Britain went to war on 4 August 1914, after the Germans invaded neutral Belgium. Units from the British Expeditionary Force were immediately sent to join their Allies in France.
At the time, the British Army was a small professional force, but realising that more men would be needed Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener launched a huge recruitment campaign encouraging the men of Britain to do their duty. The response was overwhelming; by the beginning of 1915 over one million men had joined up. It was not until 1916 that enthusiasm started to wane and military service was introduced.
One aspect of this call for volunteers was the creation of “Pals Battalions” – men from the same workplaces, villages and sports teams who were encouraged to join up together. These newly formed battalions were given a few months training in Britain before heading off to France and the Somme.
The Battle of the Somme was the first major Allied offensive. After a week-long artillery bombardment, the intention of which was to annihilate German positions, the infantry attack was set for 1 July 1916.
At 7.30am, waves of British troops went over the top but were met by a blizzard of machine gun bullets and shells; the Germans had not, as hoped, been crushed as they were protected by deep shelters dug into the hills of the Somme. Small gains were made but across most of the line the British were trapped against the uncut barbed wire. By the end of the day the British Army had suffered almost 60,000 casualties, nearly 20,000 of whom had been killed, resulting in the worst day in British military history. But the fighting did not end here, continuing for another five months and ending in the muddy fields around Bapaume. In total, the British Army suffered a total of 420,000 casualties during this intense battle.
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