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