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141 Days: The Battle of the Somme

The First Day of the Somme

1st July 1916

At 7.30 am 60,000 British soldiers on a 14 mile front climbed out of their trenches and advanced towards the German lines. The 1st Battalion was part of this massive attack. Their objective was a position between the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Serre.

With the battalion 906 men strong, only 507 went into action. The 399 left behind included soldiers who worked in the Quartermaster’s Department, some who were sick and a group of soldiers who, should the worse happen, would form the nucleus for recreating the battalion.

The battalion’s action started at 7.41 am when 2nd Lieutenant MacWalter led his party of 20 scouts covering the battalion’s front of 500 metres. They were followed by two fighting patrols, each including a Lewis Gun section. All four companies followed them, along with Battalion Headquarters.

No sooner had some of the men left their trenches than they were cut down by very heavy German machine gun fire. This was aimed at the gaps in the British barbed wire, cut by the British to allow their advance. A few soldiers of the 1st Battalion made it as far as the German trenches and it was at around this time that Major Bromilow, the commanding officer, disappeared. On account of all the smoke and dust it was difficult to establish what was actually happening. It was known that some men who got as far as Serre and were being shot down by Germans who had come in behind them from the trenches which the 29th and 30th Divisions had failed to capture. At about 12.30pm the Germans bombed their own front line trenches, now occupied by soldiers of the 1st Battalion. They could do nothing but withdraw.

At the end of the day the battalion had made no territorial gains, but had suffered 400 casualties that were killed, wounded or missing.


Major Henry Dearden Matson’s Letter
Transcript of a letter from the Somme battlefield. It was written by Major Henry Dearden Matson, 1st Battalion, King’s Own, to his sister, Arziles Matson, living in Douglas, on the Isle of Man.

10th July 1916

Dearest Arziles,

We are now out for a rest after 9 days of strenuousness, to reorganise after our somewhat severe losses. The Battalion is full of kick and ready to go until it drops, but the powers that be seem to think we have done enough for the present. I can’t even yet realize so many have gone from us, but coming back to the same mess room we occupied before the battle brings it home to one. No use to dwell on that however. They die that England may live. The Battalion advanced – ‘went over the top’ at 7.30 am on Saturday 1st July. It was the left leading Battalion of the Brigade and the men marched out into a withering fire of machine guns and shells as if they were on manoeuvres. Whole sections were swept away but nothing stopped them. They surged up over the German front trenches in their proper formations until they reached a point from which it was impossible to proceed any further. A village which should have been taken by a division on the left was not taken. A hill and another village on the right resisted the efforts of another division to take it, so the poor old Bn. was left out alone in the front unsupported on either flank rapidly crumbling away under the concentrated crossfire of the Bosches were able to bring on it. Orders had to be sent up to retire and by nightfall it was back again in its assembly trenches and its glorious charge had achieved no result. Three officers were left of those who went over but others have come up and we are reorganising. For the first few days, I was in command as poor Bromilow is missing, the whole of Headquarters except me wiped out. We had to work our hardest in the worst conditions clearing the battlefield & preparing for another attack, being heavily shelled all the time. I have many mentions to make & at least two of my officers should get DSOs. The conditions were most difficult, but I managed to get a supply of hot soup for the men, who could cook nothing – too wet – greatcoats – they were in fighting order – change of socks, and did a lot of talking & cheering of them up. We could get no sleep that was the worst – work had to be done & we had to do it, and hold the enemy as well.

The 4th Division has done its work which was to draw the strongest possible German force to its front so that the French could smash through on the right, and they have done it, so that our Battalion according to all the Generals who had been interviewing us lately has covered itself with glory, even if it is reduced to half its strength. I feel poor Young’s death too much. I love the merry young fellow; only 19 & a company commander and veteran too. Then there’s Weatherhead, and Rowley and Hablutzel and Clegg, MacWalk’s, the fearless, Melly, with the bull’s roar in a fight, all killed and fourteen others wounded or missing; nearly all our gallant crew of officers. When a man is posted as missing it means that nobody present could say whether he was killed or wounded – there was no information. He may be killed, or wounded, or a prisoner. So now we are having this much needed rest. It is only a rest from the shelling and fighting, as there is hard work to be done straightening out companies and bringing them up to strength replacing specialists, signallers, Lewis gunners and so forth. We can do it in a week and be ready to fight again as we have fought before. Three times in this war this Battalion has been practically wiped out but it has always got going again. The discipline was magnificent, no regiment could have behaved better and all through the bitter days following not a murmur from the men. They are wonderful. Nothing daunts them and they are ready as they were this time to achieve the impossible.
Much love to you both from


Extracts from notes made in France and Belgium by Rev C J K Burnell CF attached 1st Battalion King’s Own Regiment 1916-1918.

1st July 1916

Mine exploded. McWalter killed. Attack on Beaumont-Hamel. Bromilow, Jack Young and Hablutzel killed.

1st-5th July 1916

Was detailed for duty with 12th Field Ambulance at Beaussart; saw little of what was happening. Took funerals each day at Bertrancourt.

6th July 1916

Visited Brigade Headquarters in Mailly-Mailly. Obtained leave warrant; handed over canteen to Lewis.

Message from Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston, KCB, DSO, to All Officers, Non Commissioned Officers and Men of the VIII Army Corps, dated 4th July 1916, concerning the attack at Beaumont-Hamel-Serre.
Accession Number: KO2590/226

Next: La Boisselle

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