WW1: Why was the first day of the Somme such a disaster?

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1. The bloodiest day

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, in northern France, was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army and one of the most infamous days of World War One. On 1 July 1916, the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. They gained just three square miles of territory.

British and German troops faced each other's trenches only separated by a few hundred yards of “no-man’s land”. The British force consisted of soldiers from Britain and Ireland, as well as troops from Newfoundland, South Africa and India. The British generals staged a massive artillery bombardment and sent 100,000 men over the top to take the German trenches. They were confident of victory.

But the British soldiers were unable to break through the German defences and were mown down in their thousands by machine gun and artillery fire. This day set a bloody precedent: the Somme campaign wore on for five months and, in all, more than a million soldiers from the British, German and French armies were wounded or killed.

2. How many soldiers died?

Play this one-minute animation to find out how many British soldiers died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

3. Where did the British go wrong?

Going up against an experienced and well-equipped opponent, it could be said the British Army made many mistakes. Click below to find out more.

Untrained men

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Untrained men

Many of the British soldiers were volunteers with little battle experience or training.

Untested tactics

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Untested tactics

The Allies' planned an infantry assault aided by a huge artillery bombardment. This tactic had not been tested by the British on a large scale battlefield.

Inadequate artillery

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Inadequate artillery

Britain's bombardment was ineffective against Germany's well-trained troops, who were safe in deep trenches.

Underestimated the enemy

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Underestimated the enemy

The British attacked well-fortified German trenches, manned by battle-hardened soldiers, armed with large number of machine guns.

4. WATCH: Preparing for victory

General Haig, the senior British officer, planned to destroy the German defences with an intense seven day artillery bombardment and by detonating a series of massive mines under enemy lines. Click on the video below to find out more.

5. INTERACTIVE: Over the top!

Scrub back and forth below to see the battle unfold hour-by-hour.

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6. What happened to the Germans?

The Germans soldiers lost territory in the first hours of the battle – when the British troops broke through their lines. However after this initial success the British were unable to push forward reinforcements across the confused battlefield or fire enough shells to stop the Germans re-grouping. The German Army counter-attacked and recovered a lot of lost ground.

On the first day, the German Army suffered around 6,000 casualties - mostly at the hands of the French on the southern part of the Somme. The French, for their part, managed to take all their objectives and suffered very few casualties.

The German lines were compromised where the British and French attacked alongside each other. The Allies exploited their initial success and, unable to draw on reserves, the Germans desperately improvised a defence. It took two weeks for the German defence to deploy enough reserve men to plug the gap and contain the allied assault.

7. The battles that shaped a nation

Which battles are seared into the nation's consciousness?

Defeat of a despot

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Waterloo

This battle in 1815, saw Britain and Prussia triumph over Napoleon. It ended his dictatorship and is remembered as a key moment in Europe's history.

Seaborne invasion

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D-Day

On D-Day 1944, 24,000 Allied troops landed on Normandy’s beaches. It helped change the course of WW2.

Heroic yet disastrous

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Charge of the Light Brigade

The bravery and sacrifice of the British cavalry, who advanced against stronger Russian artillery, during the Crimean War in 1854, is still remembered.

A battle for the skies

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The Battle of Britain

This pivotal battle was fought in the summer of 1940. It is mythologised as “the few” defending Britain against wave after wave of German Luftwaffe attack.