97 years ago today the Somme campaign began after a week long artillery bombardment. Initial reports of British and Commonwealth troops’ progress were promising and were reported positively in the British press, the full extent of the nearly 60,000 casualties yet to be known. The Times headlines on 3rd July stated ‘Forward in the West’ and ‘Start of a Great Attack’. It reported that ‘Sir Douglas Haig telegraphed last night that the general situation was favourable.’ The Daily Mail headlines included ‘Three Miles into the German Lines’ and ‘Enemy Outgunned’.
The War Illustrated, a weekly publication featuring rousing and patriotic articles and pictures, went even further. In an article titled ‘The Glorious First of July’ its correspondent Edward Wright wrote an account of the first day that belies the sheer amount of casualties and lack of progress on most of the British front. One wonders how many of the men who fought that day would agree with the sentiment of its title.
Extracts from the article are reproduced below:
‘Around Gommecourt were three curtains of intense shrapnel fire between our men and their goal. For here it was that the Germans had concentrated their main mass of guns. Yet the British troops came out steadily under the awful rain of death, raised their own machine-guns on the parapet, and then, dropping in hundreds, but never wavering, made their way across a zone of five hundred yards to the enemy’s front line.
South of Gommecourt, between the Hill of Serre, the valley of the Ancre, and the ridge of Thiepval, our troops were at first amazingly successful. In a series of charges, as heroic as that made by the Scottish Division at Lens, our men took the German trenches, and then bombed their way into Serre and Thiepval, reaching the third and last line of German works. Some battalions had no casualties whatever in the rush against the German first line, but we did not allow for the remarkable intrepidity of some of the German machine-gunners. These men were devilish in spirit when our wounded lay at their mercy and tried to creep to shelter. At Serre and Thiepval they let our charging lines pass them, and then came out of their dug-outs, swept our rear, and knocked down our parties who were bringing up bombs for the troops ahead in the German third line. One German gunner was found wounded in nine places and still fighting like a dervish of the Sudan. Little more than a score of these determined men, working behind our victorious line, succeeded in stopping ammunition reaching our troops at Serre and Thiepval.
For in our main assault our success was swift and complete. We aimed at the great German salient built on a ridge overlooking our position at Albert, and known as the Fricourt salient from a village lying at the point of it. The main strength of the position, however, resided in a great fortified chalk ridge, some five miles long, extending from the hamlet of Boisselle to the village and brickfield of Montauban. The hamlet of Mametz rose on the southern slope of the ridge.
We did not make an immense, surging charge all round the great salient, but delivered two great thrusts. Fricourt was not attacked, but the line on either side of it was broken in two places about two and a half miles from each other. The Gordons advanced against Mametz, and, though raked horribly by machine-gun fire, stormed the position and held it. Then some miles away on their right the men of Lancashire, supported by the Surreys, Kents, Essex, Bedfords, and Norfolks, carried the main ridge at Montauban in one strong, narrow stream of invasion. At the other end of the ridge, by Boisselle, the Suffolks and the Tynesiders, with the Tyneside pipers playing on their men, swept by the northerly German hill fortress and advanced well beyond the salient to the village of Contalmaison. The Suffolks reached this village at the price of only one man killed, but again the German machine-gunners in our rear near Boisselle checked our advance for the time being.
The fact was our wonderful troops did more than had been expected of them. Fricourt was left untouched for two days, as we had made larger gains on either side of it than had been designed. Our principal attention was directed towards smashing up the reinforcements that Einem hurried towards the high ground on the ridge.
There we broke brigade after brigade, leaving Fricourt open like a trap for more Germans to enter. But we joined our two wedges round Fricourt on Sunday afternoon, stormed Boisselle the next day, and then resuming our onward progress advanced some miles eastward along the road to Combles.
So tremendous was the pressure with which we pushed back Einem’s northern wing that General Foch’s army, in four days of sledge-hammer work, took the plateau south of the Somme, dominated Peronne, hauled up the great French siege-guns, and brought Einem’s northern railway and motor communications beneath a heavy incessant shell fire. In other words, Haig’s and Foch’s armies did as much in four days’ fighting to threaten the German routes of supply at Peronne as the Germans had done in five months’ fighting to threaten the French routes of supply at Verdun.’