At 7.20am 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. It was to be 141 days of terror and bloodshed which resulted in the deaths or wounding of over one million men. On the first day alone over 3500 Irish men serving in the British lay dead or injured, mowed down by German machine guns as they went over the top and the caught between the artillery rounds of both sides.
The Somme offensive was urgently called for after the surprise German attack on French troops in Verdun on the 21st February. More French troops were sent from the Somme to Verdun for reinforcement, leaving the British troops to occupy most of the Somme front – 30kms. As the French losses mounted at Verdun, Haig was more and more pressed to launch the offensive of the Somme, the date of which had been fixed for the 29th June. Because of bad weather this date was then changed to the 1st July. The battle started with a six day, continual artillery bombardment, the aim of which was to destroy the German lines and cut the enemy wire.
On the 1st July 1916 at 7:20am the battle began: 100,000 inexperienced soldiers (Pals Battalions), carrying 30kg of supplies went over the top but were quickly hit by machine gun fire.
At the end of the day, 60,000 British soldiers had been made casualties, 40,000 of whom had been injured or taken prisoner. The German losses represent about 1/10 of this number.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme had been a failure, a disaster for the British army, and is known as “the bloodiest day of the British army”.
Thiepval was finally captured on the 27th September 1916 by British troops and the Battle of the Somme came to an end in November of the same year. The breakthrough had not been possible but the battle had enabled the French to keep a hold on Verdun. The German army, who had had to fight two battles – Verdun and the Somme – at the same time, were completely exhausted.
The British army suffered more than 420,000 casualties (killed, injured, missing, or taken prisoner) during the Battle of the Somme. In March 1918, as part of the German Spring Offensive, Thiepval was retaken by the Germans. It was finally recaptured in August 1918 by British troops.
The memorial was built between 1929 and 1932 and was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest and most prolific architect of his time in Great Britain. In 1919, the Imperial War Graves Commission entrusted him with the construction of the Cenotaph in London. He would also design many of the British War Cemeteries, the “Stone of Remembrance” which can be found in many of these cemeteries, and the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. The memorial commemorates more than 72205 men from the British and South African armies who were declared missing in the Somme between July 1915 and March 1918. Either the bodies of these men were never found or the body was found but couldn’t be identified. Nearly 90% of these men were killed during the Battle of the Somme with about 12,000 on the first day of the offensive.
The memorial, at 45 metres high, is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. Its walls are clad in brick and its sixteen piers are faced with Portland stone on which the names of the “Missing” are engraved. The men commemorated here come from all social backgrounds and their ages range from 15 to 60 years old with an average age of 25.
- Fergal Keane: The Irish buried in a foreign field
- Sacrifice of Irish troops during Battle of the Somme commemorated
- The Guardian - Battle of the Somme centenary commemorations – as it happened
- The Irish Times - Battle of the Somme centenary marked in Ireland, Britain and France (including short video and photos)
- The Irish Times - Battle of the Somme webpage
- The Telegraph - Emotional tributes mark 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme
- BBC - Battle of the Somme: Royals at Somme centenary commemoration
Century Ireland 1913 - 1923 - Battle of the Somme