Battle of the Somme
|Battle of the Somme
|Part of the Western Front of World War I
Men of the 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment,
near La Boisselle, July 1916
| British Empire
| Douglas Haig
| Max von Gallwitz
Fritz von Below
|13 British and 11 French divisions (initial)
51 British and 48 French divisions (final)
|10_ divisions (initial)
50 divisions (final)
|419,654 British Empire
(of which 146,431 killed or missing)
100 tanks and 782 RFC aircraft destroyed
(of which 164,055 killed or missing)
The Battle of the Somme, fought in the summer and autumn of 1916, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. With more than one million casualties, it was also one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25-mile (40 km) front, north and south of the River Somme in northern France. One purpose of the battle was to draw German forces away from the Battle of Verdun; however, by its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun. Verdun would bite deep into the national consciousness of France for generations, and the Somme would have the same effect on generations of Britons. The battle is best remembered for its first day, July 1, 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead—the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. As terrible as the battle was for the British Empire troops who suffered there, it naturally affected the other nationalities as well. One German officer (Captain von Hentig) famously described it as "the muddy grave of the German field army." By the end of the battle, the British had learned many lessons in modern warfare, while the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses. British historian Sir James Edmonds stated, "It is not too much to claim that the foundations of the final victory on the Western Front were laid by the Somme offensive of 1916." For the first time, the home front in the United Kingdom was exposed to the horrors of modern war with the release in August of the propaganda film The Battle of the Somme, which used actual footage from the first days of the battle. The loss of life represented by this and other World War I battles was why so many men and women hoped that the war would be the war that ended all war. Sadly, this hope, despite many efforts at peace-making in the years immediately after the war, proved to be in vain.
|Battle of the Somme
|Albert – Bazentin – Fromelles – Pozières – Mouquet Farm – Guillemont – Ginchy – Flers-Courcelette – Morval – Thiepval Ridge – Le Transloy – Ancre Heights – Ancre
|Frontiers – Liège – Antwerp – Great Retreat – Race to the Sea – Neuve Chapelle – 2nd Ypres – 2nd Artois – Hill 70 – 3rd Artois – Loos – Verdun – Hulluch – Somme – Arras – Vimy Ridge – 2nd Aisne – Messines – Passchendaele – Cambrai – Michael – Lys – 3rd Aisne – Belleau Wood – 2nd Marne – Château-Thierry – Hamel – Hundred Days
The Allied war strategy for 1916 was largely formulated during a conference at Chantilly, held between December 6 and December 8, 1915. It was decided that for the next year, simultaneous offensives were to be mounted by the Russians in the East, the Italians (who had by now joined the Entente) in the Alps and the Anglo-French on the Western Front, thereby assailing the Central Powers from all sides.
In late December 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig had replaced General Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Haig favored a British offensive in Flanders—it was close to BEF supply routes via the Channel ports and had a strategic goal of driving the Germans from the North Sea coast of Belgium, from which their U-boats were menacing Britain. However, though there was no formal arrangement, the British were as yet the junior partner on the Western Front and had to comply with French policy. In January 1916 the French commander, General Joseph Joffre, had agreed to the BEF making their main effort in Flanders; but after further discussions in February, the decision was reached to mount a combined offensive where the French and British armies met astride the Somme River in Picardy.
Plans for the joint offensive on the Somme had barely begun to take shape when the Germans launched the Battle of Verdun on February 21, 1916. As the French committed themselves to defending Verdun, their capacity to carry out their role on the Somme disappeared, and the burden shifted more to the British. France would end up contributing three corps to the opening of the attack (the XX, I Colonial, and XXXV Corps of the 6th Army). As the Battle of Verdun dragged on, the aim of the Somme offensive changed from delivering a decisive blow against Germany, to relieving the pressure on the French army, as the balance of forces changed to 13 French and 20 British divisions at the Somme.
Moreover, there was disagreement between Haig and his senior local commander, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, GOC Fourth British Army, who favored a "bite and hold" approach rather than Haig's "decisive battle" concept.
The original British regular army, six divisions strong at the start of the war, had been effectively wiped out by the battles of 1914 and 1915. The bulk of the army was now made up of volunteers of the Territorial Force and Lord Kitchener's New Army, which had begun forming in August 1914. The expansion demanded generals for the senior commands, so promotion came at a dizzying pace and did not always reflect competence or ability. Haig himself had started the war as commander of I British Corps before commanding the First British Army, then BEF (which was, in effect, an army group made up of four armies, soon five, of 60 divisions). Yet this vast increase in raw numbers also diluted the overall troop quality, and undermined the confidence commanders had in their men. This was especially true for Rawlinson.
