Remembering a disastrous day – The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme lasted from July to November 1916. The New Zealand Division became involved on 15 September at Flers-Courcelette, which was their first major action on the Western Front.

New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341
New Zealand trench mortar officers on the Somme. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association :New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013112-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23130341

While the casualty figures for the whole battle are horrendous for all nations involved, those for the opening day of the battle for the British Army and Newfoundland forces are truly staggering – over 57,000 wounded and more than 19,000 killed. It was truly a disastrous day and only the Fall of Singapore in 1942 saw more casualties for the British Army – although the majority of those were prisoners of war.

What makes 1 July even more devastating is that so many British and Newfoundland soldiers were going into action for the first time, many in what were known as Pals Battalions where men from local communities joined up together. Not surprisingly, this had disastrous consequences for these communities which were often in working class, industrial areas.

There are a couple of excellent and contrasting histories of this day. Martin Middlebrook’s First Day on the Somme is a classic military history which looks in great depth at the formation of the British units on the Somme and tells the story of the battle through the of a number of soldiers. Andrew Macdonald’s recent First Day of the Somme explores in great detail how the battle plan evolved and analyses the tactics of the army formations involved to show how they failed or partially succeeded.

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Over the next few days and months I will be thinking of those who fought on 1 July and throughout the rest of the battle, in particular the 7th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who went into action near Fricourt late on 2 July.

Do you have any connection to the first day of the Somme, 1 July 1916?

Our newspaper and magazine archives are a great way to explore historic events as they unfold. Log in with your library card number and password / PIN.

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