Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

JULY 1st  

On this day in history in 1916, took place the first day of the Battle of The Somme.  

The Somme was a British initiative of the First World War, when after constant bombardment of German positions, thousands of foot soldiers left the security of the trenches and marched out to face the enemy.

The First World War started in 1914, when the German army crossed the Rhine and invaded France. Britain joined the war to defend France, but at the time, only had an army of about 200,000 men. When the war started, half the British troops were sent to garrison Ireland, some were retained at home and the rest, the British Expeditionary Force, were sent to assist the French. The German Kaiser referred to the British Expeditionary Force, as ‘a contemptible little army’, and from then the group called themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.  

When they arrived in the war zone, they found that the French had met the German army, head to head, and that there had been no decisive result, and that the two armies had spread out into two lines facing each other, and had dug themselves into trenches for protection. The British Expeditionary Force joined the French army, building trenches facing the German army, in a trench line that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  

The British had made an early attempt to break out of the trenches, at the First Battle of Ypres. The result was mass slaughter on both sides. It was said that the British Expeditionary Force ‘died at Ypres’. The German units were young reservists who had not seen service before. For the Germans, this battle became known as ‘Kindermord’, the death of the children. After Ypres, both sides stayed in trenches, occasionally sniping at each other from positions of safety.  

In 1916, it was feared that the French line would collapse at Verdun, so the new British general, Douglas Hague, decided on a new initiative. He decided that the time had come to attack. He prepared for battle by five days of artillery assault of a 25 mile length of the battle line. This was intended to kill or at least drive away all resistance on this particular stretch. On 1st July, at 7:30 A.M., at a given signal, officers and men climbed out of the trenches and advanced. At some points of the line, German defences had been wiped out and the British troops advanced without difficulty. At other points, German gun batteries were still intact and advancing British troops were wiped out. Some groups were almost completely annihilated. The worst affected were the Tyneside Irish Brigade and the Accrington Pals with about 90% casualties. An exact count of the dead on the first day was impossible but it is estimated that 8,000 British troops were killed that day.  

The Battle of the Somme continued for another three months, during which British and Empire troops suffered 140,000 casualties and gained about 100 square miles of territory. After this, the trench lines were re-established and the war continued as usual. In 1917, other breakouts were made, making extensive use of tanks. These forays were slightly more successful than the Somme, but the war only came to an end in 1918, when the German army ran out of materiel and were obliged to sue for peace.

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