By mid-1916 the Fokker Scourge was over, and the Royal Flying Corps had achieved air supremacy over the Somme battlefield. On the Somme front, the RFC fielded ten squadrons and 185 aircraft against 129 German. The British pursued a vigorous offensive policy enabling them to spot for artillery, via aircraft or tethered balloons, while denying the Germans the same ability. Not until September would introduction of new aircraft swing the balance back in favor of the German Air Service; British losses, a product of Trenchard's aggressively offensive posture to the exclusion of superior German Air Service mobility and weather (prevailing winds blew toward the Allied side), contributed.
For the defense, the Germans held the high ground, and had been more or less unmolested since October 1914, with plenty of time to construct extensive trench lines and deep shellproof bunkers in the chalky soil. Nor was the attack a surprise.
First day on the Somme
The battle was preceded by seven days of preliminary artillery bombardment, in which the British fired over 1.7 million shells. Seventeen mines had also been planted in tunnels beneath the German front-line trenches and strongpoints; the three largest tunnels contained about 21 tons (19 metric tonnes) of explosives each.
The attack would be made by 13 British divisions (11 from the Fourth Army and two from the Third Army) north of the Somme River and 11 divisions of the French Sixth Army astride and south of the river. They were opposed by the German Second Army of General Fritz von Below. The axis of the advance was centered on the Roman road that ran from Albert in the west to Bapaume 12 miles (19 km) to the northeast.
Zero hour was 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916. Ten minutes prior, an officer detonated the mine beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, for reasons unknown. At 7:28 a.m. the remaining mines were set off (except for the mine at Kasino Point, which was late). At zero hour there was a brief and unsettling silence as artillery shifted their aim onto the next line of targets. Then, in the words of poet John Masefield:
|...the hand of time rested on the half-hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, in tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done with all pleasant things, advanced across No Man's Land to begin the Battle of the Somme.
—John Masefield, (The Old Front Line, 1917)
The infantry were burdened with 70 pounds (32 kg) of equipment and in some cases had been ordered to form up into uniform waves and advance at a walking pace. Gordon Corrigan has defended these orders as military necessity, thus:
Critics of the Somme make much of what they see as insistence on parade ground precision, with men being ordered to walk and keep in line. This had nothing to do with ceremonial parades, but was a perfectly sensible rule to ensure that control was not lost, that men were not shot by their own side, and that they all arrived on the objective together and in a fit state to engage the enemy. Scorn is also poured on the need for the attacking infantry to carry packs weighing sixty pounds. This is one of the enduring myths of the First World War, and derives from an imperfect reading of Field Service Regulations. In fact, it was everything that the man carried and wore that weighed sixty pounds: the uniform he stood up in, the boots on his feet, his weapon and its ammunition. In the attack large packs were left behind, and the small pack contained only the essentials for the operation. That said, each man still had to carry his entrenching tool, extra rations, two gas helmets, wire cutters, 220 rounds of ammunition, two grenades and two sandbags, while ten picks and fifty shovels were taken by each leading company." This was no light burden, and the follow up troops, coming immediately after those who carried out the actual assault, carried a great deal more. It is one thing to capture ground, quite another to hold it. Once into a German position the objective had to be consolidated and held against the inevitable counter attack. This meant that the existing defense works had to be turned round to face the other way, wire obstacles had to be constructed and communications had to be established. Ammunition, grenades and digging implements had to be there, to say nothing of signals cable, water and food, and there was no other way of making all this immediately available to the infantry than by having them carry it with them.
Others are less generous. Geoffrey Regan blames Rawlinson's distrust of the New Army troops and his belief they would be inclined to just dive for cover if given the opportunity, despite warnings they would be massacred. The Germans professed astonishment, with reason. Elsewhere, units had crawled out into no man's land early so they could rush the front German trench as soon as the barrage lifted. Despite the heavy bombardment, many of the German defenders had survived, protected in deep dugouts, and they were able to inflict a terrible toll on the vulnerable infantry.
This should not have been news to the British, since previous barrages had depended on surprise and poor German bunkers for success, neither of which existed at the Somme. Furthermore, of 1437 British guns, only 467 were heavies, and just 34 of those 9.2" (234 mm) or greater caliber; only 30 tons of explosive would fall per mile of British front. Of the 12,000 tons fired, two thirds was fragmentation, only 900 tons high explosive capable of penetrating bunkers.
