First Day of the Somme is an excellent new book by Kiwi-born writer Andrew Macdonald. His engaging first book, On my way to the Somme, dates from 2005 and looked only at the New Zealand experience of the campaign. This new work limits itself to just one day, 1st July 1916, which still ranks as the worst day in British Military history. By the end of that single day 19,240 British soldiers were dead and a further 35,493 had been wounded. This carefully researched account tells just how that came to happen.
Thirty years ago I was taught that the blame lay with the generals, comfortably well back from the front line and completely out of touch. Macdonald takes a much closer look and a raft of other reasons emerge. The German army had been training in how to repulse a frontal infantry attack and their generals were every bit a match for the British. The front lines had been stationary for some time and the Germans had made good use of that lull in the fighting to dig deep underground shelters well below the depth British artillery shells would reach. As a result, after several days of heavy bombardment and literally millions of shells, the British were convinced few would survive but in fact the Germans simply emerged from their bunkers, set up their machine guns on the rims of the bomb craters and had a free shot at the advancing British infantry.
First Day of the Somme is a very systematic account. We run through the main players on both sides and their military skills and experience. As we deal sector by sector with the realities on that fateful day, the text comes to life with diary excerpts from soldiers on both sides. All this makes Macdonald’s book one of the most balanced accounts I have read. The bombardment on which the British placed so much faith in truth killed or wounded in the region of 2,500 to 3,000 Germans, some 2 or 3% of their army on the Somme.
Because Macdonald deals with the battle sector by sector, we see huge differences between the gains and losses. It was obvious that the Germans knew what was about to happen, they had been waiting patiently for days for the bombardment to stop. In one sector near Gommecourt a placard was raised above the German trench saying “Come On.” In one or two sectors, the Germans were surprised by huge underground mines that blew out the defensive line, but mainly they were ready and waiting for the fight. As soon as the artillery bombardment began to move back behind the German front line that was the signal for them to start shooting.
Some British battalions emerged from their trenches before the bombardments started to move back, crossing the open space of No Man’s Land before the Germans emerged. In others the Germans were out and already firing their machine guns before the British had even left their front line trench. It is harrowing to read of the experiences out in the open amongst this mass of bullets. Some German guns ended the day surrounded by more than 20,000 empty bullet cases. Hundreds of guns and millions of bullets. What followed was a horrendous slaughter. Even in places where there were British gains, the Germans cut off the advance troops from their supply of ammunition and grenades, forcing some to creep back to their own trenches under the cover of darkness.
In this age of instant communications it is hard to imagine how little the British generals knew about the situation and so missed vital opportunities to consolidate gains or pull back in the face of terrible loss.
Although this book focuses only on the first day and the few just before, it is hard not to reflect on the entire Somme campaign from 1 July to the middle of November 1916. To put it in perspective the 1.28 million officers and men killed or wounded (420,000 British, 204,000 French and 660,000 Germans) would be like removing the whole population of Wellington, Christchurch, Hamilton and Tauranga.
I was very impressed by this book. Well researched and written in an easy to follow style, I like the use it makes of the experiences of both sides to give a balanced account. If you like details, then the losses of each battalion in each sector are detailed in the footnotes about this, the worst of days.