The Battle of the Somme is one of the most infamous battles of the First World War. The battle took place between 1 July and 18 November, 1916. After 18 months of deadlock in the trenches on the Western Front, the Allies wanted to achieve a decisive victory. In 1915, a plan was finalised for a joint British and French offensive the following year. However, the German attack against the French at Verdun meant that the British were forced to take the lead. The plan for the Somme was devised by Sir Douglas Haig and Sir Henry Rawlinson. The huge casualties suffered during the Battle of the Somme played a significant part in earning Haig the nickname 'The Butcher'.

Here are 5 facts about the Battle of the Somme.


1. The Battle of the Somme lasted nearly five months

A view of a large, sunlit crater blasted into white chalky soil. The remains of German barbed-wire defences in the distance are a dark rust-coloured pink. A German and a British steel helmet and the remains of a uniform lie on the edge of the crater in the foreground. The sky is covered in dense white cloud with blue patches visible at the top of the composition.
© IWM Art.IWM ART 3006

The Battle of the Somme was one of the most bitterly contested and costly battles of the First World War, lasting nearly five months. Despite this, it is often the first day of the battle that is most remembered. The offensive began on 1 July 1916 after a week-long artillery bombardment of the German lines. Advancing British troops found that the German defences had not been destroyed as expected and many units suffered very high casualties with little progress.

The Somme became an attritional or 'wearing-out' battle. On 15 September, tanks were used for the first time with some success, but they did not bring a breakthrough any closer. Operations on the River Ancre continued with some gains, but in deteriorating weather conditions major operations on the Somme ended on 18 November. Over the course of the battle, British forces took a strip of territory 6 miles (10km) deep by 20 miles (32km) long.


2. There were over a million casualties

As an attritional offensive, the Battle of the Somme involved heavy casualties on both sides. By the end of the first day on 1 July 1916, British forces had suffered 57,470 casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed. This represented the largest losses suffered by the British Army in a single day. 

While casualty rates were not as high as that for the remainder of the offensive, they were consistently heavy as both sides fought intensively for every yard of ground within a relatively small geographical area.

In total over a million men from both sides – including Britain and her Empire forces, France and Germany – became casualties during the battle.


3. It was the first major battle of Britain's new volunteer army

The Battle of the Somme saw the first involvement in battle of many men who had volunteered for Army service in 1914 and 1915. This included men who had joined Pals battalions – infantry units that were made up of friends, relatives and workmates from the same communities.

After around a year of training, most of these men began to see active service from late 1915 and early 1916, particularly on the Western Front. As a result, the Battle of the Somme, the largest offensive the British Army had yet launched, was the first to be fought by a largely citizen army made up of civilian volunteers rather than professional soldiers. This meant that many of the attacking British infantry did not have battlefield experience. As one French officer wrote on 10 July 1916, 'The British...infantry... is very brave but undergoing a costly apprenticeship'.


4. The British Army gained valuable experience

Although the British Army suffered heavy casualties for relatively little territorial gain on the Somme, the battle has increasingly been seen as important in providing experience that later contributed to victory on the Western Front

During the course of nearly five months of fighting on the Somme, an inexperienced citizen army began to evolve into a battle-hardened one. The same was also true of British commanders, who had never previously commanded troops on this scale before. Improvements were made in the use of artillery and infantry tactics, and new weapons, including tanks, began to be integrated in the British Army's methods. This came at a very high cost in casualties, but proved equally costly for the German Army, which began to realise that the British Army was becoming a major opponent.


Please note: This video contains no sound.

5. 20 million people saw film footage from the battle

An official documentary film, The Battle of the Somme, was the first feature-length film to record soldiers in action. It was filmed by the official cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, who filmed the build-up and early days of the battle.

When the film was shown in cinemas from 21 August 1916, an estimated 20 million people saw it in the first months of its release.

Many hoped to glimpse a son, brother, father or friend. It was intended to show that the 'Big Push' had been a success and that British soldiers were well supplied and cared for. The later phases of the Somme offensive were also represented in a follow up film, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, released in 1917.

Find out more

In this episode of IWM Stories Alan Wakefield looks at the Battle of the Somme in an attempt to find out who really won the First World War's most famous battle.

