Centenary of the first day of the Battle of the SommePosted: July 1, 2016
Whereas most of the ceremonies held today will concentrate on what is often thought to have been the British Army’s worst day, the role played by the French Army should not be forgotten. The offensive that started on 1st July 1916 was a combined offensive by units of the British Third and Fourth Armies and the French Sixth Army, and took place on a front that ran from Foucaucourt on the south bank of the Somme to Gommecourt, 2 miles beyond Serre on the north bank.
In the sector between Foucaucort and the Albert–Bapaume road (where the French and southernmost divisions of the British Fourth Army attacked), the attack was a success, and the Germans were forced to retreat. It was very different story in the sector between the Albert–Bapaume road and Gommecourt where the bulk of the British Fourth Army mounted its attack. (The British Third Army’s role was to mount diversionary attacks north of Gommecourt.) The British attacks were met with fierce resistance and few units even reached the German front line. Whereas the French only suffered 1,590 casualties, the British losses were in excess of 57,000, of whom 19,240 were killed.
The reason why these terrible losses had such an impact on the British national psyche is not difficult to understand. A large number of the units that went over the top on the first day of the battle were Kitchener battalions. In other words they were units raised during the initial period of patriotic fervour that occurred in the early days and months of the war, and a large number of them were so-called ‘Pals’ battalions. These were often raised from what were quite small geographic areas (i.e. a town or district in a city) where most of the members of the battalion were know to each other. Other ‘Pals’ battalions were recruited from people who shared a common interest or profession (e.g. sportsmen, stockbrokers). When a ‘Pals battalion’ suffered casualties, the impact on a local area was immense, and for many towns and districts it was a disaster. For example, of the ‘Accrington Pals’ who took part in the attack, 235 were killed and 350 wounded within the space of twenty minutes.
The concept of the ‘Pals’ battalions was never repeated, and it is not difficult to see why.