The Battle of the Somme: 1 July 1916 - 18 November 1916

Douglas Haig

The Battle of the Somme started on 1st July 1916 and lasted until 18th November 1916. For many people, the Battle of the Somme was the battle that symbolised the horrors of warfare in World War One; this one battle had a marked effect on overall casualty figures and seemed to epitomise the futility of trench warfare. It was one of the largest battles of World War I, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

For many years those who led the British campaign received a lot of criticism for the way the Battle of the Somme was fought, especially Field Marshall Douglas Haig. This criticism was based on the devastating casualty figures suffered by the British and the French. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and the Germans nearly 500,000.

Going over the top at the Somme was the first taste of battle many of those men had, as many were part of ‘Kitchener’s Volunteer Army’ persuaded to volunteer by posters showing Lord Kitchener himself summoning these men to arms to show their patriotism.

For a number of months the French had been taking severe losses at Verdun – to the east of Paris. The Allied High Command decided to attack the Germans to the north of Verdun which forced the Germans to move some of their men away from the Verdun battlefield therefore relieving the French.

Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, explained what this strategy was after the war:

Remembering the dissatisfaction by ministers at the end of 1915, because the operations had not come up to their expectations, the General Staff took the precaution to make quite clear beforehand the nature of success which the Somme campaign might yield. The necessity of relieving pressure on the French Army at Verdun remains, and is more urgent than ever. This is, therefore, the first objective to be obtained by the combined British and French offensive. The second objective is to inflict as heavy losses as possible upon the German armies.

The head of the French Army, General Foch, believed that the attack in the Somme would achieve little - this view was shared by some other leading British commanders such as General Henry Rawlinson. However, orders from the army's political masters in London and Paris ensured that the battle would take place.

This is backward thinking, shown by the fact that the British put a regiment of cavalry on standby when the attack started to exploit the hole that would be created by a devastating infantry attack. British military faith was still being placed on cavalry attacks in 1916 when the nature of war in the previous two years would have clearly indicated that cavalry was no longer viable.

The battle at the Somme started with a week long artillery bombardment of the German lines around 1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans. The logic behind this was that the artillery guns would destroy the German trenches and barbed wire placed in front of the trenches. The use of artillery was heavily supported by Field Marshall Haig:

“The enemy's position to be attacked was of a very considerable character, situated on high, undulating tract of ground. (They had) deep trenches, bomb proof shelters, wire entanglements forty yards broad, often as thick as a man's finger. Defences of this nature could only be attacked with the prospect of success after careful artillery preparation.”

The Battle of the Somme: 1 July 1916 - 18 November 1916 The Germans had deep dugouts for their men, all they had to do when the bombardment started was to move the men into the relative safety of these dugouts. When the bombardment stopped, the Germans would have known that this would have been the signal for an infantry advance. They moved from the safety of the dugouts and manned the machine guns to face the British and French. The British soldiers advanced across a 25-mile front.

By the end of the battle, in November 1916, the British had lost 420,000, the French nearly 200,000 men and the Germans 500,000. The Allied forces had advanced along a thirty-mile strip that was seven miles deep at its maximum.

Lord Kitchener was a supporter of the theory that, eventually you would grind down your enemy and they would have to yield. He saw the military success of the battle as all-important. However, it did have dire political and social consequences in Britain. Many spoke of the “lost generation.” Many people found it difficult to justify the near 88,000 Allied men lost for every one mile gained in the advance.

During the battle, media information on the battle was less than accurate, written by John Irvine of the ‘Daily Express’ on July 3rd 1916 (using what information the military gave him).

“A perceptible slackening of our fire soon after seven was the first indication given to us that our gallant soldiers were about to leap from their trenches and advance against the enemy. Non-combatants, of course, were not permitted to witness this spectacle, but I am informed that the vigour and eagerness of the first assault were worthy of the best tradition of the British Army. We had not to wait long for news, and it was wholly satisfactory and encouraging. The message received at ten o'clock ran something like this: “On a front of twenty miles north and south of the Somme, we and our French allies have advanced and taken the German first line of trenches. We are attacking vigorously Fricourt, la Boiselle and Mametz. German prisoners are surrendering freely, and a good many already fallen into our hands.”

However, those who fought there knew what really happened - if they survived: George Coppard, machine gunner at the Battle of the Somme.

“The next morning (July 2nd) we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of became clear that the Germans always had a commanding view of No Man's Land. (The British) attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high water-mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as if they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. Machine gun fire had done its terrible work.”

In the course of the battle, 51 Victoria Crosses were won by British soldiers, 31 were won by NCO's and 20 by officers. Of these 51 medals, 17 were awarded posthumously - 10 to NCO's and 7 to officers.

The Royal British Legion with the British Embassy in Paris and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, commemorate the battle on 1st July each year, at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.