The First Day of the Somme

Posted on Friday 15th April 2016

first day of the somme - a guidebook by jon cooksey and jerry murland

After walking the length of the 1 July Somme front line with a group of friends, I vowed to one day publish a guidebook for others to follow in our footsteps.

Our guidebook, entitled The First Day of the Somme, does just that and takes the battlefield visitor along the 1 July front line from Gommecourt in the north to Maricourt in the south. Of all our guidebooks, this has been the most enjoyable to prepare. My co-writer, Jon Cooksey, reminded me a few weeks ago that soon we would have written a comprehensive guide to the Western Front stretching from Niewpoort in the Belgian coast to the Aisne valley!

Our guides are written with the underlying principle to present the battlefields as they are today and not to succumb to the temptation of using endless contemporary photographs of destroyed landscapes and devastated buildings. As a result there are plenty of modern photographs that will be instantly recognisable today. Jon and I had numerous discussions about the length of each route presented in the guides, but our decision to keep the distance within a bracket of 10 miles was influenced to some extent by a chance meeting at Spoilbank Cemetery, near Ypres. I cannot remember the individual’s name, but he was an experienced walker, and his advice was to keep our routes relatively short. It was good advice. Thus, in a number of our guides we have, where possible, linked routes together to give the battlefield tourist the choice of extending their walk if they wish. Some routes are considerably shorter than 10 miles, and in the Somme guidebook for instance, the average distance of each of the eleven routes is just under five miles. Another premise we decided upon was that routes must be circular and, mindful of the need for car security, begin from a point that was not isolated and in the middle of nowhere.

The difference between the Somme Guidebook and the others that we have written is that we have concentrated entirely on the 1 July 1916 and the actions that took place on that fateful day. Linking each of the routes is a ‘spine route’ that can either be cycled or driven and, as far as is possible, follows the British front line. Thus, by completing each of the eleven routes and following the connecting spine routes, the battlefield tourist is able to cover the whole of the British sector from Gommecourt to Maricourt. Each of the eleven routes is accompanied by a map, to which we have added the approximate positions of the German and British front lines. While these do not pretend to be completely accurate, they do provide the battlefield tourist with an idea of where the respective front lines were in relation to where they are standing.

We have not drawn specific maps for the spine routes and although the individual route maps do touch on these sectors, the spine routes are best supported by French Institut Géographique National (IGN) 1:100,000 maps which can be purchased at most good tourist offices and online. For the walker and cyclist, the larger scale French 1:25,000 Series maps can be bought in France or online and can be downloaded onto your iPad. To assist you in your choice of route we have also provided a summary of all eleven routes, together with the respective spine route, and an indication as to their suitability for walkers, cyclists or car tourists. You will find this feature in all of our guides along with several appendices and advice on further reading. Those in the Somme guide include the whereabouts of the Soldier Poets who died on the Somme, the men who were awarded the Victoria Cross on 1 July and the British battalions that fought on the first day of the battle.

Many of the battalions that attacked their German counterparts on 1 July were men who had volunteered for service with locally raised ‘Pals’ battalions and were part of Kitchener’s New Army, men who had answered the call of duty early in the war and expected the Somme offensive to end the war. Short on battle experience, but endowed with enthusiasm, these men were witness to the seven day artillery bombardment that began on 24 June, launching over three million shells onto the German forward defences over a seven day period. A number of these battalions were known by the more colloquial term associated with the area from which its men were recruited. Today the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment is still often referred to as the ‘Accrington Pals’ while the 13th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment will always be known as the ‘1st Barnsley Pals’.

If we look at the layout of the routes detailed in the guide, the first glance provides the visitor with most of the essential information about the route, the most important being where the route begins, how far it is, where the toilets are and who or what the ground is suitable for:

Route 5 – Beaumont-Hamel

A circular tour beginning at: Beaumont Hamel church

Coordinates: 50°05′01.900 N - 2°39′23.090 E

Distance: 6.5km/4.0 miles

Suitable for: Walking and Cycling

Grade: Easy (total ascent 90m)

Toilets: Newfoundland Park Visitor Centre

Maps: IGN Série Bleue 2407O – Acheux-en-Amiénois


The map that accompanies Route 5 in The First Day of the Somme guidebook

A further glance at the map will indicate that Route 5 covers the ground around Hawthorn Ridge and finally crosses the D163 before negotiating the Sunken Road on its way back to Beaumont Hamel.


