The Battle of the Somme Began With Britain’s Biggest Artillery Barrage
But the guns failed to cut the Germans’ wire
by MATTHEW MOSS
On June 24, 1916, the British Army launched what was, at that point, its largest bombardment of World War I. Four days of heavy shelling preceded the infantry assault in the Somme sector.
A thousand artillery pieces targeted a 25,000-yard stretch of the German line, the weapons ranging from trench mortars to 60-pounders and huge, 15-inch howitzers. “Nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it,” claimed Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding the Fourth Army.
The largest previous British bombardment had taken place before the Battle of Loos, when 484 — predominantly smaller — guns had shelled German positions.
The bombardment at the Somme, however, was to be much heavier and continue for much longer, despite being over a larger front. Planners allocated batteries up to 3,000 rounds a day. In all, the British artillery fired 1.5 million shells in just four days.
The majority were shrapnel shells rather than high-explosive. Shrapnel munitions were better suited to the anti-personnel role than they were to cutting the thick German wire or destroying dugouts and trenches. This proved to be a problem for the Allies — one compounded by faulty ammunition that failed to explode.
Unlike at Loos the previous year, the German forces along the Somme were arrayed in depth. The British artillery fire had to split its bombardment between the Germans’ first and second lines.
“Their wire was about four times as wide as ours,” recalled Pvt. Frank Lindley of the Barnsley Pals Battalions of the York and Lancaster Regiment. “The quantity of wire they had you couldn’t have got through that in a month of Sundays.”
“Our wire was narrow compared to theirs,” Lindley continued. “When they were saying, ‘Our guns will tear up the wire so that you can get through,’ I thought, ‘By God, I hope so,’ but no. We knew all the time we were in for a bashing and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
The Royal Flying Corps had orders to carry out reconnaissance sorties and photograph the impact of the artillery on the enemy’s wire and positions, but heavy rain grounded the flights.
The Allies decided that, in light of the uncertainty, two extra days of artillery fire were necessary. The infantry attack slipped to July 1.
The effects of the British bombardment varied massively, with some sectors reporting gaps in the wire while other sectors saw little impact. The bombardment continued day and night for another five days before the battle began and the first men went over the top.