“Our whole national character changed that day,” said Storrington historian Martin Mace, reflecting on July 1, 1916 - the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
The editor of Britain at War magazine, which is produced from Martin’s home in Rectory Road, Storrington, has co-authored a new book on the infamous battle with the title’s assistant editor John Grehan.
The book, entitled ‘Slaughter on the Somme’, draws together for the first time ever all the war diary entries for those battalions that went ‘over the top’ on July 1, 1916.
Written as the terrible events unfolded,the diary entries are the words of the survivors, painstakingly transcribed from the original hand-written documents, creating a comprehensive and unique narrative of a day which even now still touches upon so many families both in the UK and around the world.
“They were cut down, literally in swathes, machine guns back and forth,” continued Martin, after revealing there were an astonishing 60,000 casualties just on the first day of the battle, a third of them fatal.
“They had been building this up for a long time and that is why there were so many there,” added John. “It was the great big offensive that was supposed to turn the war in their favour and end it.
“Everybody believed and was told it would be a piece of cake – the artillery bombardment beforehand would flatten all the trenches and kill all the Germans.”
Instead, the allied forces went over the top and were slaughtered in their thousands by an enemy that was far better dug in than had been anticipated.
While historical accounts of the epic First World War battle abound, this new history collates the officers’ official and contemporaneous accounts.
“The style of writing of each of the diaries is so different,” said Martin, who questioned: “What is going through that individual’s mind when they are writing it? What pain and anguish are they suffering? How many of their friends and colleagues have they seen disappear inside a 24-hour period?
“Some of them are very detailed, almost a minute-by-minute account, while others...”
The 41-year-old former policeman paused before adding: “There is one in the book that literally says there are no officers left, there is no one available to write this diary - full stop.”
The poignancy of the stark statement remains emotive nearly 100 years on.
“You look at that and you know that represents the fate of as many as 1,000 men – it is staggering – it is just there, as one line in pencil.”
John, 62 from Shoreham-By-Sea, added: “For the British and the British Army, the worst day is July 1, 1916 - it touched and rippled through the whole country.
“Those telegrams in the weeks that followed must have been like confetti, trying to sort out who’d died.
“In some of the smaller villages it did wipe out a generation.”
While the futility of the Somme is often cited - Blackadder mused how it just moved Hague’s drinks cabinet two foot closer to Berlin - historians Martin and John do believe the battle, which lasted many months, was the turning point of the war.
“But on that first day it looked like an absolute disaster because almost no ground had been taken and all these battalions had been simply wiped out,” said John.
Slaughter on the Somme, published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd, is available in hardback now, ISBN: 9781848847705.