The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme

The infamous Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916 and lasted until November of the same year. For many it is considered to have perfectly demonstrated the horrors of trench warfare in World War One, having a significant impact on the overall casualty figures for both sides.

Many historians have criticised those who led the British campaign for the way the Battle of the Somme was fought, with Douglas Haig receiving the greatest criticism. This is mainly based on the high casualty figures; by the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered 420,000 casualties, including 60,000 on the first day, while the French lost 200,000 men and the Germans lost almost 500,000.

However, there were many contributing factors that led to these numbers, not least the fact that going over the top at the Somme was the first taste of battle for many of the men in the British Army, who had signed up as part of “Kitchener’s Volunteer Army”.

Before the battle took place, the French had been taking very severe losses at Verdun and the Allied High Command decided that attacking the Germans to the north would relieve some of the pressure. This strategy was explained by Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, 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 an attack in the Somme would actually achieve very little and this view was shared by some leading British commanders including General Henry Rawlinson. However, the political masters in London and Paris were determined that the battle would take place.

The traditional military thinking of the time led to the British putting a regiment of cavalry on standby once the attack began, which they planned to use to exploit a gap left once the infantry attack had taken place. The nature of war in World War One clearly made cavalry attacks no longer viable, but British military faith was still being placed in them, demonstrating how conservative military thinking was during the war.

The Battle of the Somme began with a weeklong artillery bombardment of the German lines, with more than 1.7 million shells being fired. The logic behind this was that the artillery would destroy German trenches and barbed wire, with Field Marshall Haig stating that it would allow further attack by other divisions.

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

However, the Germans had actully created deep dugouts that meant they could move into a relatively safe position once the artillery began firing. Once the bombardment stopped, they knew this would mean the infantry would advance, so they moved towards their machine guns to face the British and French army.

As expected, the British soldiers followed the artillery fire with an advance across a 25-mile front. The fact that the Germans were prepared meant that, by the end of the battle in November 1916, the British had lost 420,000 men and the French had lost almost 200,000, while the Germans had lost 500,000. The Allies had succeeded in advancing along a 30 mile strip that was up to seven miles deep, but it had cost them many lives.

Lord Kitchener defended the battle. A strong believer in the theory of attrition - that you should grind down your enemy to force them to yield - he believed it had a huge impact on the Germans. However, the battle had huge political and social consequences across Britain, with many speaking of a “lost generation” and others finding it very hard to justify the loss of 88,000 men for each mile gained.

This negative feeling was not helped by the poor reporting by the newspapers, who were unable to find out what had occurred and so based their reports on less than accurate information. The Daily Chronicle published on 3rd July:

At about 7.30 o'clock this morning a vigourous attack was launched by the British Army. The front extends over some 20 miles north of the Somme. The assault was preceded by a terrific bombardment, lasting about an hour and a half. It is too early to as yet give anything but the barest particulars, as the fighting is developing in intensity, but the British troops have already occupied the German front line. Many prisoners have already fallen into our hands, and as far as can be ascertained our casualties have not been heavy.

However, the soldiers on the front line were of course more than aware of what was really taking place. George Coppard, machine gunner at the Battle of the Somme, wrote:

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. 

During the course of the battle, 51 Victoria Crosses were won by British soldiers, 31 were one by NCO’s and 20 by officers. Of the medals awarded, 17 were awarded hoshumously.

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