Battle of the Somme
At 7.30am the 1st of July 1916 British and French forces launched the opening offensive on the Somme. It was a battle that would rage through to 18th November 1916, claiming over one million casualties on both sides.
"We went up after him one at a time. I never saw the officer again. His name is on the memorial to the missing which they built after the war at Thiepval. He was only young but he was a very brave man."
Private George Morgan, Ist Bradford Pals
The Somme offensive was intended to achieve a decisive victory for the Allies over the Germans on the Western Front after 18 months of trench deadlock. Instead it became one of the most costly battles of the First World War. The controversy surrounding the bloodbath still rages, exactly ninety years after the tragic massacre.
At a conference held in December 1915 the Allies decided to seek victory the following year by mounting 'The Big Push': simultaneous offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian Fronts.
It was agreed that a combined attack by the British and French on the Western Front would take place in Picardy, north and south of the River Somme, July 1916. When the time came, the British had to assume the main role in the operation as French forces had been considerably weakened by a German offensive at Verdun on 21 February 1916.
The infantry assault was originally scheduled for 29 June, but because of bad weather it was postponed for 48 hours. Zero Hour was set for 07.30 on 1 July 1916.
To ensure speedy and safe advancement across No Man's Land, for an entire week before the attack Allied artillery pounded German lines, firing 1.6 million shells.
It's important to remember that by this point in the War the massive expansion of the British Army meant that soldiers were put into positions of responsibility for which they had no experience.
None of Britain's senior commanders had any training for their positions of authority they had to take at the Battle of the Somme. No training, however, could have prepared them for what was about to happen.
After a week's shelling these British commanders were so confident they had ruined the German front line they ordered their troops to simply walk slowly towards the enemy. The plan was that once the German line had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.
The reality of what happened on the first say of the Battle of the Somme was very different from what the Allies had planned. The Allies failed to conceal their preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning.
Aside from the fact that many of the British shells had failed to explode, the Allies did not count on the fact that the German trenches were far more fortified than their own; the Germans initiative had constructed reinforced bunkers far underground, a huge contrast from the shallow muddy ditches of the Allied trenches.
When the bombardment began, all the Germans had to do was simply move underground and wait. When the shelling was over, the Germans were ready. They left their bunkers and set up their positions by the machine guns. The strolling Allied soldiers never saw it coming.
The First Day
As the 11 British divisions slowly walked towards German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. By many accounts all the Germans had to do was move the machine guns, cutting in half row upon row of Allied soldiers. Simply put, it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
The only substantial British success was in the south, but those few units who reached the German trenches found out quickly enough that the shells had not cut through the German barb wire and they were soon were driven back. In other areas, whole units died together.
By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.
War of attrition
From that tragic day onwards the battle was characterised by relentless attacks and counterattacks on both sides. With the 'decisive breakthrough' now a decisive failure, Field Marshall Haig accepted that advances would be concentrated in the south.
The British took the German positions there on 14 July, and for the next two months saw bloody stalemate, with the Allies gaining hardly any ground at all.
Debut of the Tank
By mid September the British were ready to assault the German defences with a new weapon, the tank. However these early models were lightly armed and often broke down!
Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points. Despite startling the German soldiers, ultimately they made little impact.
The Final Battle
Torrential rain in October had turned the battleground into a muddy quagmire by torrential rain. In these dreadful conditions the last act of the Somme offensive took place by the River Ancre sector from 13th to 19th November 1916. It was an Allied success and the battle was over.
Over a million men became casualties in the long and bitter struggle on the Somme. The offensive cost Britain and the Empire 419,654 casualties, 125,000 of them dead. In Britain the impact of the losses was severe, particularly in the north of England where many of the battalions had been recruited - men like Private George Morgan were lucky to survive.
While French casualties numbered 204,253, estimates of German casualties totalled 680,000. A German staff officer described the Somme as 'the muddy grave of the German field army.'
Now, on the ninetieth anniversary of that destructive conflict it is still vital that we remember these men, many of whom never stood a chance as they walked blindly into oblivion.