The Battle of the Somme, 1st July – 18th November 1916
The Battle of the Somme was the largest Western Front battle of the First World War. It was not a single battle, but an offensive consisting of several battles. The objective of the Allies’ Somme Offensive was to achieve a decisive breakthrough in the German lines, north of the River Somme, by using massive force. The offensive was preceded by the largest artillery barrage ever seen. This lasted a week and was intended to destroy the enemy trenches and the barbed wire protecting them, thus allowing the allied troops to effectively take the German lines unopposed. This was not to be. Due to poor aim, misfiring shells and the use of shrapnel shells rather than high explosive shells to break through the enemy barbed wire, the barrage was largely ineffective.
Although, there were some French and British successes on the south of the allied line, the majority of men who went “over the top” on 1st July were met by murderous machine gun and shell fire. Of the 57,470 British casualties that day, 19,240 lost their lives, most of them falling within 100 yards of their own trenches. Indeed, the first day of the Somme saw the highest casualties ever recorded in a single day by the British Army. Despite the massive losses the offensive carried on for another 140 days. Far from being the decisive breakthrough as intended, the Somme had become a series of battles of attrition, with most generally bringing small allied territorial gains at the cost of heavy losses on both sides. In hindsight, the Somme Offensive, which saw the death or wounding of around 1.3 million British, Commonwealth, French and German men, was adjudged an Allied victory.
Many men from the Falkirk District fought at the Somme in 1916. The nearest the Falkirk District had to a local battalion was The 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, which was the Territorial Battalion for Stirlingshire and Clackmannan. They saw action as part of the 51st Highland Division at attacks on High Wood in July 1916 and the Battle of Ancre in November 1916. The latter action included the famous capture by the division of the heavily fortified village of Beaumont Hamel. The Highland Division monument (right) was erected nearby.
The Somme was one of the first engagements to involve Kitchener’s New Army of Volunteers. One of the inducements for volunteers in 1914 and 1915 was the ability to enlist and serve alongside their friends, neighbours or colleagues in what became known as “pal’s battalions”. While these battalions undoubtedly had high morale, the unusually high level of casualties on the first day of the Somme meant that in many communities across Britain a generation of young men were decimated in one day. Pal’s Battalions in Scottish Regiments were much less numerous than in the rest of the British Army, however, there were several such battalions in the Royal Scots and the Highland Light Infantry.
One of the most famous of these was the footballers’ battalion, the 16th Royal Scots (McRae’s), whose members were professional players and also supporters from several Scottish teams including Heart of Midlothian and Falkirk FC. One local man Pte William Prattis of Laurieston (left) served with this battalion. He was one of 36 local men, from various regiments, who we know lost their lives on 1st of July 1916. We do not know how many men from the Falkirk District lost their lives during the Somme Offensive as a whole.