“It was a perfect morning when, on July 1, at 6:25 am, the final Allied bombardment began. Continuing for over an hour at a firing rate of 3,500 shells a minute, the noise was so intense that it could be heard as far away as England. When the guns stopped, the air was split by massive eruptions as the British exploded mines that had been laid under the German defenses. The awesome demonstration of destructive power heartened the attacking troops.
After the bombardment came a brief interval of silence before whistles blew to send the men up to the scaling ladders. Once over the top, they formed lines holding their rifles in front of them, and began to walk forward toward No Man’s Land. All advantage of surprise had been sacrificed, it was broad daylight, visibility was perfect, and there was little cover – conditions, in short, that heavily favoured the defenders. The advancing infantry could have been protected by a “creeping barrage”, laid down by the field guns and moving just ahead of them. This tactic, however, was a new one that required exact timing between the artillery and infantry and was still in the process of being developed. It was to be used effectively at Verdun, in October, but in July all that could be achieved was the bombardment of each enemy line at a prearranged time. In fact, afraid of hitting their own men, the gunners advanced the barrage beyond each line of German trenches long before the infantry reached it.
Ahead of the troops lay the German barbed wire, which in many places had gaps that were so few or so small that they created bottlenecks. They reduced the slow advance to a virtual standstill, as the Germans began to appear from their 30-ft. (9-m) dugouts, hauling their machine guns into place in a drill they had rehearsed many times.
From a distance, the ragged lines of slowly advancing soldiers looked like clockwork dolls, and equally vulnerable, as individuals began to stagger and fall under the withering machine gun fire before they had fired a shot themselves. As the first line of men disintegrated, the next line came under fire. The German artillery was in action too, and shrapnel vied with machine gun bullets in clearing the ground of marching men. Whole battalions were reduced to a hundred men or so men. Following orders, the lines continued to advance, further impeded by the bodies of the dead and wounded. More bodies, grotesquely posed, were tangled in the uncut wire. Elsewhere those firing the machine guns concentrated on the gaps. The Germans were outnumbered and fighting for their lives, but eventually, many of them tired of the easy slaughter and refrained from firing on wounded men attempting to drag themselves back to their own lines. In a few places, the British did manage to capture a German trench, but as no reinforcements reached them they were soon forced out again.
Behind the British lines, the field dressing stations were overwhelmed. The wounded, who seemed unlikely to survive, were placed on one side and treated last, if at all. As the day ended, many of the bodies strewn about the battlefield appeared to come to life, as wounded men emerged from shell holes and depressions and struggled to get back to their lines under cover of darkness.
A total of 13 British divisions went into action on July 1. By the end of the day, they had suffered over 57,000 casualties, a third of them killed – the highest total of any day in the history of the British army. The only progress they had made was in the southern sector, where the German-held villages of Mametz and Montauban were captured. Haig’s objective, Bapaume, was not reached on July 1 – nor in the five months of attacks that followed.
The five French divisions – all that could be spared – were mostly south of the Somme. They had heavier guns in support and gained some element of surprise by delaying their attack to the last moment. They encountered less opposition and were more successful, taking 3,000 prisoners and forcing the evacuation of the Germans’ second line during the night. But their objective, the town of Péronne, remained safely in German hands.
As a result of the failure on the part of the Allies to achieve the planned breakthrough on July 1, the Battle of the Somme became, in effect, one of attrition, with numerous limited offensives directed at specific villages, ridges or woods.”
[Source: “World War I”, H.P. Willmott, www.dk.com, pp 160-162]