,000 British soldiers were outright killed on that first day. 40,000 were wounded.

Incredibly, sixty percent of all officers in the attacking formations were killed.

Most of these were young men, 19, 20,21, who went first as officers are supposed to do. Thus exposed, the young officers were mowed down.

(Source: BBC)

The First World War never should have happened and need never happened. But events got out of control, politicians maneuvered for their own personal advantage, various states made impossible demands on each other. As in World War Two, it was the Germans who fanned the flames and launched the Great War for which they paid dearly. But so did everyone else.

The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July 1916 until sputtering to and end in November of 1916. Many of the men who went over the top were young conscripts. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

War is often incredibly foolish and causes more problems than it solves. World War One was the most tragic event of the 20th Century since it set in motion forces which turned the century into the bloodiest in history.



Artillery Killed 50% of soldiers in World One and Two


British Artillery in action at Gallipoli



A British 60 pounder Mk I battery in action on a cliff top at Cape Helles, Gallipoli, possibly in June 1915. The unit might be the 90th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, located forward of Hill 114. The gun has the inscription “Annie” painted on the barrel.

(photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum)


The industrial age gave generals the ability to pound their enemies with greater and greater artillery barrages. In both World War One and World War Two, over 50% of casualties were caused by artillery. I was reminded of this anew last night when I was reading The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich by Robert M. Citrano. These statistics from his book will give you a sense of the pace of escalation of shells fired in just a brief time frame:

…during the Russo-Japanese War (1904 to 1905), the Russian artillery expended an average of 87,000 rounds a month, seen then as an incredible figure. Less than a decade later, in the First Balkan War, the Bulgarian Army’s monthly rate had grown to 254,000 shells. By 1916, the French were averaging 4,500,000 rounds a month. During the week long battle for Messines Ridge (June 3—10, 1917), British guns fired 3,258,000 rounds.

[Source: The German Way of War: From the Thirty Years’ War to the Third Reich by Robert M. Citrano.]

In preparation for the First Battle of the Somme, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. This barrage had almost no effect on the German troops who were waiting out the massive artillery fire in very deep shelters.

On 1 July 1916, the young officers leading the troops blew their whistles at 0730 and the British troops “went over the top,” that is over the top of the trench. German troops, almost untouched by the artillery barrage, emerged from their dugouts, brought up the machine guns and mowed down the British soldiers. By the end of the day, British and Imperial troops had taken 60,000 casualties with 20,000 killed. (source BBC)

While the BBC website says 60 per cent of all officers in the attacking divisions were killed, I’m not sure that figure is correct since I have read in numerous academic histories that “only” 40% of officers were killed.

 Artillery on somme

Mark V 8 inch howitzers in action on the Somme, 1916. During the preliminary bombardment leading up to 1st July the British artillery fired more shells at the 16 mile length of trenches to be assualted than on the entire Western Front over the preceding 12 months.

(Photo courtesy of the 6th Battalion, Royal Berkshire Regiment)





20,000 British Soldiers Killed on First Day of Battle of the Somme



British troops negotiate a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme. Photograph: PA. Courtesy of the Guardian of London


 ‘The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war’

Secretary of State for War and subsequently Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

At 7:30 am on 1 July 1916, subalterns blew their whistles and one hundred thousand British soldiers, each carrying 60 pounds of equipment, climbed out of their trenches and began to plod as quickly as they could toward the German lines. Preceding the attack had been a staggering artillery barrage of a million shells fired over the course of a week.

Unfortunately for the British,  this had little effect on the Germans who had dug very deep bunkers in the hard chalk soil. A creeping artillery barrage preceded the British troops as they attacked but it went too fast and left the men exposed. The Germans mowed down the attacking British. Literally. It was a slaughter. I’ve been re-reading John Keegan’s excellent history, “The First World War” which I recommend most fervently.

Of that horrific day Keegan writes that of the 100,000 men who advanced into no man’s land, 20,000 were killed, 40,000 wounded. It was the bloodiest day in British military history and haunted the survivors till the end of their days. To make it worse, if that is possible, Keegan says, “in offensive terms, the advance had achieved nothing. Most of the dead were killed on the ground the British held before the advance began.”

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander, felt the Germans had been shaken by the attack. This was before he knew the full extent of the disaster which had befallen British arms that day. Writes Keegan, “if the Germans had been shaken, it was by the amazing spectacle of unexampled gallantry, courage and bulldog determination….”

Once many German units realized their lives were no longer at risk and the British were falling back, they ceased fire so the more lightly wounded British soldiers could make it back to their own lines. “60% of all officers involved on the first day were killed,” according to the BBC.

Incredibly, the British and French regrouped and attacked at different places along the German line for another almost five months. The Battle of the Somme, which encompasses all twelve battles in the area associated with the campaign, began on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British Army suffered 420,000 casualties (that is killed and wounded) and the French Army suffered over 195,000 casualties making a total of 615,000 casualties for the Allies. The horrific slaughter accomplished almost nothing.



A British trench near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment

The Germans took more than 650,000 casualties making a total of more than 1.2. million men killed or wounded on all sides. (Figures from the BBC).  Hence, the Somme goes down as one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Western world.  Truly, it would have been far better for Western civilization if Imperial Germany had knocked France out of the war in the first few months, which she almost did, and negotiating a peace agreement. So many lives would have been saved.

The catastrophe of the Somme led to the collapse of the Asquith government in Great Britain and Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George on 7 December 1916, twenty days after the end of the battle.


The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. (photo courtesy of