French troops prepare to move on German positions.

French troops prepare to move on German positions.

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. It was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire and it took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. More than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the following year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916. The location was mainly chosen as it was where French and British forces on the Western Front met. But the German attack on the French at Verdun in February 1916 forced Britain to take the lead in the Somme offensive.

A seven-day preliminary bombardment began on 24 June 1916 in an attempt to cut the barbed wire in front of the German lines and destroy trench defences and artillery. In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.

The British believed that the Germans would be so shattered by this massive bombardment that British troops would be able to cross no man’s land and occupy the German trenches. Haig instructed General Rawlinson to prepare for ‘a rapid advance’. However, the British guns were too thinly spread to achieve this goal and around two thirds of the shells were shrapnel, which were largely ineffective against the concrete dugouts. To make matters worse, it has been been estimated that as many as 30% of the shells failed to explode. The British artillery was also unable to neutralise the German artillery, which would prove critical on the first day of the battle.

 In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.

In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.

On July 1, 1916, the first shots were fired in what would become one of the bloodiest engagements in human history, the 141-day Battle of the Somme. In most places the artillery bombardment had failed to cut the German barbed wire or damage the defenders’ dugouts. Some senior commanders, not convinced that the inexperienced soldiers of New Armies (newly recruited) could cope with sophisticated tactics, ordered the infantry to advance in long, close-formed lines. German machine-gunners emerged from their intact shelters and mowed down the oncoming British infantry.

The only substantial British success was in the south where, using more imaginative tactics and helped by the French artillery on their immediate right, the 18th and 30th Divisions took all their objectives and the 7th Division captured Mametz. At Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) Division seized the Schwaben Redoubt but was forced to withdraw because of lack of progress to its left and right. Elsewhere some British infantry made it into German positions but were forced to withdraw in the face of determined resistance and a huge volume of German artillery fire.

A 45,000-pound mine (2 ton) under the German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The mine left a crater 130 feet (40 m) across and 58 feet (18 m) deep.

A 45,000-pound mine (2 ton) under the German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The mine left a crater 130 feet (40 m) across and 58 feet (18 m) deep. July 1, 1916.

These limited gains cost 57,470 British casualties – of which 19,240 were killed – making the first day of the Somme the bloodiest in British military history. The French Sixth Army had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army had 10,000–12,000 losses. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. The British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition.

The lack of a decisive breakthrough on the opening day resulted in attritional or ‘wearing out’ fighting during the following two months. The remainder of the battle was characterised by relentless British attacks and equally determined German counterattacks.

British troops go

British troops go “over the top” in a scene staged for a newsreel film on the battle. 1916.

By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank. Objectives for 15 September included the Fourth Army’s capture of the German defences at Flers and the seizure of Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs and Morval. The Canadian Corps of Gough’s Reserve Army was to take Courcelette.

Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points, though these caused alarm among the German defenders. Flers and Courcelette fell but the advance on 15 September was limited to about 2,500 yards (2,286m) on a three-mile (4.8km) front. The Germans retained Morval and Lesboeufs for a further ten days and the offensive stalled.

The last act of the Somme offensive took place in the Ancre sector from 13 to 19 November. The operation went ahead, despite repeated postponements, largely because it was hoped that a late British success might create a favourable impression at the inter-Allied conference at Chantilly on 15 November. Although the Germans were weakened, the Allies failed to achieve all of their objectives and the war was to continue for another two years.

Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916.

Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916.

British survivors of the battle had gained experience and the BEF learned how to conduct the mass industrial warfare, which the continental armies had been fighting since 1914. The continental powers had begun the war with trained armies of regulars and reservists, which were wasting assets. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria wrote, “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield”. A war of attrition was a logical strategy for Britain against Germany, which was also at war with France and Russia. A school of thought holds that the Battle of the Somme placed unprecedented strain on the German army and that after the battle it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like, which reduced it to a militia.

The British and French had advanced about 6 mi (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 mi (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 to 432,000 British and about 200,000 French casualties, against 465,181 to 500,000 or perhaps even 600,000 German casualties. Until the 1930s the dominant view of the battle in English-language writing was that the battle was a hard-fought victory against a brave, experienced and well-led opponent. Winston Churchill had objected to the way the battle was being fought in August 1916, Lloyd George when Prime Minister criticized attrition warfare frequently and condemned the battle in his post-war memoirs. In the 1930s a new orthodoxy of “mud, blood and futility” emerged and gained more emphasis in the 1960s when the 50th anniversaries of the Great War battles were commemorated.

British 34th Division troops advance on the first day of the battle.

British 34th Division troops advance on the first day of the battle.

The British trenches, manned by the 11th battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, near La Boisselle.

