On Saturday 1st July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. It was to prove the longest and most
costly battle fought by the British on the Western Front during the First World War. So on 1st July
2016, Oundle School will be commemorating the five Oundelians who died that day. The whole
school will gather in the Cloisters and hear the stories of the boys who died that day. There will be
a two minute silence and the last post will be sounded. This ceremony will be part of our ongoing
commemoration of the Oundle Fallen, which has been taking place on the 100th anniversary of each
A short Commemoration Service is held in the School Cloisters beneath the 1 st World War Screen,
which displays a picture of each boy with detailed citation. Two framed portraits, with brief details
of their House and dates at Oundle, together with the circumstances of each death are then
displayed in the School Chapel and on the Memorial Wall in the passageway from the Cloisters to
the churchyard.
As thirty two Oundelians were killed in the Battle of the Somme, many in what will be the School’s
summer holidays, the whole of the Oundle Fourth Form will be visiting the Somme battlefields,
memorials and cemeteries during the Field Week-End in September. It is hoped that as many
Oundlians as possible will be remembered in the cemeteries where they lie or on the memorials on
which their names are inscribed.
The Battle of the Somme 1st July – 19th November 1916
The Battle of the Somme is probably the most famous and controversial British Offensive in
the 1st World War; certainly it was the most costly battle on the Western Front in terms of the
total casualties suffered the nations involved – the figure is thought to be over a million killed
and wounded. The casualties on the first day – Saturday 1st July 1916 – were the worst ever
in British military history, totalling nearly 60,000 killed and wounded and have helped to
ignite a debate about how the war was fought. The length of the battle, the conditions in
which it was fought and the scale of the casualties have defined our view of trench warfare
on the Western Front.
The planning for the battle began at French Military headquarters at Chantilly on 6 th
December 1916. Here it was decided that a huge joint offensive by French and British troops
would take place in the summer of 1916, probably in June. This would coincide with attacks
on Germany and Austria by Britain’s Allies, the Russians and the Italians. Surely under these
co-ordinated hammer blows, Germany could be beaten. thirteen days after the conference,
Sir Douglas Haig succeeded Sir John French as Commander-in Chief of all British forces on
the Western Front. Haig was very much in favour of the new joint offensive. He felt that
failures of the previous years had been due to his predecessor’s shortcomings and he knew
that the humiliating failure at Gallipoli in 1915, had shown that the war had to be won on the
Western Front. He also thought that Germany could not sustain a two front war for very
much longer. The French and British believed that if they threw enough men into the
forthcoming battle, then German defences would be overcome. A huge breech in the German
lines would be created and then, at long last, the cavalry could ride through and sweep to
victory. As a cavalry commander, Haig always believed that men on horseback would win
the war. Haig’s optimism was bolstered by the development of a new weapon in the British
arsenal, the tank. He hoped to have at least fifty of these machines by the start of the battle,
to help break through the German trenches. Carried along by this wave of optimism, his
strong religious faith and belief in his own abilities, Haig prepared the grand plan.
It was essentially very simple. Twenty-two miles of German lines in a normally quiet sector
of the Front would be subject to a huge five day bombardment which would destroy the
German front line trenches and the barbed wire which protected them. Fourteen miles of this
front would be manned by the British and eight miles by the French. With the German
defences duly destroyed, some 200,000 French and British troops would go ‘over the top’,
fully laden and simply walk across no-man’s land to start the Big Push.
The preliminary artillery bombardment was truly awesome and was audible in England.
With the start of the battle delayed by bad weather, 1,500 guns fired an astonishing 1.7
million shells in seven days. Then at 7.30am on 1st July 1916, the battle proper started as
thousands of British troops abandoned the protection of the trenches and moved into NoMan’s Land and into disaster. As they bunched to get through their own wire and then
spread out to advance towards the German lines, they were met, in most places by a hail of
machine gun bullets and German shells. By the end of the day, nearly 20,000 men had been
killed and 40,000 wounded. By contrast the German casualties were only about 11,000 and
French just 1600. When Haig was told on 2nd July that estimated casualties for the first day
amounted to 40,000, he noted in his diary that the number “cannot be considered severe in
view of the numbers engaged and the length of the front attacked.”
Why was the first day which was meant to be a triumphant procession though the German
lines such a disaster?
Strategically, one major problem was the massive German attack on Verdun which began in
February 1916. Determined to defend Verdun to the last man, this battle would cost the
French some 300,000 casualties. This meant that French numbers on the Somme were
seriously reduced and so the attacking forces did not have the huge superiority needed to
overcome well dug in defenders. Also Haig and his generals did not listen to advice from the
Front Line about the limited impact of the British Artillery barrage on the German front line
The British had captured some German trenches in the area before the battle and found that
they could be thirty feet deep with concrete re-enforcement. Furthermore, reports from the
Front that the German wire had not been destroyed by the British artillery were ignored.
