The Battle of the Somme: July - November 1916

John Quinn remembers the terrific losses at the Somme

When the First World War broke out in August 1914 the two principal adversaries in the West, the Germans and the French, thought the war would be short.

The Germans had complete confidence in the ‘Schlieffen Plan’, the strategy of sweeping through Belgium to take Paris from the north, while the French relied equally on ‘Plan XVII’, which involved a strike to the east through the lands lost in the Franco-Prussian War - Lorraine and Alsace. Neither side succeeded.

The French were thrown back toward Verdun and the Germans halted on the Marne, just short of their objective.As each side tried to outflank the other, the front line extended south-east and north-west.

In Flanders the small British Expeditionary Force made up of Regular and Territorial soldiers added its skills to those of the huge conscript army of France to halt the rush of the Germans toward the English Channel.

In October 1914, in a desperate action in front of Ypres, the British secured the northern end of what became known as the Western Front. The opposing forces dug in creating a complex of trenches shored up into lines of defence.

The Germans, despite having seized most of Belgium and penetrated deep into northern France, had not only over-extended their supply lines, but stiffening resistance from the Allies had brought the advance to a halt. The British now needed to build and strengthen its Expeditionary Force as the battles of 1915; Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and Loos proved costly to both Allied and German forces and did nothing to break the stalemate.

The British professional army had taken heavy losses and had to be reinforced with volunteers straight from civilian life. There was no shortage as some 2,500,000 men enlisted in a torrent of patriotic enthusiasm between August 1914 and the end of 1915.

Whole battalions were raised from single towns or trades and despite the lack of military experience this 'volunteer army' became a disciplined force of men, unproven, but with a willingness to fight. For many it was a chance to break away from mundane jobs:

Jack Christie born on the Shankill Road and who was only 16 years old at the outbreak of war recalled: ‘I enlisted because it was an escape route out of the mill, for surely life holds more than the mill can offer.’

For others, it seemed the right thing to do. John Patrick O Reilly was 18 years old when the war started. He worked in a bank in Baileborough, Co Cavan. He said: ‘I heard a Catholic priest preaching about how little Catholic Belgium had been attacked by Germany and was suffering. I joined the British Army after I heard that.’

Propaganda proved an effective weapon in recruitment, manipulating the youth of a nation and thrusting them into the carnage that would become known simply as ‘The Somme’.

The bloody horror of trench warfare was about to be unleashed on the youth of Britain and Ireland. For many the road to the Somme was paved with ideology. Volunteers with different goals, fighting for Ulster or Ireland, believed that by fighting for Britain their causes would be better served upon victory.

While the men of France bled at Verdun, more for political significance than for any strategic importance, pressure mounted on the Allied Command and in particular the British to open up the front and launch a mass attack against the German lines.

The location chosen was the Somme Valley the northern line of which was held by the British, while the French held the south across the River Somme.

However, the German command anticipated a large-scale attack in the north of the Somme and had time to consolidate its positions substantially. This immediately made up for its numerical disadvantage, as they took skilful advantage of the local topography, constructing concrete fortifications, reinforcing trenches that in every case overlooked the French and British lines, and digging innumerable underground communications networks (sometimes as much as 12m deep), as well as shelters and living quarters.

Both armies prepared for the attack in a bustling activity of planning and construction. British, German and French troops finally formed a concentration of approximately one million men living in a constant flow of relief and reinforcements amidst the crashing explosions tearing up the rolling terrain.

The battle began on June 24 1916 with an Allied barrage that continued day and night without interruption. It was designed to demolish the networks of barbed wire and destroy the German positions, but bad weather and inaccurate predictions of the effect of the bombardment meant that the underground networks survived.

Throughout the ferocious barrage the Germans had hidden in their bunkers, tormented by the incessant concussions that battered their trenches. But they survived and were able to deploy their machine guns as the Tyneside Irish and Scottish Brigades spearheaded the British 34th Division advance into the slaughter that became ‘the Somme’.

By the day's end, the Division lost 6,392 men, of whom 1,927 had been killed, as the positions around La Boisselle lay carpeted with the dead and wounded.

At Beaumont-Hamel, of the 752 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who advanced right up to the German lines through a hail of machine-gun fire, only 68 men emerged unscathed.

At Thiepval the British 32nd Division pressed forward, but although they penetrated part of the heavily enforced ‘Leipzig Redoubt’, they failed to capture Thiepval village which lay on the right flank of the advance by the 36th [Ulster] Division who emerged from Thiepval wood without cover toward the ‘Schwaben Redoubt’.

