The final phase of the Somme offensive began on 13 November 1916. The objective was to seize the Le Transloy Ridge. Field Marshal Douglas Haig's forces had attempted to seize this high ground during the previous month but they had been held back by heavy rain that transformed the devastated landscape of the Somme battlefield into one huge swamp. These conditions made it very difficult to move artillery forward in support of the infantry, who were also struggling through deep clinging mud. Poor weather conditions prevented the Royal Flying Corps from carrying out reconnaissance flights as rain and low cloud made visibility poor. The British and French forces had also met increasingly stubborn resistance from the German defenders. Unlike the French, who had begun closing down operations for the winter, Haig's troops had yet to reach secure ground. British forces clearly could not remain in flooded low ground overlooked by the Germans, so another attempt had to be made to seize the Le Transloy Ridge.
The Battle of Ancre Heights, 10 -11 November
Lightly wounded British soldiers having food at the Dressing Station at Aveluy Wood, 13 November 1916.
This final phase of the Somme Campaign was known as The Battle of the Ancre. It began on 13 November 1916 and aimed to capture four fortified villages: Beaumont Hamel and Serre, which had been British objectives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as well as St Pierre Divion and Beaucourt.
General Sir Hubert Gough's Fifth Army took St Pierre Divion and Beaumont Hamel on the first day of operations. On 14 November Beaucourt fell after tough fighting. Despite Haig's reservations, Gough gained his commander's approval for one final push on 18 November. The hope was to win ground beyond Beaucourt on which the most favourable positions for winter could be established. Snow and sleet added to the intense suffering of the infantry. Much of the battlefield was now a near featureless bog and a layer of ice had formed over the top. Visibility was very poor as infantry from five divisions moved forward. The Germans were expecting an attack and in the fighting that followed Australian, British and Canadian troops advanced south of the Ancre to just short of Grandcourt. Despite this success, the tactical situation hadn’t really changed and in no way justified the resulting 22,000 casualties. Haig bowed to the inevitable and shut down the offensive as the weather and deteriorating ground conditions proved as much of an obstacle as the German Army. Allied commanders had finally conceded that the Somme offensive no longer provided a realistic chance for decisive victory.
In The Valley of the Ancre, 1917
‘In the Valley of the Ancre 1917’ an ink and wash drawing by Adrian Hill of the typical landscape found on the Somme battlefield in winter 1916-17.
After five months of fighting on the Somme, British casualties stood at 419,654 men, French at 204,253 and the German army lost between 500,000 to 600,000. For the British army such casualty figures were unprecedented, as the Battle of the Somme was the first time Haig's forces had spearheaded a prolonged, large scale offensive. Despite these losses it was the German army that was most affected by the battle. General Erich Ludendorff feared a further outbreak of 'Somme fighting' in 1917 as he felt the army was no longer able to withstand such intensive operations. The German's strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917, a voluntary surrender of territory, was a direct result of the pounding the German forces had received. The strength of the German Army was clearly faltering. In another move to save their forces from renewed heavy fighting the German government sanctioned unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping supplying the Allies. This desperate gamble to starve Britain into surrender served only to bring the United States into the war against Germany in April 1917.
Beaucourt trench and Redoubt Alley
Aerial photographs of German positions near Beaucourt showing the results of British artillery fire during the Battle of the Ancre in November 1916.
It could be said that the strategy of attrition, applied during the Somme campaign, worked in favour of the Allies. After the Battle of the Somme it became clear that the strength of the German Army was faltering. For this reason the five month struggle on the Somme stands as a major turning point of the First World War.