World War I: The Battle Of The Somme

Updated on October 1, 2016

The Trenches

A photo of British troops from the 11th battalion of the Cheshire Regiment stationed in a trench near the Somme River.
A photo of British troops from the 11th battalion of the Cheshire Regiment stationed in a trench near the Somme River. | Source

The Weapon That Transformed Warfare

British troops wearing gas masks using the Vickers machine gun, one of the earliest examples of an automatic weapon at the battle of the Somme.
British troops wearing gas masks using the Vickers machine gun, one of the earliest examples of an automatic weapon at the battle of the Somme. | Source

Background

At the outset of the First World War, military thinkers expected a war of manoeuvre in which cavalry would play its traditional role as a striking arm. At first, something like this actually did happen, and in some areas of the Eastern Front the war retained a nineteenth century character, complete with the odd sabre melee between the opposing cavalry brigades.

In the West, however, it quickly became obvious that the defender had a huge advantage over the attacker. Things had been heading this way for some time. During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, the long range accurate firepower of infantry rifles made assault by infantry or cavalry a hazardous business. Machine guns helped to tip the balance further, though at this time they were far too heavy, making them difficult to redeploy quickly. The war on the Western Front took on many of the characteristics of a siege, with heavily entrenched forces on both sides fighting from behind barbed wire obstacles.

Between the big offensives, the war became one of raid and counter-raid, usually at night, with artillery pounding away at the opposing trenches. Infantry holding the forward positions were subjected to horrible conditions, huddling in their muddy dugouts and enduring bombardment whilst being unable to reply. Being under fire and unable to fight back is one of the most mortally draining experiences men can suffer and morale, was surprisingly a problem.

Something had to be done, for several reasons. The presence of German troops on Allied soil meant that it was not politically viable to sit on the defensive and hope that a naval blockade of Germany would eventually strangle her into submission. The French fortress of Verdun at that time was under pressure too. In short, the German army had to be attacked and defeated. It would be an expensive undertaking in terms of material and casualties, but in January 1916 when the plan was formulated the Allies believed that it could be done.

The Allied Commanders

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the battle of the Somme.
Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the battle of the Somme. | Source
Marshal Joseph Joffre, commander of the French army, and the driving force behind the Allied plan.
Marshal Joseph Joffre, commander of the French army, and the driving force behind the Allied plan. | Source

The Plan

The primary exponent of the plan was the French commander Marshal Joseph Joffre. He wanted an offensive in the Somme area for the reasons listed above, and the British commander, General Sir Douglas Haig was willing to consider it. Haig preferred the idea of an attack somewhere else, such as Flanders, where the terrain was better and there were more strategic objectives. He also wanted to wait for the reinforcements that the new conscription would provide, and for fresh troops from around the Empire to arrive. There was also the possibility that the new secret weapon, codenamed ‘tanks,’ might be some help. However, Joffre could not wait.

Haig proposed an assault in mid-August, but Joffre was adamant that the French army would not exist by then. He had originally proposed to use two French armies in the Somme offensive, but the Verdun meatgrinder reduced the French capabilities, and the original offer of 40 divisions was amended to 16. The remainder would have to come from the British. Nevertheless, the attack seemed to be practicable, and it was vital that something was done, so Haig agreed. The opening date for the offensive was set at the 1st July 1916, and a force comprising 21 divisions was allocated to the initial offensive, with three infantry and five cavalry divisions in reserve to follow up a victory.

The Western Front

A map of the Western Front in 1915/1916.
A map of the Western Front in 1915/1916. | Source

Instruments Of Terror

British 8 inch howitzers, which fired more than a million shells at the German Front Line on the first day of the battle alone.
British 8 inch howitzers, which fired more than a million shells at the German Front Line on the first day of the battle alone. | Source

The British Plan

The British infantry attack plan for the first day of the Somme. The British and French lines are shown as blue and red, whilst the German front, second and third lines are shown as dashed blue lines.
The British infantry attack plan for the first day of the Somme. The British and French lines are shown as blue and red, whilst the German front, second and third lines are shown as dashed blue lines. | Source

Real Footage Of The Battle

Heavy Defences

Although the Somme sector had been fairly quiet for some time, German defensive preparations had been continuous. The trenches were backed by strong-points and dugouts in an impressive defensive complex that also included medical facilities, kitchens, laundries and electrical generating stations. Many of these installations were concealed by woods or villages, and their existence was not obvious to observers on the Allied side.

The Allied would have to cross low ground and fight their way uphill into the first line of German positions, which was overlooked by the second, and so forth. The defenders enjoyed an excellent view of the battlefield, making concealed preparations and manoeuvres very difficult. The defenders also had vast reserves of ammunition and plenty of heavy weapons. Their high position also had psychological advantages whereas the Allied troops would be slogging uphill into the teeth of heavy resistance.

