At 7.30am on July 1st, 1916, there was an eerie silence along a fourteen mile stretch of the Western Front near the River Somme in Northern France. During the previous 7 days, there had been heavy artillery Allied bombardment, intended to destroy the enemy front trenches. At 7.20am, ten huge mines were exploded, including this one Hawthorn Ridge, a German front line fortification, where Royal Engineer tunnellers planted 40,000 pounds of explosive. This photo was taken from about half a mile away.
Two major errors led to the carnage which followed at zero
hour when the infantry advance began. The artillery bombardment had not
penetrated the dug-outs some 30-40 feet below ground where the Germans waited,
and the silence after the mine explosions alerted them to the fact that the
attack was imminent. As a result, when the infantry went ‘over the top’, the German machine guns swept no man's land
and artillery fire fell on the British trenches.
By the end of
that first day, there were nearly 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of whom were killed
outright. Survivors crawled back along no man’s land to reach their own trenches,
and total chaos reigned. At first the generals thought it was a temporary
set-back, only to realise it was the greatest defeat ever suffered by the
The Somme battles
continued for several more months, finally ending on November 14th, 1916. By that
time, it was estimated that, for an eventual advance of about six miles, the
British army had suffered about 400,000 casualties. The combined losses of the
British, French and Germans came to over 1,300,000.
Today the Somme
battlefield has reverted to the peaceful French countryside, and it is not easy
to imagine the sheer hell it must have been in 1916.
Ridge, where that enormous mine exploded.
A few miles away
is the Lochnager Crater, where 60,000lbs of explosives were detonated at 7.20am
on July1st. The explosion thrust earth and rocks to rise about 4,000 feet in
the air, and it was reported that it was heard and felt even in London. The
crater is 300 feet across and 90 feet deep. Look for the two people at the top
of the path leading from the bottom of the crater (in the upper middle part of this photo), and you’ll get an idea of
here mark the trench held by the Devonshire Regiment on July 1st. They suffered
heavy losses when they advanced from this front line trench and later that day
the survivors buried their comrades here, and marked it with a wooden cross,
saying, “The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still.”
Near the village of
Beaumont Hamel, you can still see the remains of the trenches. This photo shows
the front line trenches, and the people in the photo are walking across what
would have been No Man’s Land towards the German front line (under the trees in
there is a memorial to the missing of the Somme, which contains the names of
over 73,000 soldiers killed on this area between 1915 and 1917 who have no
On a personal
note, less than two years after the battle of the Somme, my great-uncle was
killed in this area of Northern France, on March 21st 1918, when the Germans
launched their spring offensive against the British. His grave is in a small
war cemetery just outside the village of Templeux-le- Guerard. He died just six
months before his twenty-first birthday.As far as we know, my daughter and I were the first members of his family to visit his grave (in 2009).