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The Somme campaign

What went wrong on 1 July 1916?

Douglas Haig planned the opening stages of the Somme campaign as an artillery battle, seeking to destroy German barbed wire and machine gun posts and burying trench garrisons. The failure to achieve this meant that when the infantry assault began the British were in a life or death race to the German parapet. Whoever got there first would live. The Germans won it easily, set up their machine guns and cut down successive waves of attacking infantry who stepped over the bodies of their fallen comrades, who only succeeded in adding more names to the casualty lists.

Battalions formed entirely from small communities ranging from Accrington in Lancashire to Newfoundland in Canada were wiped out in minutes on 1 July 1916. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment suffered 588 casualties and Rob Gilson's (Old Edwardian) battalion the 11th Suffolks lost 190 killed and 337 wounded on that fateful summer Saturday. In total, eight Old Edwardians were killed on 1 July and another 44 would die before the battle ended in November 1916.

Why is the Somme so controversial?

Put simply, the huge casualties inflicted on the British on the first day of the attack persuade most people today that General Haig should have called off the rest of the assault. His refusal to do this and to accept even more losses seems to confirm the stereotype of an 'armchair general' cut off from reality, trying to direct a battle from a chateau 30 miles behind the lines. The charges that the British Army were 'lions led by donkeys' and that Haig and his staff were 'butchers' has lodged deep into British consciousness. However, there are many other voices, both of contemporaries and from historians who reject this judgement, who argue that the Somme launched the British Army onto the road to complete victory over Germany just two years later.