Thursday marked the 94th anniversary of the worst day in British Army history, the opening day of the great Somme offensive, a series of attacks that would last until November and aiming at relieving the pressure on the French army, then reeling at Verdun.
The attack was preceded by a seven day bombardment that saw about 1500 guns fire more than 1.5 million shells at the German position. So confident were the British the foe was obliterated, Captain WP “Billy” Nevill at 7.30am led his company of the 8th East Surreys “over the top” with four footballs. A prize was on offer for the first soldier to kick one into a German trench. Nevill was killed before he reached the enemy front line but his formation, the 30th Division, did remarkably well on the day, considering that by 10am, the British Army had suffered 57 470 casualties of whom 19 240 were killed or later died of wounds.
Two weeks later the battle sucked in the bulk of the South African force in France, the 1st SA Infantry Brigade. The 9th (Scottish) Division was sent into Delville Wood near Longueval on July 14 – Bastille Day. Its reserve brigade, the South African formation, was committed at 0600 the next morning to hold the area against German counterattack. Casualties would be of a catastrophic proportion, equal to—or worse than those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme, the wikipedia records. Units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualty levels had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “..the bloodiest battle of hell of 1916” by historian Basil Liddell Hart who was there himself as an infantry officer.
The brigade, 3155 strong that morning was pulled out on July 20, when it had suffered 2536 casualties: 457 dead, 120 died of wounds (577 in total), 1476 wounded and 483 missing/taken prisoner. Just 600 men and 19 officers were available on the latter day.