Furthermore, British gunners lacked the accuracy to bring fire in on close German trenches, keeping a safe separation of 300 yards (275 m), compared to the French gunners' 60 yd (55 m)—and British troops were often less than 300 yd away, meaning German fortifications were untouched by even the ineffectual barrage.
North of the Albert-Bapaume road, the advance was almost a complete failure from the outset. In a few places, the attackers got into the German front-line trench system or even the support line, but invariably, their numbers were too few to withstand the German counter-attacks. As the German defensive counterbarrage descended on no man's land, it became impossible for reinforcements to get through or for reports to get back.
Communications were completely inadequate, and commanders were largely ignorant of the progress of the battle. A mistaken report that the 29th Division had succeeded at Beaumont Hamel led to the reserve brigade being ordered forward in support. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment was unable to reach the forward trenches, so it advanced from the reserve trench. Most of the battalion was killed before it crossed the front line, and it suffered 91 percent casualties, the second worst battalion loss of the day. Eight-hundred-and-one men from the regiment marched onto the battle field that day, and only 68 made it out unharmed, with over 500 dead. Nearly an entire generation of Newfoundland's future leaders was killed. For their efforts, The 1st Newfoundland Regiment was given the name "The Royal Newfoundland Regiment" by George V.
British progress astride the Albert-Bapaume road was likewise a failure, despite the explosion of the two mines at La Boisselle. Here, another tragic advance was made by the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the 34th Division, which started nearly one mile from the German front line, in full view of the defenders' machine guns, and was effectively wiped out before it reached its own friendly forward trench line.
In the sector south of the road, the French divisions had greater success. Here the German defenses were relatively weak, and the French artillery, which was superior in numbers and experience to the British, was highly effective. From the town of Montauban to the Somme River, all the first-day objectives were reached. Though the French XX Corps was to only act in a supporting role in this sector, in the event they would help lead the way. South of the Somme, French forces fared very well, surpassing their intended objectives. The I Colonial Corps departed their trenches at 9:30 a.m. as part of a feint meant to lure the Germans opposite into a false sense of security. The feint was successful as, like the French divisions to the north, they advanced easily. In under an hour, they had stormed Fay, Dompierre and Becquincourt, and attained a foothold on the Flaucourt plateau. The entire German first line was in French hands. By 11:00 a.m. the second line—marked by Assevillers, Herbecourt and Feuillères—was reached without even having to send reserves. To the right of the Colonial Corps, the XXXV Corps also attacked at 9:30 a.m. but, having only one division in the first line, had made less progress. Nevertheless, all first-day objectives were met. The Germans trenches had been completely overwhelmed, and the enemy had been completely surprised by the attack. The French had advanced 1,600 yards (1.5 km) and 2,200 yards (2 km) on the North and South banks respectively.
Some British/Irish divisions managed to perform extremely well; according to Middlebrook:
|The leading battalions (of the 36th (Ulster) Division) had been ordered out from the wood just before 7.30 a.m. and laid down near the German trenches ... At zero hour the British barrage lifted. Bugles blew the "Advance." Up sprang the Ulstermen and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line .. By a combination of sensible tactics and Ulster dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.
—Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme
And in another sector:
|At Gommecourt . . . Attacking from the south, the 56th (London) Division had performed brilliantly. Making use of the new trench they had dug in No Man's Land and a smoke-screen, four battalions had captured the whole of the German front-line system.
—Martin Middlebrook, The First Day on the Somme
Overall, however, the first day on the Somme was a failure. The British had suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470. Initial casualties were especially heavy among officers, who still dressed differently from non-commissioned officers and other ranks, and whose uniforms the Germans had been trained to recognize.
An exact count of German casualties for July 1 is difficult to make, because German units only submitted casualty returns every ten days. It is estimated that the Germans suffered 8,000 casualties on the British front, 2,200 of which were prisoners of war. The disparity between British and German casualties was highest at Ovillers, where the 8th British Division suffered 5,121 casualties, while the defending German 180th Regiment had only 280—a ratio of 18 to 1.
Aftermath of the first day
At 22:00 on July 1, the commander of the British Fourth Army, Lieutenant-General Henry Rawlinson, had issued orders for the attack to resume. Confusion and poor communications through the extended chain of command meant it was some days before the British leaders realized the scale of the disaster. Haig appointed Lieutenant-General Hubert Gough to take over the northern sector, while the Fourth Army dealt with the southern sector. Gough recognized the fiasco on his sector and prevented an immediate resumption of the offensive—operations would not resume until July 3.
