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Major offensive begins along the Somme
The night after the first assault in the new joint British and French offensive that commenced on the 1st of the month in the Somme region of the Western Front. Photo: Manchester Guardian History of War, 1916. (Full collection available at the National Library of Ireland)

Major offensive begins along the Somme

The Somme, 5 July 1916 - A major British and French offensive has begun on the Western Front.

The combined attack was commenced beneath cloudless skies at 7.30 a.m. on Friday, July 1st, along a 25 mile stretch bordering the River Somme in France. It comes in the wake of a major bombardment of German lines that been less protracted but much more focussed than previous efforts.

Left: A panoramic view of the Somme, the field if battle in the new allied offensive, int eh Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France (Image: ©IWM); Right: Roll call in the trenches on the morning of the 1st July when the offensive was launched (Image: Manchester Guardian History of War Vol 5, 1916).

Left: Troops loading a Howitzer gun. Right: The ruins of Mametz, a commune in the Somme region, after the bombardment. (Images: ©IWM)

So far, the main theatres of fighting cover an area approximately 20 miles north of the Somme and 5 miles south of it and while the full details of the fighting have yet to emerge. Initial reports from official and unofficial channels indicates that significant progress has been made. The Anglo-French forces, which include thousands of Irish soldiers, have advanced their position, seized enemy ground and equipment, and have taken large numbers of German prisoners.

From Paris, reports point to the success of French forces south of the Somme in capturing the village of Feuillères, as well as Buscourt and Flaucourt.

To the north, meanwhile, along what General Haig has said is a 16 mile stretch of the British front, the fighting has been intense, especially in the vicinity of La Boiselle and south of Thiepval, where German counter-attacks have enjoyed some success in recapturing certain positions earlier seized by British troops.

Professor John Horne of Trinity College Dublin talks to David McCullagh about what he describes as the ‘initiation of the modern world into mass death’ by the industrialisation of fire-power that was heralded by the Great War.

Machine guns
The principal weapon of German resistance is the machine gun which, according to one  correspondent on the ground, the Germans have tried hard to stow away ‘in deep dugouts, into which no shell-fire could penetrate’.

Once the shelling subsides, the machine-gunners drag them again ‘into the light’ to use them ‘against our troops advancing to the assault. There is not an officer or a soldier emerging from the thick of the fight’, the correspondent added, ‘who does not agree that the modern machine gun is the bugbear of any advance against an enemy position.’

And yet, for all the ferocity of the German resistance, by end of the weekend’s fighting, upwards of 13,000 German soldiers have been taken prisoner, 8,000 of them by the French, the remaining 5,000 by the British.

Against that, for all the intensity of fighting - described as ‘desperate’ in some areas - official British sources are not reporting heavy casualties. However, it is expected that the exchanges of recent days are but the beginning of a long phase of the campaign.

In this battle, it is already clear that there will be no easy resolution and no quick ending.

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]

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Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.