royal garrison artillery

June 25, 1916 - Day Two of British Artillery Bombardment on the Somme

Pictured - 8-inch howitzers of the 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, add their voices to the din.  Between June 24 and July 1 more than 1,500 British guns and howitzers fired 1,732,873 shells.  It was the largest concentrated artillery barrage in history.

The Allied summer offensive on the Somme river in Picardy opened its preparatory phase as planned on June 24, as 1,500 British artillery pieces began a preparatory barrage.  It was to be kept up for five days, over which 1,732,873 shells would be fired at the German lines, the longest concentrated barrage in history. 

British and Commonwealth troops watched in awe as fire rained down on the horizon.  The war had truly become a war of material, where numbers of shells and weapons counted for more than men.  The crushing artillery bombardment was designed to flatten barbed wire in No Man’s Land and smash in German machine gun nests.  The sheer scale of the bombardment gave British and Canadian troops confidence; writing home to his mother, Second Lieutenant George Norrie quipped that it was “Very hot stuff here, and I am enjoying myself.  Talk about “shell–out” this show beats it - I think I was made for it.”

Artillery would conquer, planned the Allies, leaving the infantry with nothing else to do than occupy smoking German trenches.  Yet, for all its shock and awe, the barrage already had some issues.  The majority of the shells merely churned up the already shell-holed ground between the lines.  Worse, many of those that fell were duds, produced poorly during the massive logistical effort to create this much ammo for the front.  Between a quarter and a third of British shells failed to explode.

Even many of those that hit on target were not high-explosive shells, but ones filled with shrapnel, which could not destroy barbed wire or German dug-outs.  Most German troops, sheltering in deep, concrete shelters, were safe from the Allied barrage.  The shelling still took a severe mental toll, though.  Many German troops forced to live through this week-long storm of steel underground went insane.

The French, who had more experience than the British, concentrated their firepower on their smaller segment of the front to the south, where they achieved better results.  Although Britain’s count of guns was massive, they were spread farther apart along the line.  Unfortunately, even this huge effort would prove insufficient for such an ambitious operation.