The British were also ignorant of opportunities south of the Albert-Bapaume road, where they had achieved partial success. It is now known that there existed for a time a large gap in the German defenses between Ovillers (on the road) and Longueval. On July 3, a reconnaissance patrol from the 18th (Eastern) Division ranged two miles into German territory without encountering an established defensive position. However, the opportunity was missed or the British lacked the resources to exploit it, and the Germans were able to fill the gap in time.
Mametz Wood was still vacant on July 3, but was reoccupied by the Germans the following day and would not be captured until July 10 after two costly attempts. Places such as High Wood and Delville Wood, there for the taking in the aftermath of the first day, would require an enormous expenditure of lives before they were eventually captured in August and September. In August, Rawlinson wrote of the period July 1–4:
|These four days would in all probability have enabled us to gain full possession of the hostile third line of defence, which was at that time less than half finished... It makes me sick to think of the 'might have beens'.
As the British struggled to jump-start their offensive, the French continued their rapid advance south of the Somme. The critical point in the offensive was July 3-4, when the possibility of a breakthrough actually seemed achievable. But just as quickly as it appeared, it began to slip away. When the XX Corps was forced to halt its advance on the north bank in order to wait for the British to catch up, a simmering hostility toward the British rose up among the rank and file of the French army. Elsewhere, the I Colonial Corps pressed on, and by the end of July 3, Frise, Méréaucourt Wood, Herbécourt, Buscourt, Chapitre Wood, Flaucourt, and Asseviller were all in French hands. In so doing, 8,000 Germans had been made prisoner, while the taking of the Flaucourt plateau would allow Foch to move heavy artillery up to support the XX Corps on the north bank. The French continued their attack on July 5 as Hem was taken. On July 8, Hardecourt-aux-Bois and Monacu Farm (a veritable fortress, surrounded by hidden machine-gun nests in the nearby marsh) both fell.
Thus, in ten days of fighting, on nearly a 12_ mile (20 km) front, the French 6th Army had progressed as far as six miles (10 km) at points. It had occupied the entire Flaucourt plateau (which constituted the principal defence of Péronne) while taking 12,000 prisoners, 85 cannons, 26 minenwerfers, 100 machine guns, and other assorted materials, all with relatively minimal losses.
For the British, the first two weeks of the battle had degenerated into a series of disjointed, small-scale actions, ostensibly in preparation for making a major push. From July 3-13, Rawlinson's Fourth Army carried out 46 "actions" resulting in 25,000 casualties, but no significant advance. This demonstrated a difference in strategy between Haig and his French counterparts and was a source of friction. Haig's purpose was to maintain continual pressure on the enemy, while Joffre and Foch preferred to conserve their strength in preparation for a single, heavy blow.
In one significant respect, the Battle of the Somme was a major strategic success for the British; on July 12, in response to the Somme fighting and the situation in the east, Falkenhayn called off the German offensive at Verdun. While the fighting would continue there until December, it would be the French who dictated the course of the battle.
On the Somme, von Below's Second Army would not be able to endure the continued British and French pressure alone. Each front-line German division was being attacked by three or four Allied divisions. On July 19, the German forces were reorganized with von Below taking command of the German First Army, responsible for the northern sector, and General Max von Gallwitz taking over the Second Army, which covered the southern sector. In addition, von Gallwitz was made army group commander responsible for both German armies on the Somme.
As early as July 2, seven German divisions were on their way to the Somme as reinforcements, and seven more were on their way within another week. In July and August, the Germans poured in 35 extra divisions on the British sectors and a further seven divisions on the French sector. The combined pressure on Germany meant that Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, army high command) had only one division left in reserve by August.
The British had hoped to stem this flow of German reinforcements to the Somme from other sectors of the front. To do this, a series of raids and demonstrations were carried out with the aim of "pinning" the German divisions to the front. The largest and most infamous of these was the Battle of Fromelles, July 19 – July 20, opposite Aubers Ridge in Artois. For the cost of 7,080 Australian and British casualties, no ground was captured and no halt was made to the transfer of German divisions from Artois to the Somme.
Battle of Bazentin Ridge
On July 14 (Bastille Day), the Fourth Army was finally ready to resume the offensive in the southern sector. The attack, known as the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, was aimed at capturing the German second defensive position which ran along the crest of the ridge from Pozières, on the Albert–Bapaume road, south-east towards the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. The objectives were the villages of Bazentin le Petit, Bazentin le Grand and Longueval, which was adjacent to Delville Wood. Beyond this line, on the reverse slope of the ridge, lay High Wood.
There is considerable contrast between the preparation and execution of this attack and that of July 1. The attack on Bazentin Ridge was made by four divisions on a front of 6,000 yards (5.5 km) with the troops going over before dawn at 3:25 a.m. after a surprise five-minute artillery bombardment. The artillery laid down a creeping barrage, and the attacking waves pushed up close behind it in no man's land, leaving them only a short distance to cross when the barrage lifted from the German front trench.
