“Z” DAY – The Infantry Attack

“Z” DAY,  The First Day of the Somme … 1st July 1916

Fricourt – 6.25am

Frederick Buckland’s howitzer battery work at furious pace to play their part in the intense bombardment of Fricourt in the hour before the Infantry go over the top. The battery’s four guns fire over a 120 shells in 65 minutes, at a rate of roughly 1 shell in every 30 seconds. The combined batteries of the 21st Division’s artillery fire over 2,000 rounds at Fricourt in this final violent crescendo. This intense shelling is replicated along the entire length of the offensive front from north to south.

Up and down the line, our Infantry assembled for the attack cowered and shuddered in their crowded trenches under the onslaught of the enemy’s shells. There is still an hour to endure …

The story of Mitcham’s men on the first day of the Somme is told in detail in this single map. Contemporary documents, photographs and eye-witness accounts are brought together across the battlefield from Gommecourt in the north to Carnoy in the south. The biographies of those who fought on that day bring their names to life again, placing them in the heart of battle.

Click the top right to explore the map in full size and its various layers. View the biographies of the casualties, the contemporary reports and accounts and landmarks. Visit the cemetery locations, as we remember the fallen of a hundred years ago today

Gommecourt – 6.25am

Men of the 56th Division had assembled in trenches in front of Gommecourt:

“I looked at my watch and found it was a minute or two before 6.25 A.M. I turned to the corporal, saying — “They’ll just about start now.” The words were not out of my mouth before the noise, which had increased a trifle during the last twenty minutes, suddenly swelled into a gigantic roar. Our guns had started. The din was so deafening that one could not hear the crash of German shells exploding in our own lines.

The larger shells kept up a continuous shrieking overhead, falling on the enemy’s trenches with the roar of a cataract, while every now and then a noise as of thunder sounded above all when our trench-mortar shells fell amongst the German wire, blowing it to bits, making holes like mine craters, and throwing dirt and even bits of metal into our own trenches. I turned to the corporal. He was a brave fellow,and had gone through the Gallipoli campaign, but he was shaking all over, and white as parchment. I expect that I was just the same.

Then, suddenly, there was a blinding “crash” just by us. We were covered in mud which lopped out of the trench, and the evil-smelling fumes of lyddite. The cry for stretcher-bearers was passed hurriedly up the line again. Followed “crash” after “crash,” and the pinging of shrapnel which flicked into the top of the trench, the purring noise of flying nose-caps and soft thudding sounds as they fell into the parapet. It was difficult to hear one another talking.” Lt. Edward G. D.Liveing, The Rangers.

Gommecourt – 7.30am

“The attack was about to begin — I arrived on top, looked down my line of men, swung my rifle forward as a signal, and started off at the prearranged walk.

A continuous hissing noise all around one, like a railway engine letting off steam, signified that the German machine-gunners had become aware of our advance. I nearly trod on a motionless form. It lay in a natural position, but the ashen face and fixed, fearful eyes told me that the man had just fallen. I did not recognise him then. I remember him now. He was one of my own platoon.

To go back for a minute. The scene that met my eyes as I stood on the parapet of our trench for that one second is almost indescribable. Just in front the ground was pitted by innumerable shell-holes. More holes opened suddenly every now and then. Here and there a few bodies lay about. Farther away, before our front line and in No Man’s Land, lay more. In the smoke one could distinguish the second line advancing. One man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away. In the background, where ran the remains of the German lines and wire, there was a mass of smoke, the red of the shrapnel bursting amid it.” Lt. Edward G. D.Liveing, The Rangers.

Y-ravine – 7.20am

The Hawthorn mine is detonated at 7.20am about 400 yards north of the assembled troops opposite Y-ravine. The moment of the explosion is captured on photograph and is filmed by Geoffery Malins from “Jacob’s Ladder”. The 2nd Bn. South Wales Border Regiment make up the first wave. followed by the 1st Bn. Border Regiment and the 1st Bn. Newfoundland Regiment were the third wave.

Most of South Wales Borderers got entangled within the British wire and were mown down by German machine-guns:

“Directly the signal to advance was given we mounted the parapet. We met with a terrible fire from artillery, but it was the machine-gun fire which did the most damage in our ranks. But we continued to make good progress. Our officers displayed the greatest gallantry. One Lieutenant, an attached officer, urged us on in the most gallant fashion, and was himself twice shot, first in the leg and the second time in the body. It was just about this time that I myself was shot in the right arm and while I lay on the ground I could see the Germans turning their machine-guns on our wounded, whilst in some cases I actually saw the Germans bandaging our wounded. I determined myself to lay quiet until it was dark, and then attempt to crawl out of danger, and in this effort I succeeded. “ Private J. Tucker, 2nd South Wales Borderers.

Ovillers – 7.30am

“Time to attack, bombardment of the German trenches ceased. Whistles blew – and shouts of “Over the top you go” We clamber out of the trenches into No Man’s Land – rifles with fixed bayonets held across the chest – we advance slowly, 5 paces apart, look right, look left as far as the eye could see – one long line of men in khaki.

Immediately we had left our trenches we were met with concentrated – withering and murderous German machine gun fire. The Germans were very much alive. We were shocked and surprised at this coming from an enemy that had supposedly been “blasted out of existence”. A few yards in front of our own trenches my platoon officer and my sergeant had been killed. There was no one else to lead – so confusion – and consternation set in, but we still moved forward!

Under this machine gun fire our lines of khaki began to melt away. Those five paces became ten- twenty –thirty – fifty and as far as I could see, right or left, no one was moving forward or standing. Mid way between the trenches I knelt down beside a corporal and we both thought the situation was useless. Rifle, bayonet – and even bombs were no match for machine guns.” Walter Evans – 8th KOYLI

Carnoy – 7.30am

At 7.27am Captain Billie Neville, 8th East Surreys, stands on the parapet and kicks a football into no man’s land.

“Captain Neville had been out on night patrols through no man’s land and had seen what the artillery barrage had done or not done. The men were ordered not to stop for friends, to keep going. So Neville felt the footballs would take their minds off what was going on around them.”

An observer from the artillery, who was based at a forward post at the time, witnessed Neville’s attack.

“I saw an infantry man climb onto the parapet into No Man’s Land, beckoning others to follow As he did, so he kicked off a football. A good kick. The ball rose and travelled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance, with the other men kicking the ball as they went”

No sooner had the East Surreys come out from cover than they were met by a staggering fire which held them up in the Breslau Trench.  Captain Neville was shot and killed encouraging the troops to continue the advance over the wire and into the German trenches.

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