This article is an edited transcript of Battle of the Somme with Paul Reed on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 June 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, well over 100,000 men went over the top.
We’ll never know the full total of men who went into battle, because not every battalion recorded their strengths when they went into action. But there were 57,000 casualties on 1 July 1916 – a figure that included the killed, wounded and missing. Of this 57,000, 20,000 were either killed in action or died of wounds.
It’s easy to say those numbers, but to put them into some sort of context and truly understand the unprecedented devastation of that day, consider the fact that there were more casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme than in the Crimean and Boer Wars combined.
When you take a closer look at the casualty figures, you discover that a very high percentage of those who died were killed in the first 30 minutes of the battle, as the British infantry began to exit their trenches and emerge onto No Man’s Land, straight into the Germans’ withering machine gun fire.
Some battalions suffered especially devastating losses.
At Serre, one of the most iconic areas of the battlefield, units like the Accrington, Barnsley, Bradford and Leeds Pals battalions suffered between 80 per cent and 90 per cent casualties.
In most cases, the men in these Northern Pals battalions walked no more than 10 or 15 yards from their front-line trench before being cut to pieces by German machine gun fire.
The Newfoundland Regiment was vanquished in a similarly comprehensive fashion. Of the 800 men who went over the top at Beaumont-Hamel, 710 became casualties – mostly between 20 and 30 minutes after exiting their trenches.
The 10th West Yorkshire Battalion at Fricourt fared no better – it suffered more than 700 casualties among the around 800 men who went into battle.
Battalion after battalion suffered catastrophic losses of more than 500 men and there were, of course, thousands of tragic individual stories on a day of unparalleled devastation for the British Army.
The story of the Pals battalions
There were enormous losses across the British Army but the tragic plight of the Pals battalions are strongly associated with the devastation of the Somme.
The Pals were composed of volunteers, largely from northern England, who had responded to Kitchener’s call to enlist for king and country. The idea was to bring these men in from their communities and guarantee that they would serve together and not be split up.
The benefits of keeping pals from close-knit communities together were obvious – fantastic morale and esprit de corps came naturally. This helped with training and made it easier to maintain a positive collective spirit when the men went overseas.
Little thought was given to the negative consequences, however.
If you commit a unit that’s exclusively recruited from a particular location to a battle where there are heavy losses, the whole community will be thrown into mourning.
Which is exactly what happened to so many communities after the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
It’s little wonder that there’s always been a poignant connection between the Pals and the Somme.