Over The Top

British offensive on the Somme Front. Some of the first wounded British troops, 1st July 1916. Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 55)

The Battle of the Somme was planned as a large scale British and French offensive on the Western Front to coincide with Russian and Italian offensives on the eastern and Italian fronts. It was an attempt to weaken the German forces.  However, the German attack on Verdun focussed French attention away from the Somme, leaving British forces a greater role. Nine K.O.Y.L.I. battalions took part in the Battle of the Somme.

The Somme campaign began with a week-long artillery bombardment on 24 June with the aim of destroying German lines before the ‘Big Push’ of July 1. This push would involve attacking infantry going ‘over the top’ through no-man’s-land towards the German lines. The lines, which were well dug in with extensive trench networks and fortifications, were not as damaged by the bombardment as had been hoped and the men going over the top were met with heavy gunfire.

On the first day alone, there were 60,000 British casualties, including 20,000 dead. 1512 K.O.Y.L.I. soldiers—89 officers and 1423 other ranks—were killed, wounded or reported missing on the first day.

half past seven, Mr Morris pulled out his revolver, blew his whistle and said ‘Over!’ And as he said it, a bullet hit him straight between the eyes, and killed him. I went over with all the other boys. The Germans…– there were supposed to be no Germans at all in their front line; we’d annihilated them according to the theory.. fired at these breaches in the wire. And of course they just mowed us down. It seemed to me eventually I was just one man left

Donald Murray, 8th Battalion K.O.Y.L.I. His battalion attacked the village of Ovillers on 1 July 1916 (Interviewed 1973)

A long battle

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Attention is often focused on the first day, but the series of offensives that made up this battle actually continued until November. The failures in communication, co-operation and technological development meant that the vast majority of targets for gaining ground were not achieved. By November 19th, the snow and heavy rain had arrived and the Battle of the Somme came to an end after over one hundred days of fighting.

I am the only officer left in the Company.. As the result of the last few days, my poor old head is not working properly..

W. W. Shepherd. 9th Battalion K.O.Y.L.I. in a letter to the family of Noel Alexander in July 1916 .