The Battle of the Somme was a World War I battle fought between Allied forces and the Imperial German Army, from July 1 to November 18, 1916. It was the second largest military engagement in military history, being surpassed only by the Battle of Verdun, with the British suffering 58,000 casualties on the first day. It started with a French assault on the German lines at the Somme River, in northern France, in an attempt to tear out a gap and pour through in a massive offensive, putting an end to 18 months of trench stalemate. Young Adolf Hitler fought in this battle and he was wounded.
By late December 1915, it had been decided that the following year simultaneous offensives would take place against the German and Austrian positions; the Russians attacking in the East, the Italians in the Alps, and the English and French on the Western Front. Also in December 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig replaced General Sir John French as Commander-In-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. Plans for the joint offensive on the Somme had not begun to take shape until the Germans launched the Battle of Verdun in February 1916. With the French committed themselves in the defense of Verdun, the burden of the Somme offensive shifted to the British Expeditionary Force.
The attack on the German lines had been preceded by an eight-day preliminary artillery bombarment with the purpose of destroying all forward German defences. Seventeen mines had also been planted in tunnels beneath the German front line trenches. Then, the assault was launched upon a 30 kilometer front, north and south of the Somme River between Arras and Albert. Commanded by Sir Henry Rawlinson, 13 British divisions from the Fourth Army struck north of the Somme River, and 11 divisions of the French 6th Army, which initiated the attack at a point south of the Somme River.
The German trenches were heavily fortified and the British cannons were not accurate enough as some of their shells failed to explode. When the artillery bombing began, the German soldiers simply moved underground and waited. At 7:30 am, on July 1, 1916, whistles blew to signal the start of the attack. After the heavy bombardment, the Germans simply left their bunkers and took their positions in the trenches.
Burdened by 50-pounds of equipment, the 11 British divisions soldiers walked towards the German lines across no man’s land, stumbling on and surmounting barbed wire obstacles as they went. An officer blew his whistle again and their walk broke into a trot, then into a race as they approached the first German trench line, bristling with lethal bayonets, yelling, charging into the voracious maw of death. The machine guns opened fire, mowing down the first wave of British soldiers, then the next. Finally, the third wave managed to get to the first line as machine gun nests were blown away with hand grenades. Jumping into the trenches, a ferocious and desperate close combat fighting with bayonets, knifes, and lineman shovels ensued; hearts were stabbed, bellies ripped opened, necks hacked.
It was a baptism of fire for many in the British volunteer armies as they suffered catastrophic losses. Whole units were wiped out. The first two weeks of the battle had degenerated into a series of disjointed, small-scale actions, ostensibly in preparation for making a major push. From July 3 to July 13, Rawlinson’s Fourth Army carried out 46 actions which resulted in 35,000 casualties, but no significant advance. In the south, the French 6th Army had progressed as far as 10 km at different points as it had occupied the entire Flaucourt plateau. The French advance was significantly more successful, for they had more guns and faced weaker defences, but were unable to exploit their gains without British backup and had to fall back to earlier positions.
Although by July 14 the British took several German positions, they could not follow through. On July 19, after a break in the attack, the German defense was reorganized, with the southern wing forming a new army, First Army, under Max von Gallwitz, who took complete responsibility for the defence. Seven German divisions were used to reinforce the lines at Somme. However, convinced that the enemy was on the verge of exhaustion and that a breakthrough in the German lines was imminent, Sir Douglas Haig maintained the offensive throughout the summer and into November. The British achieved some hard-earned victories such as the battles of Pozieres and Mouquet Farm with the help of Australian and Canadian units.
On September 15, the British attack was renewed in the north-east with the Battle of Flers-Courcelette fought by Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. On this assault, tanks were used for the first time in the war. Although they attained a large measure of shocked surprise when they rolled on the German oppositions, these early tanks proved unwieldy and highly unreliable. The British troops were to break through the remaining enemy trench system while the French Sixth Army would attempt to clear the enemy from the British right flank.
Meanwhile the Canadians were northwest of the Albert-Bapaume road and outpaced their seven tanks to capture Courcelette. Immediately south of them, the 15th Scottish Division, helped by a single tank, captured Martinpuich. To the southeast, however, German forces on high ground halted a number of tanks, pounding them with artillery and machine gun fire. Others found themselves lost, while yet others fired on their own infantry. British advances were small but were consolidated on as other attacks were launched by the British at the Battles of Transloy Ridges from October 1 to October 20.
Despite the progressive British advance, bad weather conditions and stubborn German resistance brought the Battle of the Somme to an end on November 18, 1916. During the Somme offensive, the British and the French had gained only 12 kilometers. The German lines had not been breached and the Allies were still in French territory. The battle resulted in 1,070,000 casualties on both belligerent sides. The Somme offensive served only to relieve the French at Verdun.
Belligerents. United Kingdom, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada against Germany.
Location. Somme, Picardy, France.
Date. July 1 to November 18, 1916.
Opposing Forces. Allies: at the beginning 13 British divisions plus 11 French divisions; at the end 50 British divisions plus 48 French divisions. Germany: 50 divisions.
Allied Commanders. British Douglas Haig, French General Ferdinand Foch.
German Commanders: Max von Gallwitz, Fritz von Below.