The Somme. The name of a river in France and two words which should forever be burned deep into British consciousness.
On 7.30 on the morning of July 1, 1916, exactly 100 years ago on Friday, the British Army launched the Battle of the Somme.
It was the start of the worst day in British military history, and the beginning of the biggest battle of the First World War on the Western Front. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 British soldiers were casualties, including 19,240 dead, and by the time the campaign stuttered to a close more than four months later, more than one million men from all sides had been killed, wounded or captured.
And nowhere has more reason to remember the sacrifice and tragedy than Lancashire and the North West of England.
The seven North West infantry regiments which make up today’s Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment between them deployed 53 battalions, each of approximately 700 to 1,000 men, at some point in the battle, and suffered a total of 11,942 casualties. Two thousand of those – more than the total strength of
today’s Regiment – were lost on the first day.
There was not a city or town, and scarcely a village or hamlet, between the Scottish border and the Mersey, which did not suffer the pain and loss of its sons.
The Lancashire Infantry Museum in Fulwood Barracks cares for the memory of 17 of those battalions, drawn from the historic regiments of Central Lancashire – the East Lancashire, South Lancashire and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments.
Most famously, the 11th (Service) Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment, today much better known as the Accrington Pals. Together with the Regiment’s 1st Battalion – with what was left by 1916 of the old pre-war regulars – they were in the first wave to go over the top when the artillery barrage lifted at 07.30 on July 1.
The Pals were on the far left of the 14-mile long British attack, assaulting the village of Serre. A mile to their south, the 1st Battalion attacked to the north of Beaumont Hamel.
For a few minutes there was silence, broken only by the call of skylarks. Then suddenly the machine guns opened up, and cut them down in swathes.
Both battalions were seen to move steadily forward, as if on parade, until they melted away under the fire. Small parties were seen to enter the German trenches, but they could not be supported, and were never seen again.
Within a few hours, the East Lancashire Regiment suffered more casualties than on any other day in its long history.
Out of 700 officers and men of the 1st Battalion who went into action, only 237 were present to answer their names when the roll was called, while the Accrington Pals lost 594 killed, wounded or missing out of 720 in the attack.
Far to the south, at the other end of the British line, greater success was achieved when the 30th Division penetrated the German defences at Montauban.
Supporting the assault was the 11th (Service) Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment – the St Helens Pals. Designated as a Pioneer battalion, they spent the day in rear of the attacking troops, repairing trenches, digging new ones, and preparing captured German ones. It was no sinecure. At day’s end, they reported 23 casualties.
It was just the start. On July 3, the 2nd South Lancashires unsuccessfully attacked the Thiepval Spur, highest and strongest of the German defences, losing 14 officers and more than 300 men.
Starting on July 4, the 7th Battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashire Regiments, including D Company of 7th Loyals, the Preston Pals, were all involved in hand-to-hand fighting around the village of La Boiselle where, on July 5, a posthumous Victoria Cross was won by Lieutenant Thomas Wilkinson.
And so it went on, day after day, week after week, month after month, with the battalions alternating between service in the front line and all-too-brief work and respite periods in the rear areas.
At Guillemont on August 7, 2nd Lieutenant Gabriel Coury of 1/4th South Lancashires, an old boy of Stonyhurst College, won a well-earned Victoria Cross for numerous acts of gallantry, including bringing in his wounded Commanding Officer over ground swept by machine gun fire.
His Victoria Cross is now on display in the Lancashire Infantry Museum and is one of our proudest possessions.
For the first time in history, tanks were deployed on September 15, so unsuccessfully two of them had to be dug out of the mud by 1/4th South Lancashires.
On October 18, 1st East Lancashires, who had only just returned to the Somme having been rebuilt following their decimation on July 1, attacked at Le Transloy through ‘a vast lake of mud, pitted with shell holes,’ once again losing all the officers, warrant officers and senior NCOs of the assaulting companies and a total of 362 other ranks.
Near Beaumont Hamel, 8th East Lancashires and 10th Loyal North Lancashires attacked side by side on November 15 in the subsidiary Battle of the Ancre, but failed with severe casualties.
Both sides now were stumbling onwards with growing exhaustion, but the impregnable German defences, carefully prepared in depth over the preceding 18 months, still held firm.
The final act opened on November 18, and once more our Lancashire battalions were in the thick of it; the three 7th Battalions of the East, South and Loyal North Lancashires assaulting the village of Grandcourt in appalling weather. And it met with the same lack of success as all the others.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was to write: “It is difficult to exaggerate the extreme hardships...suffered...amid the viscid slopes of the Ancre... The front trenches were mere gutters, and every attempt to deepen them only deepened the stagnant pool within...The mud was on the men’s bodies, in their food, and forever clogging both their feet and their weapons. It was a nightmare chapter of the campaign.”
But at least it was the last chapter.
Winter now thankfully forced an end to what had been one of the bloodiest battles in world history, and both sides paused over the winter months to lick their wounds, and to prepare for the equally terrible battles which were to come in 1917 and 1918.
Find out more about Lancashire's heroic pals battalions click here
How one family journeyed from America to pay tribute to an uncle killed at the Somme click here