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11-08-2015, 16:24


On the assault line, fifteen miles long, the British placed 1,437 guns. The preliminary bombardment, seven days in length, dropped 1.5 million shells on the enemy's front. But within these staggering numbers there rested the origins of future trouble. The newly trained artillerymen of the BEF were far from possessing the skills of the regulars from the old army. These enthusiastic amateurs could at best only blanket a given area with as many shells as possible; aiming at specific machine gun strongpoints was beyond them. Moreover, British industry was sdll unable to produce enough highexplosive shells. Much of the barrage hurled shrapnel shells at the enemy, useless in an effort to cripple well-constructed fortifications. The attack began at 7:30 on the morning of July 1 , a Saturday. Haig hoped that his forces would punch through the German defenses, enter open country, and fight a decisive battle. His cavalry forces were ready to swing into action as soon as the first phase of the battle was over. General Herbert Rawlinson of the Fourth Army, which bore the brunt of the fighting, had long been skeptical about the possibility of such a breakthrough. He looked instead to a series of offensives with limited objectives. By taking enemy strongpoints, the British could tempt the Germans to respond with costly counterattacks. Haig overruled his subordinate, but Rawlinson had influenced the plan for the Somme in disastrous fashion. The untrained infantrymen— 120,000 men in twelve divisions—could not be allowed to move independently, he decided. They were to march forward in orderly ranks to occupy the enemy's battered positions. Every man carried sixty-six pounds of equipment and supplies. By evening, approximately 21,000 members of the British army had been killed, most of them during the first sixty minutes of fighting. Another 40,000 were wounded. German machine guns led the slaughter, but effective German artillery barrages on the attacking troops took a heavy toll as well. The single day's loss stands as the worst suffered by any army before or since. German losses were tiny by comparison: 2,200 taken prisoner, 6,000 killed or wounded. As Martin Middlebrook has pointed out, the Germans inflicted seven casualties for every one they suffered. Often it was worse: when the British 8th Division encountered the German 180th Regiment, the Germans killed or wounded eighteen of the enemy for every loss they suffered. A sergeant serving in a brigade of the 26th Northumberland Fusiliers vividly recounted his brief time in the battle just after leaving the British trenches. "I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. ... By the time I'd gone another ten yards, there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own." He himself fell a moment later. Two battalions of his brigade, with a thousand men in each battalion, lost a total of 1,100 killed and wounded. The brigade's leader was wounded, as were two of its four battalion commanders. Another battalion commander was killed, lo As in all great offensives, the attacker's preparations alerted the defenders to what was likely to happen. In particular, the Germans were able to protect their troops with deep underground fortifications. When the bombardment lifted, there were more than enough Germans left alive to man the strongest element in trench warfare: the machine guns.