Often the shells merely tangled the wire making it even more difficult for the troops to cut
through. The British troops were also weighed down heavily with all sorts of equipment and
so could not advance quickly across No-Man’s Land even if they wanted to. Most British
Tommies carried at least sixty six pounds weight of equipment with them and many rather
more than that because they had to change the orientation of the German trenches they
captured. The key reason for failure was probably Haig’s misplaced optimism in his strategy,
seriously misplaced because, after nearly two years of trench warfare, the same plan of attack
had already gone disastrously wrong especially at Neuve Chapelle and Loos the previous
After Loos, General Rawlinson, who was the operational commander of most of the troops
on the Somme commented that “the success of an operation depends largely upon keeping
down the fire of hostile artillery”; yet on the Somme he directed less than 180 British guns to
counter-battery firing, whilst 1200 guns wasted much of their effort firing at German wire
and front line trenches. In addition to this, over half of Haig’s troops were the men of
Kitchener’s army, the volunteers of 1914 and 1915, for whom the Somme would be their first
taste of action. Here were the many Pals Battalions, friends going side by side to war, to show
the Bosche ‘what for’, hoping to win the war. However optimistic they were, they had no
experience of trench warfare and, for most, the attacks on the Somme were their first sight of
the battlefield.
Haig acknowledged the need for the troops to undergo further training in the actualities of
trench warfare, when he repeatedly said that his preferred date to launch the attack on the
Somme would be the middle of August, not the end of June. Furthermore, the British high
command ignored military intelligence reports which claimed, rightly, that the Germans had
something like sixty five battalions in reserve on the Western Front and so the British
superiority in numbers would last at most five days. Given that trench warfare demanded
that the attacking force should have six or seven times the numbers of the defending force,
then a great breakthrough on the Somme was never a realistic possibility. As always with
military planning, it is easy for the fervent desire for victory to cloud out the realities of the
After the failures of the first day, there was never any question of abandoning the attack. The
British high command were determined to press on, hoping against hope that their attacks
would lead to victory. In fact the many attacks and counter-attacks of the next four months
showed that the two sides were still well matched and that German resistance would not be
There were a whole series of subsidiary battles after the first day, involving fierce fighting
and heavy casualties. Mostly the British now limited themselves to the capture of specific
villages, ridges and woods. This then was a war of attrition. Instead of breakthrough and
victory, the watchword was ‘bite and hold’. The tanks did finally arrive towards the end of
the battle but in small numbers and with only limited impact on the theatre of war. In the
end, bad weather, which turned most areas into quagmires, brought a halt to the fighting.
The British had advanced up to seven miles in places and had shown that they could sustain
a great offensive. Pressure on Verdun was relieved and the French regained some of the land
they had lost there. The Germans sacked Falkenhayn and replaced him with Hindenburg
and built the new Hindenburg Line further east. But the cost of the battle was huge. By the
end of the battle, British casualties on the Somme now stood at in the region of 400,000 killed
and wounded, a daily loss of over 3,500 men.
The German army had not been broken and would continue to defend its lines successfully
in 1917. With the defeat of Russia that same year, it was the Germans not the British who
would then launch a bold and successful advance across the Somme battlefield and
elsewhere in the spring of 1918. Ironically, it was the Germans in 1918 who produced the
decisive breakthrough that the Battle of the Somme was meant to deliver.
Oundle’s contribution to the Somme
We don’t know how many Oundelians fought on the Somme but we think we know how
many died. The number currently stands at thirty two, which is some 12% of Oundle’s war
dead. In the two years after the battle, a further twenty three Oundelians died in this
comparatively small area of the Western Front, making it the scene of one-fifth of Oundelian
war deaths.
Five died as a result of the fighting on the first day. Harold Coates from Dryden died near
the village of Fricourt; James Dixon of Laxton House and Colin Godwin of Crosby fell near
Serre. Edward MacBryan, whose body was never found, perished near Beaumont Hamel.
John Stimpson from School House was seriously wounded not far from Thiepval and died
the next day.
Two more Oundelians were killed on the 7th July, 2 on the 14th and three on the 15th, making
twelve in the first two weeks of the fighting. And so the toll continued. The last to be killed
and number thirty two in the series was twenty two year old Henry Begg, a young airman
of School House on 23rd November. His squadron was intercepted by Manfred von
Richthofen – the famous Red Baron – and his Flying Circus and Begg was shot down. His
body was never found.
Exactly half of the Oundelians who fell on the Somme have no known grave and are
commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. Three airmen whose bodies were never found
are remembered on the Arras Flying Memorial. The others are buried in twelve cemeteries
on the Somme and one cemetery in Rouen.
And they were all so young. Five of the victims including John Stimpson, Christopher Gell
and William Clarke were just nineteen. The average age of Oundelians killed on the Somme
was just twenty one.
Written by Mr CR Pendrill, Yarrow Fellow, Oundle School