Matt Brosnan
Monday 11 June 2018

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. For many in Britain, the resulting battle remains the most painful and infamous episode of the First World War

In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the upcoming year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916. Intense German pressure on the French at Verdun throughout 1916 made action on the Somme increasingly urgent and meant the British would take on the main role in the offensive. 

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Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion

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Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion

Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme. In this photograph one man keeps sentry duty while his comrades rest, July 1916. 

Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme. In this photograph one man keeps sentry duty, looking over the parados and using an improvised fire step cut into the back slope of the trench, while his comrades rest.
Soldiers of 'A' Company, 11th Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, occupy a captured German trench at Ovillers-la-Boisselle on the Somme.

They were faced with German defences that had been carefully laid out over many months. Despite a seven-day bombardment, prior to the attack on 1 July, the British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition. 

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Battle of Albert

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Battle of Albert

Dump of empty ammunition boxes, a small quantity of the total used by one British Division in the bombardment of Fricourt, July 1916. A horse in the background has a protective headwear.

Battle of Albert. Dump of empty ammunition boxes.
Battle of Albert. Dump of empty ammunition boxes.

Over the next 141 days, the British advanced a maximum of seven miles. More than one million men from all sides were killed, wounded or captured. British casualties on the first day – numbering over 57,000, of which 19,240 were killed – make it the bloodiest day in British military history. 

The Somme, like Verdun for the French, has a prominent place in British history and popular memory and has come to represent the loss and apparent futility of the war. But the Allied offensive on the Somme was a strategic necessity fought to meet the needs of an international alliance. British commanders learned difficult but important lessons on the Somme that would contribute to eventual Allied victory in 1918.

This article was edited by Matt Brosnan. Several members of IWM's staff contributed to writing an older version of this piece.

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