1. Planning and Preparation
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.
Please note: This video contains no sound.
2. The Artillery Bombardment
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.
3. The First Day
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.
4. Attritional Fighting
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.
5.Debut Of The Tank
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.
6.Maintaining The Pressure
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.
7.Operations On The River Ancre
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.
But who won?
The Battle of the Somme has come to define the brutal trench warfare of the First World War, but who actually won the battle? In this episode of IWM Stories Alan Wakefield sets out to find the answer.
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.