The Somme

Aerial view of Thiepval memorial image courtesy of www.battlefield-guides.com

Aerial view of Thiepval memorial
image courtesy of www.battlefield-guides.com

The plan had been drawn up months before. The Allied forces in their first joint effort battle would attack the German front lines along a 24 miles long stretch of France bordering the River Somme. The plan had originally been to attack German-held strongpoints in this area of France, around the Thiepval/Albert area. In February 1916 the Germans launched their own initiative at Verdun against the French forces, a week before the Allied assault was scheduled. Instead it came to be that the Somme offensive was used as a diversionary tactic to divide the German forces between the two areas, and thus give the exhausted and over-powered French a bit of breathing space.

Tunnels had been painstakingly dug at various points along the front line. One in particular, the Lochnagar mine was dug at the rate of just 18 inches a day using modified bayonets, by barefoot engineers sitting on sandbags, catching all the soil in sacks in order to maintain absolute silence, when it was complete the tunnel was 1030 feet long and branched into two separate chambers around 60 feet apart and 52 feet deep. These two chambers and a gallery that ran down the German front line were laid with 60 thousands of pounds of explosives. A second large mine was dug similarly at the other end of the German position, named Y Cap. A similar series of mines, both large and small were positioned along the German front lines in other areas of offense. Counter mining was evident as the enemy tried to discover what exactly was happening and sabotage it.

The last week of June was dedicated to continuous bombardment of the German frontlines with 1.6 million British artillery shells. Many Pals battalions, large bodies of men who had grown up together from the same streets of cities across Britain, and joined local regiments en masse were transferred to the area, and the British Cavalry were primed and ready. Other Allied units also joined the area, each given their own sector to defend. In particular Canada, and the Anzac forces, fresh from the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

At 7.28am on July 1st, two minutes before zero hour, the two large mines near the village of La Boiselle were simultaneously detonated. As Lochnagar mine exploded, it sent a shower of earth so high, it was seen by British observer planes flying over the front lines to assist artillery. Legend has it that the explosion was heard on the shores of Dover. The resulting crater was 70 feet deep and 400 feet across. Unfortunately, the night before, as they were leaving the tunnels, one man used the unsafe telephone line to call his friend, a company commander in the trenches above, and wish him good luck for morning. That call was overheard by a Moritz device….

Lochnagar Crater, during one of the remembrance ceremonies, during which visitors are encouraged to join hands around the lip of the crater.

Lochnagar Crater, during one of the remembrance ceremonies, during which visitors are encouraged to join hands around the lip of the crater.

The British military commanders had poured all their tactical knowledge into the plan. The German barbed wire would be blown to pieces by the persistent shelling, the forces would be so taken by surprise by the mines that any survivors would be few and unresisting when the Allied soldiers came strolling across No Man’s Land, as “British gentlemen soldiers do not run”, backed up by an impressive cavalry charge, and victory would be quick and easy.

Unfortunately, they didn’t realise that many of the British artillery shells failed to detonate. That the German barbed wire defences were forty feet thick. That the Germans would be tucked safely out of the way in their reinforced concrete bunkers, thirty feet underground. And that when things went quiet, they would come back out and take their places behind their many machine guns, trained on No Man’s land and cut the advancing Tommies down like shooting fish in a barrel.

Of course, that is exactly what happened……. And thus began the five long hard gruesome months of the Battle of the Somme.

Phoebe