By mid-morning the first phase of the attack was a success with nearly all objectives taken, and as on July 1, a gap was made in the German defenses. However, again as on July 1, the British were unable to successfully exploit it. Their attempt to do so created the most famous cavalry action of the Battle of the Somme, when the 7th Dragoon Guards and the 2nd Deccan Horse attempted to capture High Wood. It is likely the infantry could have captured the wood in the morning, but by the time the cavalry were in position to attack, the Germans had begun to recover. Though the cavalry held on in the wood through the night of July 14, they had to withdraw the following day.
The British had a foothold in High Wood and would continue to fight over it as well as Delville Wood, neighboring Longueval, for many days. Unfortunately for them, the successful opening attack of July 14 did not mean they had learned how to conduct trench battles. On the night of July 22, Rawlinson launched an attack using six divisions along the length of the Fourth Army front that failed completely. The Germans were learning; they had begun to move away from trench-based defenses and towards a flexible defense in depth system of strong-points that was difficult for the supporting artillery to suppress.
Pozières and Mouquet Farm
No significant progress was made in the northern sector in the first few weeks of July. Ovillers, just north of the Albert-Bapaume road, was not captured until July 16. Its capture, and the foothold the British had obtained in the German second position on July 14, meant that the chance now existed for the German northern defenses to be taken in the flank. The key to this was Pozières.
The village of Pozières lay on the Albert-Bapaume road at the crest of the ridge. Just behind (east) the village ran the trenches of the German second position. The Fourth Army made three attempts to seize the village between July 14 and 17 before Haig relieved Rawlinson's army of responsibility for its northern flank. The capture of Pozières became a task for Gough's Reserve Army, and the tool he would use was the two Australian and one New Zealand divisions of I Anzac Corps.
Gough wanted the Australian 1st Division to attack immediately, but the division's British commander, Major General Harold Walker, refused to send his men in without adequate preparation. The attack was scheduled for the night of July 23 to coincide with the Fourth Army attack of July 22–23.
Going in shortly after midnight, the attack on Pozières was a success, largely thanks to Walker's insistence on careful preparation and an overwhelming supporting bombardment; however, an attempt to capture the neighboring German second position failed, though two Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross in the attempt. The Germans, recognizing the critical importance of the village to their defensive network, made three unsuccessful counter-attacks before beginning a prolonged and methodical bombardment of the village. The final German effort to reclaim Pozières came before dawn on August 7 following a particularly heavy bombardment. The Germans overran the forward Anzac defenses, and a wild mêlée developed from which the Anzacs emerged victorious.
Gough planned to drive north along the ridge towards Mouquet Farm, allowing him to threaten the German bastion of Thiepval from the rear. However, the further the Australians and New Zealanders advanced, the deeper was the salient they created such that the German artillery could concentrate on them from three directions.
On August 8 the Anzacs began pushing north along the ridge with the British II Corps advancing from Ovillers on their left. By August 10 a line had been established just south of the farm, which the Germans had turned into a fortress with deep dugouts and tunnels connecting to distant redoubts. The Anzacs made numerous attempts to capture the farm between August 12 and September 3, inching closer with each attempt; however, the German garrison held out. The Anzacs were relieved by the Canadian Corps, who would briefly capture Mouquet Farm on September 16, the day after the next major British offensive. The farm was finally overrun on September 26, and the garrison surrendered the following day.
By the time New Zealand's artillery gunners were withdrawn from the line in October 1916, they had fired more than 500,000 shells at the Germans.
In the fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm, the Australian divisions suffered over 23,000 casualties. If the losses from Fromelles on 19 July are included, Australia had sustained more casualties in six weeks in France than they had in the eight months of the Battle of Gallipoli.
The New Zealanders suffered 8,000 casualties in six weeks—nearly one percent of their nation's population. These losses were about the same as New Zealand suffered at Gallipoli.
Attrition: August and September
By the start of August, Haig had accepted that the prospect of achieving a breakthrough was now unlikely; the Germans had "recovered to a great extent from the disorganization" of July. For the next six weeks, the British would engage in a series of small-scale actions in preparation for the next major push. On August 29, the German Chief of the General Staff, Erich Falkenhayn, was replaced by General Paul von Hindenburg, with General Erich Ludendorff as his deputy, but in effect the operational commander. The immediate effect of this change was the introduction of a new defensive doctrine. On September 23, the Germans began constructing the Siegfried Stellung, called the Hindenburg Line by the British.
