The Battle of the Somme; July 1st 1916

‘The Worst Day in the History of the British Army’

The Thiepval Memorial commemorates the 72,000 men who were killed at the Somme and who have no known grave.

The Battle of the Somme was the day the thousands of volunteers who had answered Lord Kitchener’s call, went into battle for the first time. It is also the day that historians have since dubbed, “The Worst Day in the History of the British Army.” Many men from Islay and Jura took part in the battle. At least 28 were killed.

Across the country young men had been swept up with the desire to do their duty and serve King and Country. Kitchener and his recruiting agents had the idea of promoting loyalty through keeping volunteers from the same town or profession together. By the end of August 1914, a London Stockbrokers battalion had been formed. This was quickly followed by over 40 more which became known as Pals Battalions. They had trained hard, had a strong sense of esprit de corps and optimism was high.

The decision to fight on the Somme sector of the front was taken to help the French to the south, engaged in the carnage that was the Battle of Verdun. The British offensive on the Somme would draw German troops away from Verdun.

The strategy was straightforward. A massive bombardment lasting a week and consuming a million shells would pound the German front lines into pieces. It would shatter the masses of barbed wire. It would totally demoralise the few Germans still alive after the bombardment. The infantry attack would then march across no-mans land, capture their objectives and begin the total defeat of the German Army. The troops were to march across in waves and maintain continuous progress. There was to be no stopping. Each wave would add fresh impetus to the preceding line.

What went wrong?

Photo-montage from Thiepval showing 230 of the casualties.

The bombardment did not meet the expectations of the General Staff. Despite being the biggest of the war to date, it did not succeed. The German front lines had excellent dug- outs, deep underground. The entrances to these dug-outs faced away from the British lines. Only a direct hit would cause casualties. The bombardment did not break the wire but it did churn up the ground in and around the enemy trenches. This made a rapid advance impossible. As soon as the bombardment stopped, the German troops had time to leave their bunkers and race to set up their machine guns.

Firing 600 rounds per minute, several well sited machine guns could cause devastating losses. And they did. Lieutenant J.R. Ackerley described what it was like, “The air when we at last went over the top in broad daylight, positively hummed, buzzed and whined with what sounded like hordes of wasps and hornets but were, of course bullets…. Many of the officers in my battalion were struck down the moment they emerged into view. My company commander was shot through the heart before he had advanced a step.” John Lewis-Stemple ‘Six Weeks’

By the end of the first day 20,000 men had been killed or reported as missing. Another 40,000 were wounded. German artillery also contributed to the losses. Almost a fifth of the attacking force was dead. German losses were a tenth of the British. Many of the wounded were not recovered. “A young British officer, Gerald Brennan, crossing subsequently captured ground in the fourth week of July, found the bodies of soldiers wounded on 1 July who had ‘crawled into shell holes, wrapped their waterproof sheets round them , taken out their bibles and died like that’. John Keegan ‘The First World War.’

The 1st of July 1916 saw the end of the idea of Pals Battalions. Of an estimated 700 Accrington Pals who took part in the attack, 235 were killed and 350 wounded within the space of twenty minutes. The local nature of these battalions meant the losses were disproportionate, magnifying the grief and suffering.

It was not all bad. Several divisions reached their objectives however they found themselves isolated. Lacking the necessary reinforcements and facing determined German counter-attacks they had to pull back.

The battle continued throughout September. October and November. Despite repeated attacks little more ground was gained. As the weather and conditions deteriorated the battle petered out and ended on 19 November.

One of the many cemeteries along the the line of the battle. This one is at Thiepval.

Men of Islay and Jura killed at the Somme

At least twenty-eight men from Islay and Jura were killed in the battle with many more wounded. The scale of the losses took some time to come through. It was August before casualty reports began to appear in the Oban Times. Telegrams with the grim news began to arrive around the same time.

For some Islay families their sons were listed as ‘missing in action’ which left them in an awful limbo of not knowing. Fearing the worst while hoping for the best.

Men of Islay and Jura killed at the Somme July 1st – November 19th 1916

July 1st: Pte Alex MacDougall, originally from Ballochroy. Pte Duncan MacArthur, Port Ellen. Pte Neil McDonald originally from Kildalton.

July 3rd: Corporal Colin Campbell, Port Ellen.

July 10th: Corporal James Campbell, Port Ellen.

July 20th: L/Cpl James MacFadyen, Port Charlotte.

July 26th: Pte Duncan McMillan, Port Charlotte.

July 27th: Pte George Weir, Bowmore. Private Neil MacArthur, Octofad, Portnahaven.

Aug. 5th: Pte Angus McLellan, Bluehouses, Bridgend.

Aug. 6th: Private John Grant, Bridgend.

Aug. 9th: Signaller Hugh MacArthur, Port Ellen.

Aug. 10th: Lieutenant Ronald Campbell, second son of Campbell of Jura to be killed.

Aug. 18th: L/Corporal Walter Whyte, Port Ellen.

Aug. 30th: Pte John McArthur, Fornisaig, Tormisdale.

Sept. 1st: Pte Donald McKeachan, Ballygrant.

Sept. 3rd: Pte Robert McArthur, Port Ellen.

Sept. 15th: 2nd Lieutenant John Cullen, Bridgend.

Sept. 21st: Lieutenant Malcolm McIntyre, Port Ellen.

Sept. 28th: Pte William Campbell, Ion.

Oct. 10th: Pte Alex Justice, originally from Bruichladdich.

Oct. 14th: Lieutenant Alastair Mackinnon, Kildalton.

Oct. 23rd: Pte Alex Darroch, described as a ‘Glasgow Juraman.’

Nov. 13th: Pte John McKechnie, Inverlussa, Jura. Marine Dugald Campbell, Port Ellen. Pte John Anderson, Carnain, Bridgend.

Nov. 15th: Pte James Macrae, Rockside, Port Charlotte.

Nov. 18th: Pte Neil Shaw, Bowmore. Pte Angus McKechnie, Craigen House, Jura.