The view from Hawthorn Ridge. The memorial to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders can be seen at the southern end of the sunken road leading up towards the Redan Ridge.

We then provide a short general description of what took place and when with instructions how to get to the start of the route. Apart from the clear directions, each route description is punctuated with circular numerics which correspond directly with those in the text, enabling the battlefield visitor to know exactly where they are:

'Take the next turning on the right, 7, signposted Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 1. You are now heading towards Hawthorne Ridge and are being the British front line of 1 July. The tree-filled crater is almost directly in front of you and the trees of Newfoundland Park are on your right. The track takes you through the former 86 Brigade trenches where 2/Royal Fusiliers and 16/Middlesex were positioned prior to their advance across to the Hawthorn Redoubt. After passing the track on your left, Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery No. 1 comes into view, marked by the two distinctive trees standing either side of the cross of sacrifice. In the distance, above Beaumont Hamel, you should be able to make out the two Redan Ridge Cemeteries and Serre Road Cemetery No. 2. Imagine for a moment the huge explosion of the mine and the lines of British troops emerging from their trenches and crossing the ground on your left. The 2/Royal Fusiliers war diary records that Z Company rushed forward to occupy the crater but fell in droves as the German machine guns opened fire. The general attack along the whole front began 5 minutes later but 'very few of our men reached as far as the enemy barbed wire', an assessment shared by Captain Guy Goodcliffe, who was in command of the 10 per cent of the battalion left in reserve. 'The attack was a hopeless failure. As far as I know no-one reached the Bosche front line except a few odd men where the mine was blown. Colonel Johnson - OC the battalion - was buried and wounded by one of our own shells.'

The circular Hunter’s Cemetery in the Newfoundland Memorial Park, with the 51st Highland Memorial in the background

'On the Fusilier's left was Captain Frederick Cockram, the 16/Middlesex (Public Schools) adjutant, who managed to reach the crater rim before he was hit three times 'collapsing riddled with bullets'. Incredibly, he was one of the few Middlesex officers to survive and spent the remainder of the war as a Prisoner of War (POW).'
'As the track begins to descend the view opens up and the memorial to 8/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at the bottom of the Sunken Road can be seen'.

Where the route passes a CWGC cemetery we provide details of many of those who are buried there and always try to single out an individual, usually a private soldier or an NCO, who may otherwise remain anonymous amongst the sea of headstones in the cemetery. There is nothing worse than visiting a CWGC cemetery without having a particular purpose in mind. Our guides go some way to resolving that issue.

In total we visit over 130 sites of interest and refer specifically to 48 British, German and French cemeteries.

Cafes and refreshment stops remain few and far between and although we mention a number of the more well known ‘watering holes’ such as Avril William’s Tea Rooms, our advice is always to take something to eat and drink with you, particularly if you are away from your vehicle.

If you have enjoyed the First Day of the Somme then you will also enjoy our guide to The Battles of French Flanders which was published in 2015. Also of interest will be our first guidebook – published in 2012 - which features 25 routes around the Ypres Salient. This includes a car tour we have entitled, A Day in the Salient, designed specifically for those individuals with little time to spare. We have also completed two guides covering the retreat from Mons entitled The Retreat From Mons: North and The Retreat From Mons: South, which takes the battlefield tourist from Mons through le Cateau and Etreux and finally to the Marne.


Jon Cooksey (right) and Dave Rowland at Mons during the preparation of the Retreat from Mons 1914 guidebook.


Further Reading

A Visitor's Guide: The First Day of the Somme
(Paperback - 233 pages)
ISBN: 9781473827998

by Jon Cooksey
Only £14.99

Many guidebooks cover the Somme offensive in 1916, the five-month struggle that has come to be seen as one of the defining episodes in the history of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. But no previous guide has concentrated on the first day, 1 July 1916, when the British Army suffered around 60,000 casualties. That is why, on the centenary of that great battle, this new volume from Pen & Sword is so timely.

In a series of tours that can…
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