The first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest in the British Army’s history.
Painting depicting a Welsh unit at the Battle of the Somme. (Credit: National Museum & Galleries of Wales Enterprises Limited/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The British expected little German resistance following the week-long bombardment. Instead, the Battle of the Somme became, as war poet Siegfried Sassoon described, a “sunlit picture of hell.” Of the 120,000 Allied troops—including those from Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada—who launched the initial attack, nearly 20,000 were killed, most of them in the first hour, and another 37,000 were wounded. Thirty-seven sets of British brothers lost their lives on the battle’s first day, and one man was killed every 4.4 seconds, making July 1, 1916, the bloodiest single day in the history of the British Army.
The Battle of the Somme lasted more than four months.
The battlefield after the first Battle of the Somme. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Following the horrific losses on the first day, the battle settled into a terrible war of attrition as the heat of summer gave way to autumn rains. “The conditions are almost unbelievable,” wrote Australian soldier Edward Lynch. “We live in a world of Somme mud. We sleep in it, work in it, fight in it, wade in it and many of us die in it. We see it, feel it, eat it and curse it, but we can’t escape it, not even by dying.” Allied forces launched no fewer than 90 attacks before British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig called off the offensive on November 18. Over the course of the 141-day battle, the British advanced a total of only five miles.