July 1st, 1916 is one of the great memorable dates of the Great War for the British. The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a resonance, alongside the 11th of November. That this was not the date it was supposed to start might be a surprise, until one realises why: it was delayed by rain! A rain delay in mid-summer? That may seem familiar to any cricket or tennis fans this year.
The dominant image of the battles of the Great War is of mud and rain. In fact, battlefield of the Somme was lush and green from the rain at the start of July, rather than muddy – even after days of bombardment.
Most people in London and elsewhere seem to have been aware that the battle was about to begin in late June:
The Ilford Recorder published a letter (on 7 July) written in late June by an Essex Regiment soldier warning his mother in Ilford that he would be too busy to write over the next week or so.
Vera Brittan’s brother visited her (when she was working in a hospital in London): “in a quiet interval, when we were alone together, he spoke in veiled but significant language of a great battle impending. It would start, he told me, somewhere near Albert, and he knew that he would be in it.”
FS Oliver wrote to his brother in Canada on June 29th “by the time this letter reaches you you will know results so tremendous one way or other that you will have no interest in anything I can set down here.” All expected great events that weekend.
Outside London, in the south-east of England, people could hear the guns of the bombardment that started on June 24th. The infantry attack (usually stated as the start of the battle) was due to begin on Z Day: June 29th.
The excellent Long, Long Trail website gives a good summary of the bombardment. They summarise the days’ weather as follows:
- U Day (24 June) “A dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.”
- V Day (25 June) “Much brighter and warmer day.”
- W Day (26 June) “Heavy showers return, with sunny intervals. Low cloud prevents good aerial observation.”
- X and Y days (27-28 June) “Thick mist and heavy rain.” – Z Day is delayed by two days by agreement between the French and British commanders
- Y1 and Y2 days (29-30 June) “The weather brightened although it was still far from perfect for observing the effects of the firing.”
One of the most memorable days of the war, like so much of British life in the summer (and the following year’s Third Battle of Ypres) was affected by the rain. Somehow July 1st, like November 11th, has a special ring to it. Would an infantry attack on June 29th have made for such an easily-remembered date? Perhaps not, although it would probably have been just as disastrous.
G Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: the Great War diaries of Georgina Lee
FS Oliver Anvil of War
T Wilson The Myriad Faces of War