What Happened During The Battle Of The Somme?
The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was a joint operation between British and French forces intended to achieve a decisive victory over the Germans on the Western Front after 18 months of trench deadlock.
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.
This major offensive required both men and munitions. In 1914 Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, had begun a massive and very successful recruiting campaign to raise his volunteer 'New Armies'. This included 'Pals' battalions made up of men who were friends, relatives and workmates recruited from the same communities. By mid-1916 these men had been trained and had arrived in France. The Battle of the Somme would be the first time Britain's new volunteer army took the leading role in a battle on the Western Front.
The British plan of attack was primarily down to two commanders. Sir Douglas Haig gave the overall direction of the battle as Commander-in-Chief, with Sir Henry Rawlinson commanding Fourth Army, which was to attack on the first day. Rawlinson advocated a more limited approach to the attack, but the more optimistic Haig wanted to achieve more distant objectives. Like the British Army as a whole, neither commander had been involved in an offensive on this scale before.
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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.
The infantry assault was scheduled for 29 June but was postponed for 48 hours due to bad weather. Despite the two extra days of bombardment, no additional shells were available.
These clips showing British artillery in action are taken from The Battle of the Somme, a British official documentary film released in August 1916.
The offensive began at 07.30am on 1 July 1916. 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 Kitchener's New Armies 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.
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. 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.
After the initial attack by Fourth Army, Sir Hubert Gough's Reserve Army took over the northern half of the battlefield. From 2 to 13 July Rawlinson's Fourth Army fought to capture Trones Wood, Mametz Wood and Contalmaison to cover the flanks of an assault on the German second main defensive position.
A dawn attack on 14 July resulted in the seizure of 6,000 yards (5,486m) of the German line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-Petit. Longueval was cleared by the end of the month, but the Germans in neighbouring Delville Wood held out until 27 August. High Wood was unoccupied on the morning of 14 July, but the British missed this opportunity and it took another two months to capture the wood.
From 23 July to 5 August, the Australian divisions of Gough's Army were involved in a costly but successful struggle for Pozières village, an alternative approach into the rear of the Thiepval defences. As the French fought towards Péronne, the British Fourth Army tried to assist their progress by capturing Guillemont and Ginchy although neither fell until early September.
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.
Haig believed that if pressure was maintained the German forces would ultimately collapse. On 26 September Gough's Reserve Army began an attack on the Thiepval Ridge from the Schwaben Redoubt to north of Courcelette.
Mouquet Farm and Thiepval fell to the British infantry, but it was 14 October before fighting in the Schwaben Redoubt finally ended. To the right the Canadians became involved in a desperate battle for Regina Trench which continued until 10 November.
In the meantime, between 1 and 20 October, on the battle's extreme right, the Fourth Army was edging painfully towards Le Transloy, capturing Le Sars on 7 October. However, rain was turning the battleground into a quagmire.
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.
In dreadful conditions, the Fifth Army, as Gough's Reserve Army was now called, attacked astride the River Ancre, north of Thiepval, to reduce the German salient between Serre and the Albert-Bapaume road. The 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont-Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division entered Beaucourt, but the village of Serre stayed in German hands.
Since 1 July, the British had seized a strip of territory 6 miles (10km) deep by 20 miles long (32km) yet were still 3 miles (5km) from Bapaume and the French, further south, had stopped short of Péronne.
Although the Germans were weakened, the Allies failed to achieve all of their objectives and the war was to continue for another two years. Over a million men from both sides became casualties in the long and bitter struggle on the Somme in 1916. But the Somme was a strategic necessity fought to meet the needs of an international alliance and British commanders learned difficult but important lessons that would contribute to eventual Allied victory in 1918.
This article was edited by Matt Brosnan. Several other members of IWM's staff contributed to writing an older version of this piece.