The start of the battle of the Somme

Arthur Linfoot’s diary entry for 1 July 1916 records the start of the battle of the Somme.

Awoke with the cold. Dozed off a few times. About 6 o’clock awoke with tremendous heavy fire and big shells flying overhead…

For those unfamiliar with what happened in the first few days of the battle, I venture to offer the following brief outline. I take full responsibility for this interpretation, but for the basic facts I am indebted mainly to Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme (Penguin, 1971.)

The British part of the Allied attack (whose date and location were strongly influenced by the need to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun) was on a roughly L-shaped line: north to south from Gommecourt to Albert, with the right-angle just east of Albert, then generally eastwards to Maricourt – 18 miles in total; the adjoining French attack (the only part actually on the Somme river) stretched about 4 miles roughly south-east from Maricourt. The short northerly sector at Gommecourt, assigned to the 2 divisions (a total of 20/25,000 men) of the 3rd Army (Gen. Allenby), was intended as a diversionary move to confuse the Germans about the real point of attack (not that the Germans were fooled much after all the shelling); however Allenby took his attack seriously, and the 3rd Army had bad losses. The rest of the British sector was assigned to the 4th Army, which had 12 divisions and three detached brigades. There were also 4 divisions (and 2 detached brigades) in reserve; ALL’s division (see his diary entry of 6 June), the 19th (Western) Division, which like the 8th and 34th Divisions was in III Corps, was one of these. (There were also three cavalry divisions which according to Gen. Haig, and to Lt.-Gen. Gough who commanded them, but unfortunately not according to Rawlinson (see below), were going to exploit the ‘breakthrough’ – if there was one; but there wasn’t.)

The 8th and 34th Divisions were in the first attacking force in the centre of the front, at the Albert end of the Albert – Bapaume road (with the 34th Division actually astride this road), and were intended to take La Boisselle, which lay on or just behind the German front line. The 19th (Western) Division, to which ALL’s 58th Field Ambulance belonged, was one of three divisions comprising an infantry corps which had been added to the three cavalry divisions under Gough, whose force was intended to exploit the breakthrough to be achieved by the first attack; it would have been this cavalry, moving up in readiness before 1 July, to which ALL referred on 30 June. However, on 21 June the infantry corps had been removed from Gough’s command and placed in a reserve under the command of G.H.Q., and on 22 June Gough’s three cavalry divisions were placed under the command of 4th Army, ie. of Rawlinson, in effect relegating Gough to the status of a corps commander under Rawlinson. While Gough is said to have believed strongly that there would be a good opportunity for a cavalry breakthrough, Rawlinson – now in charge of him and his cavalry – was much less confident of this. Rawlinson believed that the immense nine days’ artillery barrage preceding the attack (which naturally had given the Germans unmistakeable forewarning of the attack) would obliterate the German barbed wire, trenches and machine-gun posts, batteries and men; but of course it did not.

ALL was in the 58th Field Ambulance – a unit of 100/150 men, not a vehicle – in the 19th (Western) Division which, as part of the G.H.Q. reserve, was initially positioned round the western side of Albert, and was intended to advance NE. along the Albert – Bapaume road to take Pozières, and ideally also Bapaume, if the first attack in this central section of the front was successful; but it was not. According to Middlebrook, the 19th Division had been moved to the trenches east of Albert by 10 am, was told during the afternoon that it was to attack at 5pm, and then was told shortly before 5pm that it was not to. According to at least one Wikipedia article the 19th Division did take La Boisselle, apparently a few days later. One assumes that the field ambulances were brought into the action when the 19th Division moved forward, but it does all seem to have been somewhat confused.

The British attack on 1 July was most successful on the right (southern) wing, at Montauban, Mametz and Fricourt, adjoining the French 6th Army (which also attacked comparatively successfully, actually on the Somme River). The British left (northern) wing’s attack, though as noted above intended to be diversionary, made some local advances, for example at the German salient at Gommecourt, and at Thiepval. The central attack, along the Albert – Bapaume road, was the least successful in the first few days. Over the following weeks, however, a general advance of a few miles was made.

According to Middlebrook, 80% of the British casualties on the Western Front were incurred on and after the first day of the Somme – ie after ALL’s arrival in France.

DL August 2013