They charged into a barrage of exploding shells and German machine-gun fire. At a high cost in life they overran the successive lines of German trenches before reaching the heavily fortified redoubt itself. The Division’s 107 Brigade which consisted of the four Belfast battalions penetrated the redoubt, hurling packs of grenades down at the defending Germans.

Captain Eric Bell, a trench mortar officer, of the 9th Inniskilling Fusiliers from Tyrone, actually resorted to throwing his mortar bombs at the Germans. Bell’s battalion was part of the 109th Brigade whose objective was the south-eastern comer of the redoubt which consisted of a collective junction of trenches known as ‘the Crucifix’. Despite heavy losses they claimed their objective.

The 108th brigade, faced with the equally arduous task of assaulting the north-eastern sector also suffered heavy losses and failed in their objective.

Despite the success of the Ulstermen in reaching the redoubt, reinforcements did not reach them to exploit their achievement, which also accounted for 500 German prisoners. Exhausted and with many of its officers killed or wounded, the Ulstermen were forced to evacuate the redoubt under repeated German counter-attacks.

By the evening of the July 1, the remnants of the 36th [Ulster] Division were at last relieved by the West Yorkshires who were to occupy the same position for the next three months. The following day, the 36th [Ulster] Division was pulled out of the battle, relieved by the 49th [West Riding] Division. The cost in life to the 36th amounted to 5,533 casualties dead or wounded: some 2,000 had died.

Captain Bell, who earlier that morning had reached the redoubt, died later in the day leading an ad hoc formation of infantry. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Across the nine counties of Ulster, blinds and curtains covered up windows as homes went into mourning. Whether a mill worker, farm hand or farm owner, whether skilled or unskilled, the carnage of the Somme struck every corner of Ulster society.

In the Co Antrim village of Bushmills, 23 men had died on July 1 with only six having known graves. Overall, British casualties for the July 1 1916 were 19,240 killed or died of wounds, 35,493 wounded and 17,758 missing, with 585 taken prisoner. Never before, or since has the British Army suffered such losses in battle.

The Somme battle was to continue until November 1916 through intense trench warfare, miserable primitive conditions, and physical and mental torture. Thousands more died. Guillemont which had been hard fought over, fell to the British on Septemberb 3. Ginchy also fell to the 16th [Irish] Division. The 16th played a vital role in the capture of both these strategic positions.

The same month, the Battle of Thiepval Ridge began and Thiepval village was captured on the September 27 within 24 hours of the battle commencing. By mid-November, after four months of bloody carnage, the objectives set for the July 1 were finally achieved. The ‘Schwaben Redoubt’ fell on November 10 and three days later the 51st Highland Division captured Beaumont-Hamel. All that remained of the village was one wall of the railway station.

When the British took the redoubts they found the bunkers went down to a depth of 40-50 feet and emerged into a system like a rabbit warren. Now dead bodies lay everywhere and the smell of death, mingled with the warm damp air, drifted across the Thiepval ridges.

The village of Guillemont literally no longer existed; it was just a scarred area of battle. The battlefield was now one of shattered roads, tortured and denuded fields, heaps of stones where once villages had stood, and a few stumps indicating that there once had been a wood.

The cost of the fighting had cost Britain and its Dominions 419,654 casualties, 125,000 of them dead. The French lost 204,253 dead or wounded.

For the Germans the loss of Thiepval, and the forward positions at the southern end of the front, meant the advantage of the terrain was no longer with them. The loss at Verdun had also taken its toll and the holding of a large salient in front of Bapaume and Peronne no longer served a purpose. In the spring of 1917, they made a tactical withdrawal to the heavily fortified ‘Hindenburg Line’ where the characteristics of the countryside favoured defence.

The cost to the Germans of resisting the British and French on the Somme had been immense. More than 300 counter-attacks had been mounted and it is estimated the rate of casualties numbered well over 500,000 men. Enormous losses for experienced troops.

The withdrawal to the ‘Hindenburg Line’ is now seen as a great tactical manoeuvre. It shortened the defensive line, which in turn released thirteen divisions from the front line into the reserve. By April 1917 the Germans were established in their new positions, having denuded and devastated the area between the old and new lines during the withdrawal. The war was about to enter another bloody summer of carnage: man made, 'while the devil offers himself a bloody carnival.'