On the Fourth Army's front, the struggle for High Wood, Delville Wood and the Switch Line dragged on. The boundary between the British and French armies lay south-east of Delville Wood, beyond the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. Here the British line had not progressed significantly since the first day of the battle, and the two armies were in echelon, making progress impossible until the villages were captured. The first British effort to seize Guillemont on August 8 was a debacle. On August 18 a larger effort began, involving three British corps as well as the French, but it took until September 3 before Guillemont was in British hands. Attention now turned to Ginchy, which was captured by the 16th (Irish) Division on September 9. The French had also made progress, and once Ginchy fell, the two armies were linked near Combles.
The British now had an almost straight front line from near Mouquet Farm in the north-west to Combles in the south-east, providing a suitable jumping-off position for another large-scale attack. In 1916 a straight front was considered necessary to enable the supporting artillery to lay down an effective creeping barrage behind which the infantry could advance.
This intermediate phase of the Battle of the Somme had been costly for the Fourth Army, despite there being no major offensive. Between July 15 and September 14 (the eve of the next battle), the Fourth Army made around 90 attacks of battalion strength or more with only four being general attacks across the length of the army's five miles (8 km) of front. The result was 82,000 casualties and an advance of approximately 1,000 yards (915 m)—a performance even worse than on July 1.
Debut of the tank
- Main articles: Battle of Flers-Courcelette – Battle of Morval
The last great Allied effort to achieve a breakthrough came on September 15 in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette with the initial advance made by 11 British divisions (nine from Fourth Army, two Canadian divisions on the Reserve Army sector) and a later attack by four French corps.
The battle is chiefly remembered today as the debut of the tank. The British had high hopes that this secret weapon would break the deadlock of the trenches. Early tanks were not weapons of mobile warfare—with a top speed of 2 mph (3.2 km/h), they were easily outpaced by the infantry—but were designed for trench warfare. They were untroubled by barbed wire obstacles and impervious to rifle and machine gun fire, though highly vulnerable to artillery. Additionally, the tanks were notoriously unreliable; of the 49 tanks available on September 15, only 32 made it to the start line, and of these, only 21 made it into action. Mechanical breakdowns were common, and many others became bogged or ditched in the shell holes and trenches of the churned battlefield.
The British made gains across the length of their front, the greatest being in the centre at Flers with an advance of 3,500 yards (3.2 km), a feat achieved by the newest British division in France, the 41st Division, in their first action. They were supported by several tanks, including D-17 (known as Dinnaken) which smashed through the barbed wire protecting the village, crossed the main defensive trench and then drove up the main street, using its guns to destroy defenders in the houses. This gave rise to the optimistic press report: "A tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind."
It was also the first major Western Front battle for the New Zealand Division, at the time part of the British XV Corps, which captured part of the Switch Line west of Flers. On the left flank, the Canadian 2nd Division captured the village of Courcelette after heavy fighting, with some assistance from two tanks. And finally after two months of fighting, the British captured all of High Wood, though not without another costly struggle. The plan was to use tanks in support of infantry from the 47th (1/2nd London) Division, but the wood was an impassable landscape of shattered stumps and shell holes, and only one tank managed to penetrate any distance. The German defenders were forced to abandon High Wood once British progress on the flanks threatened to encircle them.
The British had managed to advance during Flers-Courcelette, capturing 4,500 yards (4.1 km) of the German third position, but fell short of all their objectives, and once again the breakthrough eluded them. The tank had shown promise, but its lack of reliability limited its impact, and the tactics of tank warfare were obviously in their infancy.
The least successful sector on September 15 had been east of Ginchy, where the Quadrilateral redoubt had held up the advance towards Morval—the Quadrilateral was not captured until September 18. Another attack was planned for September 25 with the objectives of the villages of Thiepval; Gueudecourt, Lesbœufs and Morval. Like the Battle of Bazentin Ridge on July 14, the limited objectives, concentrated artillery and weak German defences resulted in a successful attack and, although the number of tanks deployed was small, the tanks provided useful assistance in the destruction of machine gun positions.
On September 26, Gough's Reserve Army launched its first major offensive since the opening day of the battle in an attempt to capture the German fortress of Thiepval. The 18th (Eastern) Division, which had excelled on July 1, once more demonstrated by capturing most of Thiepval on the first day that careful training, preparation and leadership could overcome the obstacles of trench warfare. Mouquet Farm finally fell to the 11th (Northern) Division, and the Canadians advanced 1,000 yards (915 m) from Courcelette.