At 7:30 a.m. on the 1st of July 1916, whistles rang out across Allied lines near the River Somme in Northern France. Thousands of men clambered out of their trenches and slowly began to advance towards German lines. Allied artillery had been pounding the German defences for a week hoping to cut their barbed wire, destroy their dugouts, and provide a long-awaited breakthrough on the western front. But there was a problem. The Germans were dug in deep and many of the British shells were either duds which failed to explode or shrapnel shells which did little to no damage. Allied soldiers anticipated limited resistance, but when the barrage lifted German machine gunners emerged from their intact shelters and mowed down the oncoming British infantry in their thousands.

That first day of the Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest day in British military history with over 57,000 casualties. For many people the story of the Somme ends there with unmitigated disaster, but the battle was by no means over. Britain would go on to take another 360,000 casualties the French over 200,000 and the Germans over 500,000 in a fight which would come to define First World War. If you truly want to understand the Battle of the Somme, you need to look at the fighting beyond the first day.

Before we do that though, a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museums YouTube channel for more videos just like this every two weeks.

Of course, the Battle of the Somme is not just the first of July 1916. There's 142 days of action on the Somme and the rest of the battle is not like the first day. Had it been like the first day the British army would almost ceased to have existed.

To understand the rest of the battle, we first need to understand why the battle was being fought in the first place. 1916 was set to be a big year for the Allies with planned offensives on the Western, Eastern, Italian, and Balkan fronts.

Well, initially the Somme is supposed to be a French-led campaign, so the French army under Joffre have decided to fight on the Somme because at the Somme River the British and French armies meet. Haig however wants really to fight in Flanders, but that doesn't cut any ice with the French and the French are the senior partner here so the French drive allied strategy.

But when the Germans attacked at Verdun in February the French army was sucked in to defend it which changed the allied plans.

What happens is that switches the emphasis to the Battle of Somme to be primarily a British-led offensive. Haig, he wants to attack in the middle of August because by that time he'd have trained his army. Joffre says 'No way we cannot wait for this. We need to attack by the 1st of July at the latest'. So, Haig is now fighting a major battle on ground not of his own choosing and at a time not of his own choosing.

The Somme simply had to be fought. Mainly to take pressure off the French, but also to start wearing down the German army as part of grand allied strategy. This in part explains the disaster of the first day, but more importantly, it explains why fighting continued after that point despite British unpreparedness.

The British army is just not really ready for this battle. From Haig down people lack experience. It's almost like turning a corner shop into Sainsbury's overnight. Where have you got the experience at all levels to run that organization and to make that organization function properly? You haven't, you have to learn. You have to learn on a job and unfortunately learning on the job at war fighting a major battle means you are going to take casualties unfortunately.

Remember this is not the British army of old. It's primarily made up of Kitchener's volunteers who signed up in 1914 and alongside them are troops of the Empire Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indians and West Indians all played their part on the Somme.

Australians famously at Poziers, they actually lose as many men at Poziers as they did in the Gallipoli campaign. There are also Indian cavalry. Indian cavalry make an attack and charge German machine guns near High Wood relatively successfully but there's no breakthrough. Behind the lines are men of the British West Indies Regiment. Unfortunately, not allowed to fight on the Western Front but they were doing great logistical work moving that ammunition forward for the artillery to keep the guns in action, digging trenches dugouts, forming camps for the men coming out in and out of the line, really important contribution from them as well.

So what was the situation like after the first day? Well, these were the Allied objectives on that day and this is where they actually got to after two weeks. North of the Roman road from Albert to Bapaume it had been a disaster, south of the road there had been some progress made, but the only places of real success were where the British could make use of French heavy guns and in fact below the river Somme French troops had done brilliantly, exceeding their objectives and exposing the clear differences between themselves and the green British army.

The next phase of the operation was focused south of the Roman road in an attempt to capitalize on previous half-successes. Repeated attempts to break through the German lines were made as the British took Bazentin, Longeuval and eventually Delville Wood. When that sector started to get bogged down in late August, the focus moved north of the road to the high ground around Thiepval and the heavily fortified Schwaben Redoubt. The fighting was brutal in places and the Germans did not give any ground often staying in their positions for weeks unable to be relieved. But throughout their time the British army was learning how to fight a modern war.

