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Date
1st July – 18th November 1916

Location
Somme, Picardy, France

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War
World War One

Combatants
Germany VS United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa

Outcome
Inconclusive

The 1916 Battle of the Somme caused a total of 1 million casualties on all sides. the total is over a million casualties. The Allies had gained very little ground. At the end of the battle, they had gained only 7 miles and were still about 3 miles short of their goal from the first day of the war. The Somme, along with Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive, were among the bloodiest in world history up to that point. According to John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme was the greatest British tragedy of the twentieth century: “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.” For many, the battle exemplified the ‘futile’ slaughter and military incompetence of the First World War. Yet a more professional and effective army emerged from the battle. And the tactics developed there, including the use of tanks and creeping barrages, laid some of the foundations of the Allies’ successes in 1918. The Somme also succeeded in relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun. Abandoning them would have greatly tested the unity of the Entente. One German officer described the Battle of the Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German Field Army’. That army never fully recovered from the loss of so many experienced junior and non-commissioned officers.

  1. Background

    1. General Douglas Haig, Commander of the First British Army, wanted to relieve pressure on the French. He also wanted to capture as many guns and other German military equipment as possible.

    2. Allied high commanders thought that a massive, coordinated attack along a wide front might break the Germans. It would keep the Germans from shifting forces from one front to another.

    3. The plan was to overrun the German front line at the Somme, then pause, then take the second line and then the open country beyond.

    4. The Germans had an incredibly complex and well-fortified system of trenches.

    5. The British would fire nearly 1500 artillery pieces and would extensively use the RAF prior to the attack. The RAF was now equal in strength to the German Air Force.

    6. 19 British and 3 French divisions would participate in the attack. The British commander would be Henry Rawlinson.

  1. The Attack Begins

    1. The British barrage began on June 24. About 1.7 million shells were fired. Many were duds, and many others just churned up the earth.

    2. The infantry assault, originally planned for the 29th, was postponed for two days due to the weather.

    3. July 1: The British fired 500,000 shells and set off mines under the German defenses. Then British and French forces attacked. They followed behind “creeping barrages,” in which shells were fired just ahead of the advancing infantry.

    4. The attack was a disaster, largely because the artillery barrage had not done much damage. Barbed wire had not been cut by the shelling, and the German trenches were still in good shape.

    5. British soldiers carried 60 pounds of equipment, which slowed them down. German machine guns cut the attackers to pieces.

    6. This day was the bloodiest single day of the entire war. The British alone lost nearly 60,000 casualties (19,000 dead)…60% of the attacking force. The Germans only lost 6000.

    7. The British did not do a good job of coordinating attacks; instead they attacked piecemeal. Nevertheless, they captured two German-held villages.

    8. Still, in subsequent attacks, the British pushed the Germans back, taking 20 square miles in the first 13 days of the battle. The French also made gains, breaking through the German lines and taking several villages. But they had to slow down due to the slowness of the British advance.

  1. Summer Fighting

    1. On 14 July the British attacked at night toward the German positions at Longeval. They captured the German front line of trenches. Peter Hart: “The British had indeed succeeded in breaking in to the German system, but not in breaking through it.”

    2. On July 22 another British attack failed. The Germans delivered devastating fire from machine guns in shell holes.

    3. Five days later, the British launched another invasion that took Delville Wood and Longeval.

    4. In August, French and British forces took additional German trenches.

    5. Falkenhayn ordered that every bit of territory must be regained. A German counterattack was ordered, but it failed.

    6. The French attacked Maurepas and captured it. A few days later, the British launched an attack on Guillemont.

    7. August 29: The German government fired Erich von Falkenhayn and replaced him with Hindenburg. Ludendorff became quartermaster general of the German Army. Ludendorff ordered the formation of storm trooper units.

    8. August 31: The Germans recaptured all the gains the Allies had made over the previous two weeks.

  1. Fall Fighting

    1. On September 3, the British launched another attack at Delville Wood. The attack succeeded. At the end of the attack, the British Army was about 3 miles east of its original position, and the French had advanced even further.

    2. On September 15, the British used tanks for the first time in a new offensive against Fiers and Courcelette. 49 were used, and 13 were destroyed. Almost all of the remaining 36 broke down at some point. General Haig was nevertheless impressed with the tanks and ordered 1000 more. In the attack, the British took part of the third German line.

    3. On that same day, Hindenburg proclaimed “The main task of the Armies is now to hold fast on all positions on the Western, Eastern, Italian, and Macedonian Fronts, and to employ all other available forces against Romania.” Falkenhayn was sent to command German forces in Transylvania.

    4. On September 26, the French and British began an attack on Morval and Thiepval Ridge in the early morning mists. Prior to the attack, the Allies fired 400,000 shells. One tank alone cleared out much of the German third line, inflicting many casualties. The Germans fell back to their fourth, fifth and sixth trench lines. These were the greatest British gains in the battle thus far.

    5. In early October, Haig planned another new offensive which would take 25 miles. (Very ambitious!) When the attack was launched, it was mostly a failure. The Germans saw the attack coming, and the weather favored them. Their defense was dogged.

    6. On October 14-18, the French took the front German line near Belloy-en-Santerre. A British attack at about the same time failed.

    7. On November 5, Haig ordered an attack on Le Transloy. It failed.

    8. Then Haig ordered another attack, which began on November 13. Soldiers sank up to their waists in the mud. As often there was much uncut barbed wire. Officers were mowed down by machine guns. Rifles would not fire due to being clogged by mud. Still, the British took the town of Beaumont Hamel. They also took St. Pierre-Divion. They took 5000 German prisoners.

    9. On November 17, the first snow fell on the Somme battlefield. One day later, the British attacked in the “Battle of the Anchor.” That would be the last engagement of the Battle of the Somme.

  1. Results

    1. Estimates of casualties at the Somme vary widely. Historian Martin Gilbert estimates that about 146,000 Allied soldiers died, while 164,000 Germans died. Adding wounded, captured, and missing, the total is over a million casualties.

    2. The Allies had gained very little ground. At the end of the battle, they had gained only 7 miles and were still about 3 miles short of their goal from the first day of the war.

    3. The Somme, along with Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive, were among the bloodiest in world history up to that point.

    4. According to John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme was the greatest British tragedy of the twentieth century: “The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered.”

    5. Haig claimed that by conducting the Battle of the Somme, he accomplished three things: relieving the pressure on the French at Verdun, pinning the German army to the western front, and wearing the German army out through constant fighting. In fact, he accomplished none of these.

    6. One French general wrote “This battle has…always been a battle without an objective. There is no question of breaking through. And if a battle is not for breaking through, what is its purpose?”

    7. Haig and other Allied commanders thought that the German army was beginning to crack. But was it?

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"Battle of The Somme" History on the Net
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November 28, 2020 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/battle-of-the-somme>
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