There followed a period from October 1 to November 11, known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights, of grinding attritional fighting for little gain. At the end of October, Gough's army was renamed the British Fifth Army.
Meanwhile on the Fourth Army's front, Haig was still under the illusion that a breakthrough was imminent. On September 29, he had outlined plans for Allenby's Third Army to rejoin the battle in the north around Gommecourt and for the Fourth Army to attack towards Cambrai. The first step required the capture of the German Transloy Line, effectively the German fourth defensive position that ran from the village of Le Transloy in the east to Le Sars on the Albert-Bapaume road.
Opening on October 1, the Battle of Le Transloy became bogged down as the weather broke, and heavy rain turned the churned battlefield into a quagmire. Le Sars was captured on October 7, but elsewhere there was little progress and a continual flow of casualties. The final throe came on November 5 with a failed attack on the Butte de Warlencourt. On the Fourth Army's front, major operations in the Battle of the Somme had now ceased.
The final act of the Battle of the Somme was played out between November 13 and 18 along the Ancre River, north of Thiepval. Haig's purpose for the attack was more political than military—with winter setting in, there was no longer any prospect of a breakthrough. Instead, with another conference at Chantilly starting on November 15, he hoped to be able to report a success to his French counterparts.
The opening moves were almost a replay of July 1, even down to another mine being detonated beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt west of Beaumont Hamel. The 31st Division had attacked Serre on July 1 and 4.5 months later, was called on to do it again; the results were similar. South of Serre, the British, with the benefit of their hard-earned experience, succeeded in capturing most of their objectives. The 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont Hamel, while on their right the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division captured Beaucourt, Lieutenant Colonel Bernard Freyberg winning the Victoria Cross in the process. South of the Ancre, II Corps had also made progress.
Haig was satisfied with the result, but Gough argued for a final effort, which was made on November 18 with an attack on the Munich and Frankfurt Trenches and a push towards Grandcourt. Ninety men of the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry (the "Glasgow Boys Brigade" Pals battalion) were cut off in Frankfurt Trench, where they held out until November 21 when the 45 survivors—30 of them wounded—surrendered. So ended the Battle of the Ancre, and with it the Battle of the Somme.
It is difficult to declare the Battle of the Somme a victory for either side. The British and French did succeed in capturing ground, but little more than five miles (8 km) at the deepest point of penetration—well short of their original objectives. The British themselves had gained approximately only two miles and lost about 420,000 soldiers in the process, meaning that a centimeter cost about two men. A group of British and Commonwealth historians have since the 1960s argued against the long-held consensus that the battle was a disaster; asserting that the Battle of the Somme delivered more benefits for the British than it did for the Germans. As British historian Gary Sheffield said, "The battle of the Somme was not a victory in itself, but without it the Entente would not have emerged victorious in 1918." However, the evidence for this assertion is still awaited.
Prior to the battle, Germany had regarded Britain as a naval power and discounted her as a military force to be reckoned with, believing Germany's major enemies were France and Russia. According to some historians, starting with the Somme, Britain began to gain influence in the coalition. In recognition of the growing threat she posed, on January 31, 1917, Germany adopted the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to starve the island nation of supplies. Other historians would argue Britain's growing influence in the war had nothing to do with the battle and everything to do with her great financial and industrial strength, which inevitably increased in importance in a stalemate war.
At the start of 1916, the British Army had been a largely inexperienced mass of volunteers. The Somme was the first real test of this newly raised "citizen army" created following Lord Kitchener's call for recruits at the start of the war. It is brutal but accurate to observe many British soldiers killed on the Somme lacked experience, and therefore, their loss was of little military significance. However, they had been the first to volunteer and so were often the fittest, most enthusiastic and best-educated citizen soldiers. For Germany, which had entered the war with a trained force of regulars and reservists, each casualty was sapping the experience and effectiveness of the German army. The German Army Group Commander Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria stated, "What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield"; despite being promoted to Field-Marshal, Rupprecht infuriated the new German High Command (Hindenburg and Ludendorff) by advising them to make peace. A war of attrition was better for Britain with her population of some 50 million than Germany whose population of some 70 million also had to sustain operations against the French and Russians.
Some historians hold the Battle of the Somme damaged the German Army beyond repair, after which it was never able to adequately replace casualties with the same caliber of soldier that doggedly held its ground during most of the battle. The implication of this argument is that by the end of the battle, the British and German armies were closer to being equally matched. Anecdotal evidence for this includes the comments from German sources cited in this article, including that of Crown Prince Rupprecht above. However in 1917 the Germans were still able to defend effectively against British and French attacks (Arras, the Nivelle Offensive and Passchendaele).
