This week marks the 105th anniversary of the most bloody battle of the Great War. The Guardian follows in the footsteps of the men who marched into an early grave

THE morning of the 1st of July 1916 was, in the words of one soldier of the 36th (Ulster) Division, ‘as fair a morning as ever graced God’s earth’.

It was 7.40am, and the Battle of the Somme - the ‘Big Push’ so long awaited to break the deadlock on the Western Front - had begun only ten minutes before.

With the first attack wave having gained a foothold in the first line of German trenches, fighting hand-to-hand for every inch of ground, a group of soldiers of a follow-up wave prepared to go ‘over the top’ to reinforce them.

Some joined together for recital of the Lord’s Prayer scarcely audible beyond the thunderous roar of artillery fire when finally, in the midst of the bombardment, there came the shrill screech of an officer’s whistle - the signal to advance.

With no hesitation, the men scaled their trench ladders and vaulted over the parapet.

German machine gun bullets kicked up clods of earth at the feet of the Ulstermen as they broke formation and dashed across the gruesome gauntlet of ‘No Man’s Land’.

Some sought cover in the many shell holes that pock-marked the chalky Picardy soil; many more crumpled in bloody heaps onto a ground already carpeted with mangled dead.

When one group reached the beleaguered survivors of the first wave in the German line, a captain there berated them for being late.

“What the Hell kept you?” he barked.

One of the men grimly replied: “Sorry sir, but we were delayed coming through Hell.”

The hideous clash of empires already known as the ‘Great War’ was well into its second year by the time the Somme Offensive began, by which time millions had already died on Europe’s battlefields and beyond.

As has been well recorded, the conflict was one of contradictions and transition, a hideous hybrid of tradition and modernity.

Old military doctrine - that of dashing cavalry charges and packed formations of marching men advancing with fixed bayonets - was shot to pieces when fielded against new innovations like the machine gun, quick firing artillery and barbed wire.

The resultant bloodshed was predictably appalling and the mobile ‘war of movement’ had bogged down into trench warfare by the end of 1914.

It was a stalemate that would remain unbroken until 1918, with neither side able to break the other’s defensive lines without suffering grievous casualties.

258 men from Antrim and its immediate environs initially volunteered for service in the war, and scores of them would not return.

The Battle of the Somme was perhaps the defining moment of the war for the local community.

It was to prove the most calamitous battle of the entire First World War.

“Every family in this town was affected by the Somme,” noted John Young of the 1st Antrim Somme Society and Historical Group, “stretching out to Randalstown, Crumlin, Parkgate and other towns and villages.”

“Almost every family received a letter - there was no street that was not touched. So many were sacrificed.”

The Battle of the Somme was a baptism of fire for the vast ‘New Army’ of volunteers recruited by at the beginning of the war.

Often organised into units comprised of friends hailing from the towns in which they were formed - the famous ‘Pal’s Battalions’ - the ‘New Army’ was the result of a vast mobilization staged by Lord Kitchener to raise an army of comparable size to the vast conscript armies fielded by Germany and France.

Britain’s small pre-war army had been ground to a cipher in the battles of 1914, and bloody experience in 1915’s Battle of Loos emphasised that quantity had a quality all of its own when it came to the mincing machine of the Western Front.

One such ‘New Army’ formation was the 36th (Ulster) Division under Major General Oliver Nugent.

Formally activated in September 1914, it consisted of pre-war members of the Ulster Volunteer Force bolstered by younger men who enlisted at the onset of the war.

Many local men were among the Division’s ranks when it arrived in France in October 1915, particularly within the 108th Brigade’s 11th (South Antrim) Battalion - indeed, even the M.P for South Antrim, Charles C Craig, brother of Unionist leader James Craig, served in the battalion as a captain.

Whilst a decisive blow on the Somme front had been decided upon at the Allied Chantilly Conference of 1915, early plans were drastically altered when the Germans staged their own enormous surprise attack against the French at Verdun in February 1916.

The huge French army, made up of seasoned veterans of two years’ worth of trench warfare, was supposed to have taken on the main burden of the upcoming Somme offensive.

Instead, they were forced to stand fast at Verdun, leaving the primary responsibility of the Battle of the Somme to the forces of the British New Army.

Many believed that the deployment of the New Army was premature and the attack at hand too pivotal to be entrusted to inexperienced troops, but the Allies had no other choice but to commit them to battle.

What happened next was a human calamity the like of which had never been seen before.

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