On the 1st July 1916 the British Army attacked the German Army along the line of the Somme. The aim was to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. The result was the greatest disaster in British military history. At the end of the day the British had suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead.
The losses were particularly heavy along the northern part of the line. The Newfoundland Regiment was wiped out before Beaumont-Hamel. It suffered the worst losses of the day. “A great many fell before they even crossed the British line. Many more were hit as they picked their way through the gaps in the British wire. With exemplary courage, the survivors picked up their assault formations as best they could and “with chins tucked down as if walking into a blizzard” continued toward the German line about 400 metres further on”.
The Pals battalions suffered particularly heavy losses all along the Somme. These volunteer units had been raised with the promise that recruits could serve alongside men from their own town [e.g. the Accrington Pals], the same school [The “Grimsby Chums” was formed by former schoolboys of Wintringham Secondary School in Grimsby] and the same organisation [Glasgow Trams]. There was even a Stockbrokers’ Battalion.
The moving photograph above [not mine] is looking north and shows the Beaumont-Hamel cemetery in the foreground. Then the Redan Ridge N0. 2 cemetery and the Redan Ridge No. 3 cemetery at the top. Over the rise are the last resting places of the men who attacked Serre. Many of the headstones mark the graves of men who are ‘Known Unto God’ [i.e. could not be identified]. Serre Road No. 2 has over 7,000 burials with nearly 5,000 unidentified. There are so many unidentified because bodies from the 1st July 1916 lay rotting in No Man’s Land, blown apart by shellfire or gnawed by rats, until 1917 when the Germans moved out of the area.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] web site has a KMZ file of the locations of commonwealth cemeteries and monuments in France. It holds over 3,000 locations and can be imported into Google Earth. The image below shows the area around Beaumont-Hamel and the GWGC] sites.
At Serre, the soldiers of the first wave left their trenches, passed through the British wire and lay down in No Man’s Land to await the end of the bombardment. This ceased at 7.30 a.m., and the men of the 12th York & Lancaster (Sheffield City Battalion) and the 11th East Lancashires (Accrington Pals) stood up and tried to cross No Man’s Land. Just to the south, the attackers were of the 15th West Yorks (Leeds Pals) and the 16th West Yorks (1st Bradford Pals). The attackers were mown down by machine gun fire, and there was an almost total lack of success, although one company of the Accrington Pals did reach Serre, but were all killed.
The fate of the Sheffield Battalion is described in “A Covenant with Death” by John Harris, 1961. This is probably the best British novel about the Pals and the Somme and is still in print. It is written as a novel but is historically accurate. It starts with the recruitment and training of the Battalion and culminates with the attack on Serre. Seven hundred and ninety five men took part in the attack. When the battalion mustered after the battle there were seventy eight unwounded.
The Regular army battalions saw the day differently. In the history of the Essex Regiment, whose losses had nearly all been in its Regular battalions [one of which had taken part in the attack on Beaumont-Hamel], the 1st July is just described as ‘A trying day on the Somme’. To them it was just another day in a long war.
It was different for the Pals battalions. In the memorable words of John Harris: “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.”
This post has an illustration showing the British Empire’s war dead as a column of marching men 269 miles long. The dead from July 1st would have made up 4.68 miles of that column.
Back in England the effects on communities was devastating as the War Office telegrams began to arrive, sometimes to many houses in a single street. Later the survivors started to come home, some blinded, some crippled and many severely shell shocked.