I was tempted to simply cover that first awful day in July 1916 (which, on its own, is called the Battle of Albert after a nearby town) but that would be a disservice to the sheer magnitude of the five months of fighting that followed.
Name: The (Second) Battle of the Somme, sometimes known as the Somme Offensive
The War: The First World War
When: 1 July – 13 November 1916
Where: An area around the Somme River, North-Western France in the Somme and Pas-de-Calais departments
Forces/Commanders: Initially 24, but finally 99 Allied Divisions (British and French) under Douglas Haig and Ferdinand Foch against initially 10, finally 50 German divisions under Max von Gallwitz and Fritz von Below. We’re talking millions of troops.
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
-Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Major General, 29th British Division
“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”
-Friedrich Steinbrecher, German Officer
The Somme offensive was designed to be a defining breakthrough, to end the terrible slaughter and stalemate of the Western Front. The assault was the brain child of Douglas Haig, and was meant to be the baptism of fire for millions of troops of his “New Army”.
A heavy artillery bombardment through June was meany to utterly destroy any defences, eliminate the threat of barbed wire and leave shell-shocked any German soldiers brave enough to remain at their positions. Due to the sheer quality of defences, the lack of knowledge in how barbed wire worked (it was still a relatively new innovation) and just plain inaccuracy of the artillery, the bombardment failed completely in its objectives.
At 7.30am on the 1 July, 24 Allied divisions went over the top and advanced on the German lines. By the end of the day, 60’000 of them, over 20% of the total British force, were casualties. Raked by machine gun fire, unable to advance through the wire, and with a complete breakdown in inter-army communications, the Allies made only the most negligible advances. The oft quoted fact never loses its impact: it was single worst day in British (and Irish) military history.
For the next ten days, the British resorted to inconsequential small-scale actions while the French, to the south, made an advance of around six miles, the only real success. But no decisive breakthrough, like the one Haig and Ferdinand Foch wanted, happened.
The British then attempted another breakthrough at Bazentin Ridge, in the south of the offensive zone. Initially succesful, the British captured a wide swath of the German line but lacked the men to advance further and attempts to do so were bloodily repulsed by German reserve trenches.
In the north, from late July to early August, ANZAC troops carried out assaults on Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, looking to flank the German line. Bitter fighting around Pozieres ended with the Germans still in control of the village, while the farm was only captured weeks later following the introduction of a Canadian Corps. In the first six weeks of the battle, the ANZAC troops took 23’000 casualties, for gains of a mile or less.
For the next month and a half the British became bogged down in fighting designed merely to straighten their line out with the advanced French in the south before a more large-scale assault could be launched. To this effect they launched over 90 Battalion sized assaults over 2 months. The gain in exchange for 82’000 casualties? 915 metres.
At Flers-Courcellette, on the 15th of September, the British made their only significant gains of the entire battle, roughly 3.2 kilometres. This action is known mainly for the introduction of the tank to warfare, the trundling Mark I which had a panicking effect on German defenders, though their tangible effect was limited.
As September turned to October and then to November, it became increasingly obvious that no breakthrough could be achieved in the maelstrom of attack and counter-attack. The British were bogged down in a war of attrition along the Ancre Heights, and the increasingly poor weather was turning the battlefield into impassable mud.
Haig insisted on a final effort, probably for political reasons. From the 13th to the 18th of November the Allied armies made last attacks on the Ancre positions with some divisions assaulting the same places they’d failed to capture on July 1st. After more small scale gains were made in exchange for thousands of casualties, the battle mercifully came to an end.
The total Allied casualties were over 600’000 men. The Germans lost over 460’000, a daily loss of over 7’000 soldiers between the two armies. The Allies, from the initial attack to the end of November had advanced, at the deepest point, seven miles.
Why It’s Decisive – Impact On That War
Well, you’ll see debate about it. For many years, the majority of commentators have deemed the sacrifice of the Somme to have had a criminally negligible impact on the war as a whole, that the ground gained did next to nothing to bring the war to a quicker end. Certainly, nothing of significant tactical importance was gained.
But the Somme did have an effect. The German army suffered losses it couldn’t recoup: most of its eligible men were already in uniform. The British were no longer viewed as the junior partner of the Allies having proved that it had strength in its armies as well as its navy. And the terrible slaughter helped push along the development of new tactics, designed to break the endless cycle of attack and counter-attack on the trenches of the Western Front
The infantry tactics of the Allies belonged to another age, when artillery and rate of fire were still things that could be overcome by lots of troops. The Germans did demonstrate how to create defensive positions that could withstand extensive bombardment and survive, while Allied planners finally began to see the usefulness (and lack of weakness) in barbed wire.
The introduction of the tank, limited as it was, is the main technological innovation. The Mark I was slow, prone to breakdown and had little effective firepower; it is fair to say it was as much, if not a bigger, danger to the men inside it as to those it was attacking. The lack of armour tactics, the machine being so new that no one had come up with any, precluded it from having a major involvement. But the time was coming when it would be vital.
Difficult to determine. It’s fair to say that the Somme can barely be described as an Allied victory and the lack of a breakthrough certainly insured that the war would trundle on for another year at least. If the Allies had introduced more sophisticated tactics from the start, relied less on artillery and more on the skills of their infantry (who died in droves due to the simplicity of their assault) a breakthrough might have been achieved. Who knows what could have happened then.
Maybe the German line, flanked from the north, would have faltered up and down the Western Front. With much of the Empire’s troops committed to Verdun, few men remained to counter-attack such an advance. Maybe Haig’s objectives, if attained, could have ended the war by 1917. It’s too difficult to say.
In National Consciousness
In the opinion of this author, no battle fought in the entirety of human history has had as much of an effect on how people view warfare then the Battle of the Somme. The direct fall in popular support for war and the military, not withstanding a brief spike in the early forties, can be traced to that miserable autumn. The Somme is now a byword for senseless slaughter, the destruction of youth.
For the combatants, the Somme is a microcosm for the war as a whole. Britain views it, especially that terrible 1st of July, as the defining moment of one of its most tragic generations. Whole villages of young men were lost in those five months. It is a battle, for Britain, its Empire, France and Germany, defined by command incompetence, bravery of the common soldier and the churning mass of the muddy battlefield.
It is a battle that makes one, even today gazing at the poppy fields that stretch across Northern France, say “Never Again” regardless of the realism of such a sentiment. For those nations, it is a pivotal clash in their history, the equal of Agincourt, Waterloo and Sedan.
In the modern age, in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have seen some 5 thousand coalition troops lose their lives. The fact that such a number seems so horrifying and tragic to us, is because war no longer has the lustre it once had.
The Somme is the answer for that.
For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.