Four Battalions of the Somerset Light Infantry took part in the 1916 Battles of the Somme. The 1st Battalion went over the top on the first day; 1 July 1916.
The regimental archives detail the day’s events in various ways.
The war diary of the 1st Battalion gives the official version of the attack:
Z day. Fine and warm. After a very intense bombardment, at 7.20 am a large mine was exploded under the Hawthorn Redoubt. Practically no casualties were suffered while in Assembly trenches. At 7.30 am the attack was launched. The 11th Brigade advanced in magnificent style…The advance was carried out excellently to start with, and a severe barrage was not encountered. Shortly after heavy rifle fire was opened and machine guns from both flanks…The battalion had to ease off to the left owing to the ridge which it should have crossed, being swept by machine guns.
The most vivid descriptions of the day can be found in personal diaries of the men who served with the 1st Battalion. The following extract comes from the diary of Staff Captain Geoffrey Prideaux:
At 5am the bombardment reopened getting heavier and heavier until 7.20am when a hurricane bombardment was opened in the German trenches. At 7.20am the Hawthorn Redoubt South of Beaumont Hamel, was blown up by a gigantic mine, the biggest fired during the war. The mine was 80 feet below the surface and contained 20 ¼ tons of explosive…I watched the attack from Vallade trench and consider it was quite the finest sight I have ever seen
The diary of Lance-Corporal Arthur Henry Cook illustrates the fighting:
It is a lovely morning and the birds are singing…The bombardment is now terrific the German lines are one cloud of smoke, that it seems to be impossible for anyone to live in such a hell…We were able to stand on the parapet to get a better view, there is not a sign of life in front and no response from the German Artillery…Our men were timed to advance 10 minutes after the Rifle Brigade, but so eager were they to get on, that they left soon after…and consequently were caught in the open by these guns…I led the platoon in to the German first line, and after a breather went in to the German second line, here I lost control owing to the men rushing from one shell hole to another in their advance. The ground is littered with our dead…The clearing parties are not doing their work properly in clearing the trenches of all Germans, as here and there parties of Jerrys are popping up and throwing grenades at us from all angles…It is impossible to get any further…the shell holes are full of wounded and no hopes of getting them back…The Germans were now trying to force us out of their trenches, we got together what was left of us now and by collecting bombs from the dead and what Jerry left behind we managed to hold on…then the supply of bombs gave out and no more could be got, the Germans then gradually drove us back inch by inch through their superior supply of bombs…We are a very small number here now and men are being killed and wounded in all directions…I have a terrible thirst caused by the fumes from the shells, the wounded are also crying out for water, but none is available…Our troops are gradually retiring leaving a very small garrison to hold the trench…This is getting pretty hot here now but our orders are to hang on to what we have until midnight, when we are being relieved…The enemy artillery has now started and are dropping shells thick and fast all around us…We held on until relieved about 11 pm, an officer then said we may go back, we didn’t need telling again, we had had our belly full.
On 1 July 1916 the 1st Battalion lost a total of 463 killed, missing or wounded. In total the British Army suffered 57,420 casualties; the greatest loss on any day during the conflict.