Lesser known facts about The Battle of the Somme

Mametz, Western Front, a winter scene, painting by Frank Crozier | Public Domain

The Battle of the Somme raged for 141 days from July to November 1916. Over three million men fought in the battle and a third of those were either killed or wounded. By the end of it, British and French forces had claimed just 6 miles of German-occupied territory.

We take a look at some surprising facts about the bloodiest battle of World War One that you may not know about.

Explosions on the first day were the loudest man-made noise in history

Before the battle started on 1 July 1916, the tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers had spent weeks digging 19 mines underneath the German line of defence. Packed with ammonal explosives, the mines were detonated at 7.20 am on the first day of the battle and made for quite the spectacle.

In fact, the Lochnagar and Y Sap mines, packed with up to 60,000 pounds of explosives, were the largest mines ever detonated up to that point in history. Their explosion created the loudest man-made noise the world had ever heard at that time. It was said that even Londoners could hear the blast.

Footballs were kicked over the top at the start of the battle

For seven days prior to the start of the battle, British artillery rained down on the German front line. Around 1.7 million shells and bombs were fired during that time, leaving British top brass to believe that nothing could be alive after such a bombardment, not even a rat.

Such overconfidence led to orders being issues that soldiers should advance close together at a walking pace towards the obliterated enemy lines. Some even chose to kick footballs as they went over the top.

Captain Wilfred 'Billie' Nevill promised a prize to whichever platoon was first to kick their ball into German trenches. He signalled the advance to his men by punting the company ball into no man’s land.

As we know, British hopes of an easy advance were dashed within seconds, as German machine-gun fire cut through line after line of British soldiers. Many of the shells fired before the battle had been duds or had missed their intended target. The German dugouts were also deeper and better fortified than the British top command had anticipated and the bombing had failed to destroy their barbed-wire barricades.

The bloodiest day in British military history

It was one of the bloodiest battles in the history of mankind. For many, the Battle of the Somme symbolises the horrors of World War One and epitomises the futility of trench warfare.

When the battle finally came to an end in November, Britain had sustained some 420,000 casualties. Of that number, 127,000 had lost their lives. On the first day of the battle alone, the British suffered 57, 470 casualties, including 19,240 killed, most of those in the first hour of the conflict. It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, as a soldier lost their life every 4.4 seconds.

Along with such sacrifice came great heroism and during the battle 49 men were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award in the British military. To put that in context, only 15 men have been awarded it in the 75 years since the end of WWII.

First feature-length war documentary was made about the battle

On 21 August 1916, The Battle of the Somme, the world’s first feature-length film to record actual soldiers in action hit the cinema screens. An estimated 20 million Brits saw it during its first few months of release, about half the population of the country at the time.

The British War Office hoped the propaganda film would help aid recruitment and boost support for the war. With shots from the actual battle itself, the documentary also included scenes that were staged for the film. Created by cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, the film depicted the grim reality of warfare, bringing home the fight across the Channel like never before.

Tanks entered warfare for the first time

The British were the first to put tanks on the field of battle when they rolled out 32 Mark I’s during the conflict at Flers-Courcelette (15-22 September 1916), which was part of the larger Somme battle. By that stage, the battle of the Somme had become one of attrition and British top command hoped the tank might be the weapon to finally beat the deadlock.

Although the tanks proved effective against the barbed-wire defences and helped protect the infantry, they were not the silver bullet many had hoped for. Beset by a number of mechanical and technical failures, the tanks often broke down on the battlefield rendering them useless. Those that did move could only do so at a pace of between 3-4mph, far too slow to spearhead any advance. They also proved susceptible to enemy grenades.

With all that said, British General Sir Douglas Haig saw the potential of the armoured vehicles and ordered many more go into production. Improved designs would follow and the tank went on to have a greater impact later in the war.

Adolf Hitler was wounded in the thigh

Having enlisted in the Bavarian Army at the start of the war, a young Adolf Hitler quickly saw action at the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. Surviving this, Hitler’s unit was later sent to the Battle of the Somme.

The 27-year-old corporal was a dispatch runner, taking messages from command in the rear to soldiers on the frontline. On 7 October 1916, a British shell exploded near the entrance to a dugout Hitler was in. The future Fuhrer was hit in the left thigh by shrapnel and spent the next two months recovering in a hospital back in Germany.

He later returned to his regiment in March 1917 and would see further action at the Battle of Arras (1917) and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917)