Why were 19,240 British soldiers killed on Day 1 of the Somme Battle?

After 7 days of bombardment, the British expected to walk across no man’s land and overrun the Germans without a fight. Instead they were mowed down in their thousands. What went wrong?


On the morning of the 1st July 1916, the British soldiers would climb up their wooden ladders, clamber over the sandbagged parapets of their trenches and then move towards the German lines. The exact instruction as regards their motion was given as walk: not run, not practice fire and movement but walk. The British High Command expected a docile German force dazed and shell-shocked after 7 days of continuous bombardment not to respond at all or if they did, not with alacrity. Amongst many others, this would become a cardinal error of this battle.

Instead, in short order, the British forces were pinned down and massacred.

How was this possible and what went horribly wrong?

At 58,000 casualties –including 19,240 fatalities – the Somme Battle has established a record which no nation will voluntarily strive to emulate viz the highest number of casualties in a single day in warfare ever.

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This singular event will forever be paraded as an act of idiocy by an out-of-touch supreme command. In the process the flower of the British youth was decimated without achieving any of their objectives. In fact so insistent was the demand to overwhelm the Germans that over 400,000 British soldiers were ultimately killed or wounded in what in what has epitomised the ultimate futility and inanity of war.

Raison d’etre

Originally conceived in 1915 as the major joint British and French campaign against the Germans in 1916, early in January 1916 this intention was diverted when the German Army Chief of Staff, von Falkenhayn promised to ‘bleed France white‘ by attacking the fortress of Verdun. This resulted in the diversion of virtually all French manpower and efforts to this sector.

The objective now became more insistent and urgent: save the French. In the Verdun campaign, the Germans were achieving their initial objective as the French were steadily being decimated. The French rushed reinforcements up what they grandiloquently termed la voie sacrée – the Sacred Way. To assist the French, the date of the offensive was even brought forward from August to July.

Over the Top

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Opposite Thiepval at 7:30 precisely on the 1st July 1916, the British Officers blew their whistles. Up the roughly hewn wooden ladders the troops clambered and walked sedately into No Man’s Land. Before the British had crossed barely half of the distance to the German trenches, the shells of the British creeping barrage were already falling way behind the German front lines.

Suddenly the German machine guns opened fire in the Thiepval area. The advance stalled as the British troops were mowed down. Stuck in no man’s land with withering fire engulfing them, the British clambered into shell holes which afforded a measure of protection. The wounded were left on the battlefield as stretcher bearers were unable to extract them as they too quickly became casualties.

The part of the Somme line where the Thiepval Ridge and its adjacent Feste Schwaben – Schwaben Redoubt – were situated, was defended by the German 26th Reserve Division from Swabia, a region in south-western Germany.

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Deviation from Plan Requested

Meanwhile the Ulster Divisions opposite the Schwaben Redoubt were making good progress; they had broken through into the rear of the position. That meant that they were threatening the rear of German’s Thiepval position where Major Tweed and the men of the Salford Pals were pinned down by the Germans under men such as Corporal Hinkel and his Swabians.

In charge of both sectors was the Corps Commander General Sir Thomas Morland, fastidious and a stickler for details. Perched at the top of a huge oak tree, he viewed the progress of the battle through a telescope from a distance of 5kms.

Before mid-morning, Major General Edward Perceval, commander of the 12,000 strong Corps Reserve climbed up the extemporised ladder on that oak tree to where Morland was perched. He made an usual proposal: a major deviation from the original plan. His bold proposal was that the whole of the 12,000 strong Reserve be used to exploit the breakthrough by the Ulster Divisions at the Schwaben Redoubt and eliminate the Germans at Thiepval from the rear.

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Morland peremptorily declined the request. His overriding reason for not deviating from the original plan despite the obvious advantages of the revised plan, one must first exhaust the initial proposal on numerous occasions. Perceval’s assertions that the second wave would be cut down as effectively as the first wave of the attack did not impress Morland and his ponderous mindset.

The second wave of the Salford Pals was ordered to go over the top.

They too were rapidly massacred. Likewise the remnants were trapped in no man’s land.

Exploit the situation

On the other hand, the Germans had a different formula. They expected the more junior Commanders to exploit any opportunity where necessary without reference to higher command. One of their SOPs – Stand Operating Procedures – was to immediately launch counter attacks while the enemy had not settled down properly after their success.

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When the German Commanding Officer, General Von Soden, called in his junior officers, it was not to stymy any personal initiative but rather to cajole them as to the reason for the lack of a counter attack while the British were off-balance.

British repeat their Folly

When the reports reached Morland that the second wave of the attack had failed as dismally as the first, what was his immediate response? He ordered in the third wave to attack at 16:00.

The unending woes of the Salford Pals on this fateful day were not about to end. The German machine guns chattered away again. The British Tommies again died in their droves. It had again produced the self-same result.

By now 50% of the men of the Salford Pals of the Lancashire Fusiliers and of Captain Tweed’s Company were dead.

General Morland

General Morland

Being a pals – as in friends – battalion, Tweed personally knew all his subordinates many for his whole life. Now within hours, most were dead.

But Morland had achieved his objective: stick to the initial plan.

German riposte and British response

Despite not being ready and with insufficient troops available, the local German Commander attacked the Ulstermen in the Swaben Redoubt. By 10:30 that night the Germans had recaptured the Redoubt. With the British Reserves having been spent on the Thiepval Sector, allied with inflexible British thinking, a breakthrough into the rear areas of the Somme had been cauterised.

Being friends meant that whole neighbourhoods were decimated of their menfolk. The full extent of the loss did not become apparent until a few weeks later as all of those classified as missing were registered as KIA. Anger at the wasteful loss of life was profound. Questions were raised in the House of Commons. The high command of the British Army under General Haig reviewed the lessons learnt.

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Lessons learnt

Many mistakes had been made in conducting this attack. Firstly by having a 7 day barrage, the Germans were alerted to an imminent offensive and if they were sufficiently well-dug in, as they undoubtedly were, instead of facing dazed troops, the Germans were waiting tensely for the bombardment to cease so that the machine guns could commence their rain of death.

Furthermore an inordinate percentage of the British shells were duds which did not explode. Even today it is almost a daily occurrence that unexploded WW1 shells are unearthed by the French farmers. From a control perspective, the creeping barrage had been a disaster. Instead of advancing at the same rate as the infantry’s advance, it kept to its predetermined timetable without taking cognisance of the real rate of advance.

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Above all, the major factors contributing to this defeat were a blind faith in artillery, poor intelligence but above all the inflexibility of the Commanders as personified by General Morland. Such unimaginative thinking condemned thousands of British troops to their death. In stark contrast the German philosophy of allowing the local commander to exploit all opportunities as they arose, saved their men’s lives

The genteel cultured milieu in the British High Command could no longer hold sway. Morland was promoted laterally and no longer commanded front line troops but the deed has been done. The British had to unlearn their failed signature traits which would require a Commander with a different mindset.

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After 6 months the battle had reached an impasse and stalemate. Wisely the British called it off on the 18th November after having suffered 400,000 casualties.

More importantly, the effects of this war were more profound than mere military doctrine & battlefield tactics, albeit that they were deep-rooted, but in no small measure it had as drastic societal implications especially in the field of religion. Gone were the days when the grieving widow would accept the inane “It was God’s Will” as an explanation from their local pastor for the unnecessary deaths of so many soldiers. It estranged the congregants from the church and can rightly be classified as the first major move to secularisation within European society.

Ultimately its effects are being felt today both militarily and socially.

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