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A hundred years ago today, on July 1st, 1916, the barrage of heavy guns that had thundered for days fell suddenly quiet, whistles were blown along the British front line and tens of thousands of troops went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Many would never return.

Intended to break 18 months of deadlocked trench warfare, the Battle of the Somme would continue for five hellish months and see more than a million men killed or wounded. Just seven miles of ground were gained and it wasn't a victory which brought the battle to a close, but the onset of a harsh winter. 

It was a new kind of grinding mechanised warfare; a war of attrition in which machine guns would cut men down in swathes as they walked steadily across the 'no man's land' between their trenches and those of the enemy.

When the whistles blew at 7-30am on July 1st, the British generals sent 100,000 men over the top to take the German trenches, confident of a decisive victory. By the end of the day almost a fifth of them – 19,240 – were dead, with total British casualties numbering 57,470.

The generals had placed their faith in a continuous artillery bombardment of the German positions over the previous seven days, culminating in the detonation of a series of massive mines laid beneath the enemy trenches. But most of the Germans stayed safe in their deep protective dugouts and were back at their heavily defended machine gun posts as the British troops set out across no man's land.

The British were ordered to walk at a steady measured pace designed to keep them just behind a rolling barrage of artillery. Thousands walked to their deaths.

One of the most tragic consequences of the battle was felt through the British tactic of recruiting so-called "Pals Battalions". It was a strategy devised by the Earl of Derby, the Government's director of recruiting, who reasoned that men would be more willing to sign up to fight alongside their friends, relatives, neighbours and workmates. It proved extremely successful, with towns and boroughs across the country raising their own battalions of enlisted men.

Among them were the Accrington Pals – more correctly the 11th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment – recruited from the Lancashire mill town of Accrington and surrounding district, including some from the neighbouring towns of Blackburn, Burnley and Chorley.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Accrington Pals were tasked with leaving their trenches to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre. Of the 720 men who went into action, 235 were killed and 350 wounded or reported missing, most in the first half-hour of the battle.

When news of the devastating losses reached Accrington a few days later, the district was plunged into despair. There was hardly a household which had not lost someone dear to them. Although Accrington was the most notable example, more than 50 towns had raised Pals Battalions, with larger towns and cities such as Manchester and Liverpool raising several such battalions.

In all those places the terrible losses of the Somme campaign were deeply felt, some communities effectively seeing a generation of their menfolk wiped out. The folly of recruiting Pals Battalions was quickly realised and the strategy was quietly abandoned so that never again would places like Accrington suffer such concentrated, immediate and terrible losses.

By the time the Battle of the Somme ended on November 18th, 1916, it was estimated there were 485,000 British and French casualties and 630,000 German. At least 125,000 British troops were killed on the battlefield while many more later died of their wounds or returned home with broken bodies and minds which would blight the remainder of their days.

• To watch a video accompanied by folk musician Mike Harding's haunting tribute to the Accrington Pals, click here.

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