The British trenches, manned by the 11th battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, near La Boisselle.

An artillery depot behind German lines. 1916.

An artillery depot behind German lines. 1916.

Artillery barrages light up the sky during the attack on Beaumont Hamel. July 2, 1916.

Artillery barrages light up the sky during the attack on Beaumont Hamel. July 2, 1916.

Wounded British soldiers return from the front lines.

Wounded British soldiers return from the front lines.

Indian cavalry of the British army. 1916.

Indian cavalry of the British army. 1916.

Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division at the Battle of the Somme. The division took 4,000 casualties capturing the wood.

Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division at the Battle of the Somme. The division took 4,000 casualties capturing the wood.

Soldiers sit in the trenches of the wood called Des Fermes in the Somme.

Soldiers sit in the trenches of the wood called Des Fermes in the Somme.

German troops carry Lewis gun equipment.

German troops carry Lewis gun equipment.

Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun.

Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun.

An aerial view of a French offensive.

An aerial view of a French offensive.

A British soldier dresses the wounds of a German prisoner near Bernafay Wood. July 19, 1916.

A British soldier dresses the wounds of a German prisoner near Bernafay Wood. July 19, 1916.

A French soldier peers over the edge of a trench.

A French soldier peers over the edge of a trench.

Canadian troops fix bayonets before going over the top to assault German positions.

Canadian troops fix bayonets before going over the top to assault German positions.

A German field telephonist relays artillery requests from the front lines.

A German field telephonist relays artillery requests from the front lines.

A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916.

A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916.

Soldiers cross the river Ancre during the Allied attack on Thiepval Ridge. September, 1916.

Soldiers cross the river Ancre during the Allied attack on Thiepval Ridge. September, 1916.

German prisoners carry British wounded during the assault on Trones Wood.

German prisoners carry British wounded during the assault on Trones Wood.

British soldiers advancing under cover of gas and smoke while making a break in the German lines through to Serre and Thiepval. September, 1916.

British soldiers advancing under cover of gas and smoke while making a break in the German lines through to Serre and Thiepval. September, 1916.

Men of the 1st Anzac Division, some wearing German helmets, pose for the camera after fighting near Pozieres Ridge. July 23, 1916.

Men of the 1st Anzac Division, some wearing German helmets, pose for the camera after fighting near Pozieres Ridge. July 23, 1916.

Men of the Border Regiment rest in shallow dugouts near Thiepval Wood. August, 1916.

Men of the Border Regiment rest in shallow dugouts near Thiepval Wood. August, 1916.

A 6-inch howitzer is hauled through the mud near Pozieres. September, 1916.

A 6-inch howitzer is hauled through the mud near Pozieres. September, 1916.

The 39th Siege Battery artillery in action in the Fricourt-Mametz Valley. August, 1916.

The 39th Siege Battery artillery in action in the Fricourt-Mametz Valley. August, 1916.

A man builds barbed wire obstacles on the Somme. September, 1916.

A man builds barbed wire obstacles on the Somme. September, 1916.

Reinforcements cross the old German front line during the advance towards Flers. September 15, 1916.

Reinforcements cross the old German front line during the advance towards Flers. September 15, 1916.

A Mark I tank lies ditched north of Bouleaux Wood on the day tanks first went into action.

A Mark I tank lies ditched north of Bouleaux Wood on the day tanks first went into action.

Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers. September 17, 1916.

Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers. September 17, 1916.

By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank.

By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank.

British soldiers eat hot rations in the Ancre Valley. October, 1916.

British soldiers eat hot rations in the Ancre Valley. October, 1916.

Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road outside Flers. November, 1916.

Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road outside Flers. November, 1916.

A German cannon lies buried under uprooted trees in Louage Wood during an Allied offensive. October 10, 1916.

A German cannon lies buried under uprooted trees in Louage Wood during an Allied offensive. October 10, 1916.

A German soldier walks through the ruined streets of Peronne. November, 1916.

A German soldier walks through the ruined streets of Peronne. November, 1916.

Interesting facts:

  • The Battle of the Somme was one of the costliest battles of World War I. The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly Conference on 15 November 1916, was 485,000 British and French casualties and 630,000 German. Friedrich Steinbrecher, a German officer wrote: “Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word”.
  • The Somme is commonly thought of as a ground offensive – but it was conducted from the air too. The Royal Flying Corps, the air army of the British Army, lost 800 aircraft and 252 aircrew were killed.
  • Anne Frank’s father Otto, Hitler, Wilfred Owen and JRR Tolkien all took part in the Battle of the Somme. It was in this war that Hitler sustained his leg injury, and the rumored injury to his groin.