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Five months of failure: The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme has been described as the blackest period in the history of the British Army, and 100 years later its consequences are still in dispute.The year 1916 was to be a key one for the British Army, the first when their small professional army had been expanded into a large volunteer army capable of waging ‘total war’. It had taken almost two years to create this large army and for most of the soldiers this was their first battle. Barbed wire, machine-guns and artillery made the attacking infantryman’s chances of survival slim, however, despite all his enthusiasm, courage and training.

Irish involvement in the Battle of the Somme is normally associated with the soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) Division, but several other Irish units took part that day, including Irishmen living in England, and in particular the103rd Tyneside Brigade,which consisted of 3,000 Irishmen in a ‘pals’ unit from Newcastle. This group were one of the few to be photographed walking towards the German lines that morning before suffering terrible casualties. It is often forgotten, however, that the battle lasted for five months, until November; Irish soldiers in the 16th (Irish) Division fought at the Somme During the Battle of Ginchy in September 1916, taking the village of Ginchy at a cost of over 4,000 dead and wounded. Among the dead was Irish MP, poet and nationalist Tom Kettle, who, just before he died, wrote: ‘I have seen war, and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men’. The Battle of the Somme came to an end in the middle of November 1916,when the Dublin soldiers of the 10th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers fought at Beaumont-Hamel and suffered 55% casualties. Their comrades from the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers had fought in the exact same place and failed five months earlier on 1 July. The Soldiers of the 10th Battalion had been raised in Dublin in early 1916 as the ‘commercial pals’ and had fought during the 1916 Rising at the Mendacity Institute and later at City Hall.

Above: Some of the 3,000 Irishmen in the 103rd Tyneside Brigade, a ‘pals’ unit from Newcastle, photographed walking towards the German lines on the morning of 1 July 1916. 

Germans on high ground
At the Somme, the attacking Irish soldiers faced four major obstacles. The first was that the German lines were on a ridge: they could easily see their attackers, and it is often forgotten that the Irishmen had to walk uphill towards them—and carry 70 pounds of equipment, which slowed them further. The plan was for the soldiers to go over the top in one-minute intervals, covering 90 every two minutes; they only began to run when they were 18mfrom the German trenches. They carried a rifle, gas mask and a new invention, a steel helmet, which protected them from shells exploding above but not from machine-guns.

Barbed wire
In front of them were rows of barbed wire, which was the second obstacle they faced. The attacking soldiers had witnessed seven days of British artillery bombardment, which they were told would destroy the barbed wire,but in most places it remained intact; 1,500 artillery pieces fired 1,508,652 shells during the week, but two thirds of the guns were firing ineffective shrapnel shells, while many of the new gunners were only half-trained. When you think of barbed wire you may think of a single fence, but at the Somme there was Dannert Wire, High Wire Entanglements and Apron Fences to be overcome. These could not be cleared by hand and the British advance depended on their destruction by artillery. The illustration below of German defences gives you the idea that these were not just mud trenches but more like well-defended medieval forts.

Above: WW1 German Trenches and Dugouts Cutaway. Image courtesy of @Michael_Scofield.

The third obstacle was the German machine-guns,which swept the battlefield, shooting downhill. Each machine-gun could fire 600 bullets per minute over a distance of 1km or more. The Somme area has very few hedgerows and one machine-gun can dominate a very large area. In movies you will see brave soldiers attacking machine-gun posts in a daring frontal attack, but the reality is very different. Machine-guns, once they are sited, can fire at soldiers they cannot see, creating deadly beaten zones; many Irish soldiers would never have seen the gun that killed them, as the gunfire came from the side or from above. The Germans, as the defenders, always had the advantage; their soldiers had deep dugouts to protect them from British artillery, and they practised every day how to leave their dugouts and assemble their machine-guns in three minutes. Indeed, many of the machine-guns were in redoubts or forts made of concrete, steel and wood. The Schwaben redoubt was a complex of deep trenches and concrete bunkers on top of the Thiepval Ridge, and this is what the 36th Ulster Division attacked on 1 July while walking uphill. Normally German machine-guns worked in pairs, so that if one broke down or was destroyed they never stopped firing.

Above: Captain Francis Hitchcock, from Birr, Co. Offaly, served with the Leinster Regiment and fought at the Somme in August 1916. After the war he wrote ‘Stand to’: a diary of the trenches 1915–18 (London, 1937), which is regarded as one of the best personal accounts describing the reality of trench warfare, including ‘the sickening smell of decomposing human flesh’. (NMI)

The final obstacle, of course, was that this battle took place in daylight during a warm summer’s day, which allowed the Germans on the higher ground to see everything and respond in their own time to every threat. The reason it was decided to fight during the day was that the Royal Artillery wanted daylight to see the enemy in order to fire their ineffective artillery.

That day, 1 July 1916, was to witness one of the many military disasters that befell the British Army in the early part of the war (Gallipoli was a similar disaster in 1915). The generals and the soldiers who survived were to learn from their mistakes, and this change would be led by new technology, such as tanks, which were first used during the Battle of the Somme in September. Nevertheless, as A.J.P. Taylor putit, ‘Strategically the battle of the Somme was an unredeemed defeat… the enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer’.During the final two years of the war, both sides struggled to hang on in the face of unprecedented casualties and repeated failures to break through, and in the end the side that held out longest would be the winner.


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