I mean even on the first day, 18th division, their divisional commander actually gets them to go into no man's land at night lie down in no man's stand lightly equipped and as soon as the barrage lifts at zero-hour rush across no man's land and take those German trenches. That works, they get in there and capture those trenches. They also move troops up at night and start to launch attacks at night that happens in the middle of July into August/September.

These experimentations were not army-wide. It was often divisional or core level commanders trying new things and learning on the job. Likewise, artillery tactics were also developing.

Even if you've got a lot of artillery, if you spread it over a lot of targets it's not going to crush any of your targets. So the idea is you attack a smaller portion of the line so you can group your artillery together, hit fewer targets, but it means more shells per yard of battlefield so you're hitting those positions harder and harder.

One of the most famous instances of this experimentation came on the 15th of September when tanks were used for the first time at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.

If you want to find out more about those tanks, I've linked our video on that in the description.

Because it's a new weapon a lot of the Germans absolutely freak out on the battlefield and abandon some of their positions. The big problem is only 36 tanks get to the start lines because mechanically they're very unreliable and by the end of that day there's really none left to use in subsequent days. All of these things are tried and the British army is on a learning curve through the Somme. There are going to be more big battles, more heavy casualties, but these are the seeds of battlefield success in 1918.

As the weather deteriorated into sleet and snow the final part of the battle in October and November was an attempt to bite off a few more German positions. The village of Beaumont Hamel, an objective on the first day of the battle, was finally taken in mid-November bringing the fight to a close. The British army had advanced a maximum of seven miles, but they'd learned a lot in that time and they had taken an important chunk out of the German army.

If you look at the German casualties alongside Verdun the Germans lose about 1,500,000 men in 1916. And in fact, if we look at what the Germans do in 1917, firstly they retreat to the Hindenburg Line because they just don't have the manpower left now really to hold the front line securely, the other thing they do of course is they go for unrestricted submarine warfare. The reason they risk doing that and potentially risk bringing America into the war is they cannot take another Somme battle and both Hindenburg and Ludendorff say we are doing this to prevent more Somme fighting, so the Somme is the key thing in the German army.

For the Allies though the heavy casualties did take their toll back home. Many towns and villages were forever changed as so-called 'Pals battalions', made up of people from the same area or profession, concentrated the losses in particular areas.

So, some of these towns are absolutely decimated by the Somme, almost everybody knows somebody if they haven't had a casualty themselves, they know somebody who has and it's normally somebody they personally know. They don't recruit Pals battalions after this it's just not worth it really.

Despite those casualties though, on the first day and beyond, the British soldiers and the British people remained entirely behind the war effort. This was in part thanks to propaganda films like the Battle of the Somme, a feature-length documentary shot within the trenches.

The Battle of Somme film was released really within weeks of the battle starting and it's seen by millions of people in Britain and people flock to this because it's their first chance to see something of what it is like to be a soldier on the Western Front. And of course that film the Battle of the Somme is one of the gems of the IWM collection.

Since then though the British public has started to have a different view of the events on the Somme. For many people it's an example of the so-called 'lions led by donkeys', generals who didn't care about the deaths of their own men. Although the horrendous losses on the first day of the Somme have never been surpassed, since the 1970s academics have started to form a different view of the battle.

Okay, we don't have a successful decisive breakthrough as Haig was hoping but unfortunately, if you want to defeat the main enemy in the main theatre of war you have to wear down his ability to fight. That means both sides are going to take heavy casualties. We've just got this fixation with that first day and those 57,000 casualties and we really need to look at the other 141 days of this battle which will lead, ultimately, to Allied victory in 1918.

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Somme Offensive, Battle of Albert. Panoramic view of British troops, visible as dots just below the horizon, attacking German trenches near Mametz, on 1 July. The trench lines are clearly marked by the white chalk excavated during their construction.
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What Happened on the First Day of the Battle of the Somme?

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Total German and British casualties on the first day of the battle infographic. © IWM.
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Key Facts about the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was one of the most bitterly contested and costly battles of the First World War, lasting nearly five months. The offensive began on 1 July 1916 after a week-long artillery bombardment of the German lines.