The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1st July to 18th November 1916, and is possibly one of the most recognisable and widely known battles of the First World War.
Why did it happen?
In late 1915 the French and British military leadership agreed the need for a joint offensive to break the German lines, an imperative that was then heightened by the powerful German offensive against Verdun in February 1916.
The Anglo-French offensive was agreed in May 1916 to draw German troops away from Verdun, and keep the alliance intact. Several months were then were needed to build up the forces, ammunition and other supplies required to sustain the 27 British and 45 French Divisions likely to take part. British commanders assessed that some 100,000 men would be needed to break through north of the River Somme.
The opening days and weeks of the battle.
On 1st July 1916, some 100,000 British soldiers climbed from their trenches and advanced towards the German lines in waves. Many were cut down by machine gun fire as the Germans emerged from deep dug-outs following the allied shelling. Several attacks faltered on the often-uncut thickets of German defensive barbed wire or lost coherence in heavily-cratered ground, though gains were made in the southern sector of the British attack.
By the end of the first day British and Commonwealth troops had suffered 19,240 killed and 57,470 injured.
Throughout July, attacks were mounted, often with limited result. Where surprise was achieved the results were relatively successful. On 14th July a night attack following a limited bombardment captured five miles of German Second Line trench near Mametz, but the failure to exploit this success quickly enough allowed the Germans to plug the gap and hold their Third Line trenches.
Tactical innovations were tried on a limited scale in August and September, and achieved local successes, but a decisive breakthrough remained elusive. German fortification of villages over the previous 20 months, concerting the cellars of houses to become bunkers in successive defensive lines defied British artillery and machine guns.
At the strategic level, however, the German Army brought in more troops, artillery and aircraft, weakening their efforts at Verdun, but making the Somme all the more difficult.
Technical innovations were also used, and surprised German defenders. On 15th September 1916 ‘tanks’ were used for the first time between Flers and Courcelette. Several tanks achieved tactical success in the Battle of Flers, although the desired breakthrough remained elusive.
Despite the casualties suffered throughout (British: 420,000; French: 204,000; German 450,000), the advance on the Somme took the high ground from Thiepval to Marval; it took German pressure off the French at Verdun, and also off the Russians on the Eastern Front for many months.
The British line advanced some five miles on a 12-mile frontage, taking the drier, high ground, and caused significant attritional losses to the German Army.
British troops who fought on the Somme learned significant lessons and helped develop tactics and equipment that would see the eventual victory in 1918.
The events surrounding the Battle of the Somme resulted in significant experience-related gains that were applied in the major German offensives in the spring of 1918. The British Army was able to defeat the Germans at the Battle of Amiens and move into offensive manoeuvre operations for the ensuing 100 days until the Armistice.
At this stage the familiarity of the different ‘arms’ – infantry, artillery, engineers and cavalry/tanks, together with aircraft – working closely together meant they could mount sustained attacks on all types of terrain.
They shall not grow old
As we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun
And in the Morning
We will remember them
Images: National Army Museum.