141 days of bloody fighting
The Battle of the Somme was a major offensive undertaken in the summer of 1916. It had two main aims. Engage German forces, thus relieving the beleaguered French army around Verdun, and, secondly, smash through the German lines forcing them to retreat along the Western Front.
An offensive intended to last a matter of weeks would instead last 141 days, as troops became bogged down in bitter fighting and relentless carnage. Over 600,000 allied soldiers were killed or wounded. In total over a million casualties were suffered on all sides. It was also a seminal moment for the people of Ulster.
On 1 July 1916 the 36th (Ulster) Division was given the task of taking German trenches astride the River Ancre and capturing the heavily fortified area of the Schwaben Redoubt. Just after 7am on that morning Ulstermen were lying flat in No Man’s Land prior to the ending of the artillery bombardment of the German lines, and thus pushed forward more quickly than any other unit on that day. Within their ranks were many Orangemen, some wearing their sashes or orange ribbons and others shouting, “No Surrender!” It was, after all, the 226th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.
As Major-General Oliver Nugent, the Division’s commanding officer noted in correspondence to Sir George Richardson (commander of the UVF): “We could hardly have a date better calculated to inspire national traditions amongst our men of the North.”
Plans for Attack
The British plan appeared achievable on paper. A massive bombardment on German strongpoints would obliterate their fortifications, disrupt communications, and allow battalions to advance quickly into strategic points such as La Boiselle, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval and Pozieres.
The aim was a 1916 version of ‘shock and awe’ with British forces capitalising on German confusion and streaming through broken trenches to the plateau beyond. The stalemate in the British sector would be broken.
Originally planned for 28 June the date was pushed back to allow for final supplies and better weather. Finally, on 24 June, massed artillery fired on the German trenches. As British battalions assembled, the Germans retreated below ground to deep bunkers which protected them from the shelling. As whistles blew at 7.30am on 1 July, signalling the main advance, few could have imagined the carnage that was about to unfold. The battle of the Somme would not conclude until 18 November.
Rifleman Taylor, West Belfast, described the scene on I July as the troops moved forward:
“Captain…(name redacted)...waving an orange handkerchief shouted ‘Come on, boys; this is the 1st July. Let the enemy have it!’ They went into action at 7am and took five lines of trenches, and about 1,300 prisoners. There were some of our fellows who had orange lilies in their breasts, and one sergeant of the Inniskillings went over with his orange sash on him.”
On that morning, the men of the Ulster Division had been gathering in the assembly trenches that ran through the wood opposite the village of Thiepval, and a formidable German strongpoint known as the Schwaben Redoubt. As impromptu lodge and prayer meetings ended, the men began to silently move into No Man’s Land. Prior to 7.30am they were in place.
As the creeping artillery barrage fell silent, they quickly rushed into the German trenches. Despite stiff German resistance they took the first line of enemy trenches and the heavily fortified Schwaben Redoubt. Events elsewhere on the front were to seal the Ulster Division’s fate.
The units on either side of the Ulster Division’s advance had been unable to make ground. The seven-day bombardment had not yielded the anticipated results. German defences remained largely intact. Consequently, the salient created by the men of the 36th was subject to German counterattack on each flank. As reinforcements moved up to assist the attack, they came under heavy machinegun fire. When the battalions of the 107th Brigade (Belfast) advanced they were met by a hail of bullets. Just when they appeared to waver, Major George Gaffiken of 9th Royal Irish Rifles lifted his Orange Sash above his head and cried “Come on, boys! No Surrender!”
Over the course of 24 hours heavy fighting the Division would suffer 50% casualties. Every city, town, and homestead would mourn the loss.
As the battle raged on for several months it also became a theatre of war for the whole Empire. On 21 July Australian units joined the attack. Over four days they would suffer 3,500 casualties as the Allies advanced on Pozieres. More Australian blood would be shed on the Western Front than during the Gallipoli campaign. The battle also marked a coming of age for New Zealand and Canada. In September, soldiers from both these countries threw themselves into the battle. Their arrival coincided with the unleashing of a new weapon – the tank.
On the 18th of November, 1916 the battle of the Somme finally ended. It had taken four months to achieve the Day One objectives!