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The Role Of Empire And Commonwealth Troops During The Battle Of The Somme

Soldiers from the Empire and Commonwealth made a significant contribution to the Somme offensive. On 1 July 1916 a battalion from Newfoundland, attacked with the 29th Division, while the 1st Battalion, The Lincolnshire Regiment included a contingent from the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps. Soldiers of the British West Indies Regiment were not given the opportunity to fight as equals alongside white soldiers. Instead, the War Office largely limited their participation to 'labour' duties, but the use of BWIR soldiers in supporting roles intensified during the Battle of the Somme as casualties among fighting troops meant that reinforcements were needed in the front line.

A division of Indian cavalry and a South African brigade were among the reserve forces of Fourth Army ready to help exploit any breakthrough on the first day. Both went into action on 14 July 1916. They were joined by Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, and all took part in the fierce attritional fighting that characterised the Somme.

  • Newfoundland

    Trench sign of the Newfoundland Regiment, which fought at Beaumont Hamel during the Battle of the Somme.
    Trench sign of the Newfoundland Regiment, which fought at Beaumont Hamel during the Battle of the Somme.
    FEQ 68

    In 1914 the population of Newfoundland (which became part of Canada in 1949) was only around 250,000. Yet, during the First World War, over 6,000 men served in the Newfoundland Regiment. 1,305 died, more than 1 in 5 of those who went overseas. The Newfoundland Regiment became part of the British 29th Division at Gallipoli in September 1915 before arriving in France in March 1916. 

    On 1 July, as part of the 29th Division's attack opposite Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundlanders suffered 684 casualties and only 68 of the attacking strength survived unscathed. After ten weeks in Flanders to recover from these losses, the Newfoundland Regiment returned to the Somme in early October. On 12 October they successfully captured Hilt Trench to the north of Gueudecourt at the cost of a further 239 casualties.

    You can see this trench sign on display in the 'Deadlock' area of our First World War Galleries.

  • West Indies

    Image of troops of the West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert-Amiens road, September 1916.
    Troops of the West Indies Regiment in camp on the Albert-Amiens road, September 1916.
    Q 1202

    The first of nine contingents of West Indian soldiers arrived in Britain in the autumn of 1915. By the end of the war more than 15,000 men from the West Indies had seen active service. The British West Indies Regiment was formally established in November 1915 and 11 battalions served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, suffering 1,325 casualties including 185 killed in action. 

    In September 1916 the 3rd and 4th Battalions were ordered to France from Egypt to act as labour units, carrying ammunition and building roads and gun emplacements. Based near Albert, they undertook their work in many of the forward support areas including Montauban, Fricourt and Bazentin. In November 1916, as the winter weather set in, both battalions were moved to Boulogne to work in the docks.

    You can see this photograph on display in the 'Total War' area of our First World War Galleries.

  • India

    Image of the 20th Deccan Horse, part of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, in Carnoy Valley, 14 July 1916.
    The 20th Deccan Horse, part of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, in Carnoy Valley, 14 July 1916.
    Q 825

    In August 1914 an Indian Corps including both infantry and cavalry was sent to fight in Europe. It suffered 35,000 casualties before the infantry went to Mesopotamia in December 1915. The cavalry remained on the Western Front, with supporting labour units, and in March 1916 the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division was attached to the British Fourth Army. 

    On 1 July the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade moved to a reserve position on the Somme ready to exploit any breakthrough. The same Brigade was sent up again on 14 July to Montauban to support the attack on the Bazentin-Longueval ridge. At 5.30pm the leading two regiments were ordered to advance between High Wood and Delville Wood. 

    The British 7th Dragoon Guards and the Indian 20th Deccan Horse galloped forward to a position between the woods. But little could be achieved. At 3.30am on 15 July they returned to Montauban, having suffered casualties of 74 men and 110 horses. Cavalry units were again brought forward on 15 September to support the attack on Flers-Courcelette, but were not drawn into the fighting and played no further part in the Battle of the Somme, except as labour units in reserve.

  • South Africa

    Image of men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment (South African Scottish) after the attacks on Longueval, July 1916.
    Men of the 4th South African Infantry Regiment (South African Scottish) after the attacks on Longueval, July 1916.
    Q 4007

    After a period fighting in Egypt, the South African Infantry Brigade reached France in April 1916. They joined the 9th (Scottish) Division. On 14 July they supported the Division's attack on Longueval and the following day succeeded in capturing most of Delville Wood. Over the next five days, in a bitter struggle to hold the wood, the Brigade suffered more than 2,300 casualties. The wood was not finally secured until 27 August. 

    After a period of recovery near Vimy Ridge, the 9th Division returned to the Somme in October and the South Africans were again involved in an attack towards the Butte de Warlencourt. When they were finally withdrawn on 20 October, the South Africans had suffered further losses of around 1,150.

  • Australia

    Image of men of the 2nd Australian Division resting by the roadside during the Battle of Pozières Ridge, 16 July 1916.
    Men of the 2nd Australian Division resting by the roadside during the Battle of Pozières Ridge, 16 July 1916.
    Q 182

    The Australian Imperial Force arrived in France in March 1916. Five Australian divisions served on the Western Front, but only three fought on the Somme. Between 23 July and 5 August the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions captured Pozières and its outlying positions. The 4th Australian Division then continued the assault north towards Mouquet Farm. 

    Over 45 days the Australians undertook 19 separate attacks and suffered very heavy casualties of more than 23,000. They were relieved by the Canadians early in September, but returned to the Somme in October. They launched three more attacks opposite Gueudecourt in November, resulting in 2,000 further casualties. The Australians lost almost as many men on the Somme as they had in nine months at Gallipoli.

  • New Zealand

    Image of soldiers of the 2nd Auckland Battalion of New Zealand in a trench near Flers, 15 September 1916.
    Soldiers of the 2nd Auckland Battalion of New Zealand in a trench near Flers, 15 September 1916.
    Q 194

    During the First World War, from a population of 1.1 million, New Zealand sent more than 100,000 soldiers overseas. The New Zealand Expeditionary Force fought at Gallipoli from April to December 1915. A complete New Zealand Division was then formed in Egypt and sent to France in April 1916. By mid-September it had taken its place in the centre of the Somme battle line. 

    On 15 September the New Zealand Division successfully attacked between High Wood and Delville Wood, helping to capture Flers. For a further 23 days it undertook a series of attacks towards Gueudecourt. On 25 October the last elements of the Division were withdrawn to regroup in Flanders. The New Zealanders suffered around 7,000 casualties, including more than 1,500 dead.

  • Canada

    Shrapnel bursting over Canadian troops sheltering in a reserve trench during the fighting near Courcelette, September 1916.
    Shrapnel bursting over Canadian troops sheltering in a reserve trench during the fighting near Courcelette, September 1916.
    CO 802

    At the beginning of September 1916 the Canadian Corps of four divisions moved to the Somme and took over from the Australians around Pozières. On 15 September the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were on the extreme left for the assault on the German's third line of defences and successfully captured Courcelette. 

    For the next two months, Canadian units fought almost continually between Courcelette and Grandcourt, capturing formidable German defensive positions such as Regina Trench. By 4 November the 4th Canadian Division had pushed 700 yards beyond Regina. The Canadians suffered 24,000 casualties on the Somme. Their principal memorial stands between Pozières and Courcelette, but the Canadian dead of the Somme with no known grave are commemorated by name on the Vimy Memorial, north of Arras.

This article was edited by Jessica Talarico. Several members of IWM's staff contributed to writing an older version of this piece.