The Battle of the Somme has become a byword for what is perceived as the futility and senselessness of the fighting on the Western Front during the First World War. British generals – particularly the commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig – are blamed for causing needless casualties.

This vision is anchored in the disastrous events of 1 July 1916 when, in terms of casualties sustained, the British Army suffered the worst day in its history, with over 19,000 men killed. This was only the first of 141 days of this gigantic battle. Thankfully the terrible casualties of 1 July were never repeated, although the battle was still the most costly of the war for Britain.

Photographs

General Sir Douglas Haig

Photographs

General Sir Douglas Haig

The Somme was part of an Allied strategy. Here General Sir Douglas Haig walks between French generals Joseph Joffre and Ferdinand Foch, 12 August 1916. 

Why did the Battle of the Somme happen?

Just how did the British Army find itself mounting this huge attack across the rolling farmland of northern France, and what did it hope to achieve there? To a large extent the answers to these questions lay beyond the control of Britain's generals. Since 1914 the British government had committed them to leading an inexperienced but rapidly expanding army in a coalition war in which the chief players were the huge armies of their allies France and Russia.

The Battle of the Somme was just one element of an Allied master-plan to overwhelm Germany by attacking on all fronts during 1916. This had been formulated by the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre in late 1915. On the Western Front this meant a joint attack by Britain and France at the point where their armies stood side by side – astride the River Somme. The location was influenced not by the presence of tempting objectives, but because the French, weary of bearing the brunt of the fighting since 1914, were determined to see that the British made a full contribution. Haig had no part in the early planning, only being promoted to the command of the British forces in France and Flanders after the strategy had been agreed.

It was intended that the French would play the leading role in this attack, but a surprise German assault on the fortress town of Verdun in February 1916 changed things. By the late spring the French Army had committed so many resources to the desperate defence of Verdun that it had to reduce its contribution to the Battle of the Somme. Britain would now take the lead.

The 'Big Push'

Haig was concerned that Britain's 'New Army' – composed of those who had volunteered in 1914-1915 – was largely untested in battle.  Moreover, the French were clear that the now-weakened Somme attack could no longer hope to break the German Army on the Western Front. But Joffre pressured Haig into launching the Somme offensive as soon as possible to draw German resources away from Verdun.

Private papers

Haig Memorandum on the Somme Offensive, 1916

Private papers

Haig Memorandum on the Somme Offensive, 1916

Memorandum from General Haig to his Adjutant General, asking about the manpower likely to be available for three alternative start dates for the 'general offensive': 1 July, 15 July and 1 August. Documents.

Haig himself retained hopes that his attack would deliver a knockout blow to the German Army, but the man to whom he gave control of the battle, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, favoured a step-by-step approach. This led to a dangerous element of confusion in British planning.  The attack was to commence with an artillery bombardment of unprecedented power and duration but, although plentiful shells were available, there was a shortage of heavy guns. Haig's desire for a major advance meant that this limited firepower was dispersed over both the first and second lines of German defence, against Rawlinson's better judgement.

Essentially the tragedy of 1 July stemmed from the failure of the week-long British bombardment to neutralise the German artillery and machine guns. The attack did not fail everywhere however. The British forces which attacked nearest their French allies actually took their objectives, but here Rawlinson's caution proved costly, as no plans had been made to exploit such successes.

Weapons and ammunition

Shell Q.F. High Explosive 4.5 in Howitzer Mark V, plugged

Weapons and ammunition

Shell Q.F. High Explosive 4.5 in Howitzer Mark V, plugged

British 9.2-inch howitzer shell. Heavy guns were the key to a successful advance, and Britain did not have enough of them in July 1916.

Bitter lessons

The French, by contrast, enjoyed great success on 1 July, and largely out-performed their allies for the remainder of the battle. They enjoyed better artillery support than the British and, crucially, had been mounting major operations since 1914. Thus the French Army, at the cost of over 650,000 lives, had already passed through a learning process on which the British Army was only just embarking. As one French officer put it 'our neighbours, the British, are slower than us because less experienced. Their superb infantry, superbly equipped, is very brave but undergoing a costly apprenticeship'.

Photographs

Sir Henry Rawlinson, King George V and the Prince of Wales

Photographs

Sir Henry Rawlinson, King George V and the Prince of Wales

Sir Henry Rawlinson (right) gives a tour of the battlefield to King George V (fourth from the left) and the Prince of Wales (second from the left), 10 August 1916.

British planning and tactics improved during the Somme, leading to major successes on 14 July and 15 September that put the German defenders under extreme pressure. Artillery techniques were rapidly improved. Innovations were introduced, such as moving attacking forces into position by night, using machine guns to fire barrages like miniature artillery pieces and, most famously, introducing a completely new weapon – the tank.

Uniforms and insignia

Cap, Service Dress: Field Marshal Haig

Uniforms and insignia

Cap, Service Dress: Field Marshal Haig

Cap worn by General (later Field Marshal) Sir Douglas Haig. 

But the real benefits of this 'costly apprenticeship' would only be seen from 1917 onwards, as the lessons of the Somme were digested. The British commanders on the Somme had to learn as they went along, commanding troops inexperienced in fighting large battles and with their artillery – the key to victory on the Western Front – still in a state of development. As one of them, General William Furse lamented, 'We are squandering our men...partly because of indifferent Art[illery], partly because of indifferent ammun[ition], partly because of indifferently trained infantry'. Neither the steady Rawlinson nor the more 'thrusting' General Sir Hubert Gough, brought in by Haig to take control of the northern sector of the battlefield, was able to overcome these hurdles.

Photographs

Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15 September 1916

Photographs

Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15 September 1916

A British innovation. One of the first tanks prepares to go into action on the Somme Front, 15 September 1916.

What was the outcome of the Battle of the Somme?

The generals are commonly lambasted for failing to capture more than a few miles of territory. But, rather than the capture of ground in what was a rural region lacking in strategic objectives, the aim of the Battle of the Somme was to fatally weaken the German Army in France. The reduced French contribution meant that such a result was never on the cards.

However, despite being inconclusive, the battle was not without result.  German strategy in 1917 was detrimentally influenced by the suffering endured by the German Army on the Somme, which had not thought the Allies capable of such a sustained attack with such fearsome artillery support. Seeing no immediate hope of victory in the West, they made the fatal decision to attempt to knock Britain out of the war through a campaign of 'unrestricted' submarine warfare. This involved sinking neutral shipping heading for British ports – effectively ensuring that the chief neutral nation, the United States, would enter the war against Germany.

The five-month battle cost the Allies 600,000 casualties (killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and the Germans over 500,000. German losses were kept high by their policy of launching repeated counterattacks in attempts to recover lost ground. More flexible tactics may have saved lives for both sides, but heavy losses were inevitable when men and artillery were as densely deployed as they were on the Western Front. Similar daily levels of casualties were common to virtually all the battles fought there, and were actually higher during the periods of mobile warfare of 1914 and 1918. As French general Charles Mangin flatly stated, 'whatever you do, you lose a lot of men'. Government ministers – particularly in Britain and France – were appalled by this grim truth, but were reluctantly forced to accept the logic that, if the war was to be won, it would have to be won on the Western Front.

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