The first day of the Battle of the Somme has a prominent place in British history and popular memory and has come to represent the loss and apparent futility of the First World War. But what actually happened on 1 July 1916?
The Battle of the Somme (1 July - 18 November 1916) was planned as a joint operation between British and French forces to break the deadlock on the Western Front. But due to the German attack on the French at Verdun, Britain and its Empire would have to take the lead on the Somme.
The offensive was preceded by a week-long artillery bombardment intended to cut German barbed wire and destroy defences. However, the decision of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig to extend the original objectives of the attack meant this artillery fire had to cover a wider area. The British front for the attack stretched from Serre in the north to near Montauban in the south, with a diversionary attack at Gommecourt.
The offensive began at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. Many of the infantry who went over the top were volunteers of 1914, including Pals battalions made up of friends, relatives and workmates serving side by side. This was their first experience of a major action in the largest attack the British Army had yet conducted.
Somme Offensive, Battle of Albert
A view of British infantry, visible as tiny dots below the horizon, attacking German positions near Mametz on 1 July 1916. This photograph is rare in showing the infantry attack in progress on the first day of the Somme, in this case in an area that saw British success. The trench lines are visible from the excavated chalky soil.
As the infantry advanced across no man's land, most were met with a hail of machine-gun fire. The British bombardment had largely failed to seriously affect German defences or neutralise German artillery fire, which also took a heavy toll on 1 July. In most places along the front of attack, British infantry were unable to take their objectives. Some made it into the German trenches only to be forced back. Some could not get past the German barbed wire, which in places was still intact.
Montauban Alley, 1 July 1916
This photograph was taken on the first day of the Somme. The original caption read: ‘In Montauban Alley, the final objective of 55th Brigade - taken about 6pm’. 55th Brigade was part of the 18th (Eastern) Division, whose objective on the first day was the French village of Montauban. It was one of the few objectives successfully taken on 1 July 1916.
The British had some success in the south, where the 30th and 18th (Eastern) Divisions took all of their objectives around Montauban 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 on its left and right. French forces operating to the south of the River Somme also achieved some success.
These limited gains came at a high cost. The first day of the Somme was the deadliest day in British military history – of the 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 men had been killed. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. Ultimately the Battle of the Somme would continue for another four months. It became an attritional battle of limited territorial gain, but one that taught British commanders important lessons for later fighting on the Western Front.
What happened next?
Although the horrendous casualties of the first day have never been surpassed, the other 141 days of the battle were very different. In this episode of IWM Stories Alan Wakefield looks at who really won the battle of the Somme.
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.