On February 24, 1917, the German army made a strategic scorched earth withdrawal from the Somme battlefield to the prepared fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, thereby shortening the front line they had to occupy. The purpose of military commanders is not to test their army to destruction, and it has been suggested German commanders did not believe the army could endure continual battles of attrition like the Somme. Loss of German territory was repaid many times over in the strengthening of defensive lines, an option which was not open to the Allies because of the political impossibility of surrendering French or Belgian territory (despite Napoleon's commonsense dictum about the advantages of sacrificing ground). The strategic effects of the Battle of the Somme cannot obscure the fact it was one of the costliest battles of the First World War. A German officer, Friedrich Steinbrecher, wrote:
|Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.
|Total British Empire
The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly conference on November 15, was 485,000 British and French casualties versus 630,000 German. These figures were used to support the argument that the Somme was a successful battle of attrition for the Allies. However, there was considerable skepticism at the time of the accuracy of the counts. After the war a final tally showed that 419,654 British and 204,253 French were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner; of the 623,907 total casualties, 146,431 were either killed or missing.
The British official historian Sir James Edmonds maintained that German losses were 680,000, but this figure has been discredited. A separate statistical report by the British War Office concluded that German casualties on the British sector could be as low as 180,000 during the battle. Today, commonly accepted figures for all German losses on the Somme are between 465,000 and 600,000. In compiling his biography of General Rawlinson, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice was supplied by the Reichsarchiv with a figure of 164,055 for the German killed or missing.
The average casualties per division (consisting of circa 10,000 soldiers) on the British sector up until 19 November was 8,026—6,329 for the four Canadian divisions, 7,408 for the New Zealand Division, 8,133 for the 43 British divisions and 8,960 for the three Australian divisions. The British daily loss rate during the Battle of the Somme was 2,943 men, which exceeded the loss rate during the Third Battle of Ypres but was not as severe as the two months of the Battle of Arras (1917) (4,076 per day) or the final Hundred Days offensive in 1918 (3,685 per day).
The Royal Flying Corps lost 782 aircraft and 576 pilots during the battle.
- Twentieth Century Atlas, Casualty Statistics - Somme, Retrieved December 24, 2016.
- James Edward Edmonds, History of the Great War Based on Official documents (Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916) (New York: MacMillian and Company, Ltd., 1932), xiii.
- Robert A. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operation in the Great War (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2008), 291.
- Geoffrey Regan, The Guinness Book of More Military Blunders (London: Guinness Publishing, 1993), 154.
- Regan, 155.
- Regan, 155-156.
- J.E. "Johnnie" Johnson, Full Circle: The Story of Air Fighting (London: Cassell, 2001).
- Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2003), 274.
- Regan, 156.
- Regan, 158.
- The date is still commemorated in Newfoundland, while the rest of Canada celebrates a national birthday.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Corrigan, Gordon. Mud, Blood and Poppycock. London: Cassell, 2003. ISBN 978-0304359554
- Doughty, Robert A. Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operation in the Great War. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2008. ISBN 978-0674027268
- Edmonds, James Edward. History of the Great War Based on Official documents (Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916). New York: MacMillian and Company, Ltd., 1932.
- Gilbert, Sir Martin. The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War. Henry Holt and Company, 2006. ISBN 0805081275
- Johnson, J.E. "Johnnie." Full Circle: The Story of Air Fighting. London: Cassell, 2001. ISBN 978-0304358601
- Keegan, John. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140048979
- Library and Archives Canada. Oral Histories of the First World War: Veterans 1914-1918. "Battle of the Somme" Retrieved August 20, 2019.
- Liddle, Peter. The 1916 Battle of the Somme. Pen & Sword, 1992. ISBN 1840222409
- MacDonald, Lyn. Somme 1916. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. ISBN 0140178678
- Middlebrook, Martin. The First Day on the Somme. New York: Penguin Books, 1971. ISBN 0141390719
- Prior, Robin, and Trevor Wilson. The Somme. UNSW Press, 2005. ISBN 0868409774
- Regan, Geoffrey. The Guinness Book of More Military Blunders. London: Guinness Publishing, 1993. ISBN 978-0851127286
- Sheffield, Gary. The Somme. London: Cassell, 2003. ISBN 0304366498
- Twentieth Century Atlas. Casualty Statistics - Somme Retrieved August 20, 2019.
All links retrieved September 26, 2023.
- The British Army in the Great War: The Battles of the Somme, 1916
- New Zealand and the Battle of the Somme
- Peronne Great War Historial
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