The British planned to attack on a 24km (15 mile) front between Serre, north of the Ancre, and Curlu, north of the Somme. Five French divisions would attack an 13km (eight mile) front south of the Somme, between Curlu and Peronne. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. British commanders were so confident they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. Once they had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans.
However, unconcealed preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning. Happy to remain on French soil, German trenches were heavily fortified and, furthermore, many of the British shells failed to explode. When the bombardment began, the Germans simply moved underground and waited. Around 7.30am on 1 July, whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. With the shelling over, the Germans left their bunkers and set up their positions.
As the 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit their gains and were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.
It was a baptism of fire for Britain’s new volunteer armies. Many ‘Pals’ Battalions, comprising men from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses: whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers would be filled with lists of dead, wounded and missing.
The French advance was considerably more successful. They had more guns and faced weaker defences, yet were unable to exploit their gains without British backup and had to fall back to earlier positions.
With the ‘decisive breakthrough’ now a decisive failure, Haig accepted that advances would be more limited and concentrated on the southern sector. The British took the German positions there on 14 July, but once more could not follow through. The next two months saw bloody stalemate, with the Allies gaining little ground. On 15 September Haig renewed the offensive, using tanks for the first time. However, lightly armed, small in number and often subject to mechanical failure, they made little impact.
Torrential rains in October turned the battlegrounds into a muddy quagmire and in mid-November the battle ended, with the Allies having advanced only 8km (five miles). The British suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000. Only in the sense of relieving the French at Verdun can the British have claimed any measure of success.
Contribution by the Sikhs
On October 7 Sikh despatch riders with their bicycles at the cross roads of Fricourt and Mametz Road during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. The bicycles of the two men in the foreground are fitted with a special bracket to support their rifles. The man in front has the rank of Sergeant shown by the stripes on his right shoulder. The loss of life on the Somme was terrible.
|Company of the 15th Sikhs perfroming kirtan in their billets after being relieved from the line. Flanders was a perpetual battleground in World War I. The Sikh regiment was the first Indian contingent to land in Europe. “Unique stalwarts from the east” remarked the press. One of their t memorable events occurred on 28 October 1914 when the regiment was detailed to capture the village of Neuve Chappelle in France. After bitter hand to hand combat the village was captured – of the 280 Sikhs who started assaulted only 58 survived.|
|Trench Life. Men of the 14th Sikh Infantry in the trenches during the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. The 14th Sikh was virtually wiped out in Gallipoli as it lost 379 officers and men in one days fighting on 4 June 1915 when, as part of the combined Anglo-French forces they tried to assault the Turkish defenses
From a Sikh at the front to his father in India (Gurmukhi, dated 17/3/15): Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC
| Drawings by Paul Sarrut from the French postcard series Types de l’Armee de l’Inde or Men of the Indian Army
From a Sikh soldier in hospital, England, to his friend in India (Gurmukhi, dated 31/3/15):Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC
| Sikh Cavalrymen, Pys, France 1914.
From a Sikh cavalry soldier, written from Marseilles Depot, and sent by hand to India (Urdu, dated 15/2/15): Education Guides – Indian Soldiers and WW1 IOR lists 103c,OIOC
If God spares me to return, I intend to start new customs. Look, in our country people ruin themselves over marriages and lawsuits. In this country rich and poor, high and low, go to church together and worship, and there is no distinction between them there… The very best custom in this country is that a man chooses his own wife, and a women her husband.” [letter dated March 12, 1918] Punjab Past and Present, Essays in Honours of Dr Ganda Singh, ed. Harbans Singh and N. Gerald Barrier, 1976.
|Commemorating Lt-Col Jackie Smythe of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs in the memorial gates pavillion in London.
An extract from a speech by Brigadier the Rt.Hon.Sir John Smyth, Bt.VC at a celebration of the 500th Birthday Anniversary of Guru Nanak, Grosvenor House, London, December, 1969.
|Sikh prisoners of war in German captivity, 1916.
One aspect of combat that is overlooked in Sikh history is the plight of the prisoners of war, the subject of these rare images. They were taken from a German postcard series. Placed in the context of the typical German soldier’s belief that the Indian soldier was a superior fighting man, its true purpose becomes clear – to counter such a belief and to instil confidence in the ordinary German trooper who would inevitably meet the Indian soldier in the battlefield.
Very few accounts of Sikh prisoners of war have been documented, but one that makes up for the dearth is the subject of a book called Hira Singh by Talbot Mundy (1918).:
New York Times, July 1915.
| In his preface, the author mentions this newspaper story which was the inspiration for the book and continues with a tribute to the Sikh soldiers whose story he tells:
“A remarkable people, the Sikhs, with their Ten Prophets, five distinguishing marks, and their baptismal rite of water stirred with steel; a people who have made history, and will make it again.”
Martial India, F. Yeats-Brown
Quotes taken from various websites and journals…