NOSTALGIA: The worst day in British military history

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West Sussex team Martin Mace and John Grehan have produced a landmark contribution to our understanding of the worst day in British military history.

Slaughter on the Somme 1 July 1916 brings together, as its subtitle suggests, The Complete War Diaries of the British Army’s Worst Day.

Infantry in the support trench during preliminary bombardment during the first week of the Battle of the Somme.'At least 20,000 British soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 were injured on the first day of the Battle . It is the greatest number of British casualties in a single day's fighting in modern history.

Infantry in the support trench during preliminary bombardment during the first week of the Battle of the Somme.'At least 20,000 British soldiers were killed and a further 40,000 were injured on the first day of the Battle . It is the greatest number of British casualties in a single day's fighting in modern history.

At 7.30am on July 1, 1916, the Allied artillery fell deathly silent along the Somme. The ear-splitting explosions were replaced by the shrill sounds of whistles being blown.

At that moment, tens of thousands of British soldiers climbed out of the trenches and began to make their way steadily towards the German lines opposite.

As Martin says: “This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. By the end of that day there were more than 60,000 casualties, a third of them fatal.

“There are lots of books that give primary source information, but no-one has ever sat down and brought together the war diaries of every single battalion that went over the top. I think there were about 174 in total.

No Caption ABCDE

No Caption ABCDE

“The battalion had to have gone over the top or an element of it, a company or a working party, but simply there was no one single list. The Imperial War Museum had one; the BBC had another, and they were all slightly different. We took those lists and checked who did what and then we started looking for the war diaries, in archives, in museums. It was a massive undertaking – a lot more work than we had imagined.

“A war diary is a document that was required by the War Office. Every battalion had to keep a war diary, just the events that happened every day.”

And for Martin, a big part of the fascination is the wide variations. Some diaries were massive, full of detail. Others would simply record: “It rained today.”

“It depended entirely on the person who was tasked to write it. If it was someone who liked writing, it could be very detailed. You would always get the details of any losses.

British soldiers go "over the top" from a trench in France   1916'Battle of the Somme

British soldiers go "over the top" from a trench in France 1916'Battle of the Somme

“I am very much into the human side of the social history of it all, and that’s what I find most moving. When you think what happened on the first day of the Somme, what happened in such a small area, and you think what thoughts were in these men’s minds that day, how these individuals must have been feeling as they wrote their entries that day. Sometimes they don’t make sense; they must have been so shell-shocked. Others are very detailed. The adjutant must have gone around asking for first-hand accounts.

“The most telling of all is one diary where it simply says ‘There is no-one left to write 
this diary’. Out of 1,000 men. That’s not to say they were all killed, but there were no more officers or NCOs. They had gone or were wounded or dead or missing...”

The book is published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd; RRP £25; 514 pages, hardback.

Martin has been involved in writing and publishing military history for more than 20 years. Following the success of his first book, he established Historic Military Press and, in 2006, began working on the idea for Britain at War magazine. This publication has become the best-selling military history periodical on the high street and also sells around the world. Martin lives in Storrington.

The opening day of the Battle of the Somme.  British troops of the 34th Division seen here during the assault on La Boisselle . July 1916

The opening day of the Battle of the Somme. British troops of the 34th Division seen here during the assault on La Boisselle . July 1916

John Grehan has written or edited more than 300 books and magazine articles covering a wide span of military history – from the Iron Age to the present. He lives in Shoreham.