The Allied preparations for the offensive were not only observed from the enemy positions. Operational security was poor, and comments by British and French officers found their way into German intelligence reports. By the time the Allies opened up with their massive military bombardment on the 24th June, the Germans already knew something was up. They had even guessed the date of the intended assault.

Although 1.75 million artillery shells were fired at German positions in a six day preparatory bombardment, the defences were not seriously disrupted. Artillery fire was supposed to cut enemy wire, but all it tended to do was move it around and tangle it up even more. Muddy shell craters were tough going, and just to add to the misery heavy rain turned the whole area into quagmire.

Although conscription had been introduced in Britain, most of the troops waiting to go over the top were in volunteer units from Kitchener’s New Army. Among the attackers were several notable names, including future military commanders Montgomery and Wavell, as well as Siegfried Sassoon and John Masefield.

On the German side the troops, who included an Austrian volunteer corporal named Adolf Hitler, were ready to receive and repel an assault. Although they did have to deal with a six day bombardment, while huddling like frightened rabbits in their deep bunkers. Overall though, the defenders were in pretty good shape to deal with the coming attack. Their artillery was registered by map grid on the entire battlefield, and fire could be called down quickly on any enemy concentration.

The defenders could see the ground in front of their positions clearly, and were aware of choke points and obvious routes that attackers would be channelled into. Their machine guns were ready to sweep these areas as the enemy passed through them. If, somehow, the first trench line were taken, the defenders could fall back to secondary positions and carry on the fight from there.

The Attack Begins

The Tyneside Irish Brigade advancing on the first day of the battle.
The Tyneside Irish Brigade advancing on the first day of the battle. | Source

Helping The Fallen

A wounded man from the Newfoundland Regiment is led away from the field by a comrade on the first day of the Somme.
A wounded man from the Newfoundland Regiment is led away from the field by a comrade on the first day of the Somme. | Source

The First Day

The offensive began at 7:30 a.m. on the 1st July, much as the Germans had predicted. All along the line, the attacking units lurched into motion, and the defenders began firing at them. The British forces went into action in long lines, proceeding at a walk across difficult terrain and stopping to struggle past tangles of wire. Initial reports to Haig were rather optimistic. As the clock struck 8, he was forced to record that everything was going well and the first enemy positions had been overrun. This was somewhat inaccurate. The reality was that British troops were being cut down in their thousands, often just beyond their trenches or gaps in the wire that were becoming choked with bodies. Meanwhile, the French forces were also struggling. Their soldiers were less heavily burdened that the British and used more flexible tactics, rushing from position to position while others covered the advance with rifle fire. Although their casualties were lighter, the French force under General Fayolle did not have the numbers to smash a hole in the German lines.

Scene Of Destruction

An aerial photo of the battlefield taken in early July 1916 from a British barrage balloon.
An aerial photo of the battlefield taken in early July 1916 from a British barrage balloon. | Source

Horrific Casualties

The first day of the Somme resulted in some 57,470 British casualties, of whom almost 20,000 were killed. Only 585 were captured, mainly because few of the British troops got close enough to the German lines. Some units, such as the Canadian 1st Newfoundland Regiment, had been effectively wiped out. This horrific slaughter was made worse by the ponderous linear formation used by attacking units, although with such inexperienced troops there may have been no alternative.

The British had attacked with 200 battalions in 17 divisions of about 100,000 men. Of these, only five divisions got any men into the enemy position at all. The rest were halted in no man’s land. It was for not lack of trying though, but the defenders were simply too strong. The Tyneside Irish Regiment, numbering about 3000 men, suffered nearly 100 per cent casualties. The regiment began its advance behind the main start line, in support of the initial attack. Despite the fact that this formation was not an immediate threat to the defenders, it came under such withering fire as it moved up that it never crossed the start line. A total of 500 men were killed or wounded in one battalion and 600 in another. Casualties might have been even higher, but for the fact that many defenders became so sickened by the slaughter that they ceased fire once the attackers in their sector stalled, and allowed the survivors to retreat unmolested.

The Bloody Struggle

A photo showing a destroyed German trench along with dead troops taken in September 1916.
A photo showing a destroyed German trench along with dead troops taken in September 1916. | Source

Struggle Of Attrition

Despite the fact that fully 20 per cent of the attacking force had been killed, the Allies kept on attacking. Perhaps they had no alternative. Pressure had to be taken off Russia and Verdun somehow and there was no time to build up for an offensive elsewhere. Logistics took too long, and the Allies needed to act now. Men could be fed in, but supplies and ammunition stocks took time to assemble. The Allies had to succeed on the Somme or at least pull in enough German reinforcements to reduce the pressure elsewhere.

At first the slaughter was very much one sided as the Allies threw in new assaults and these were chewed up by the machine guns and artillery, or stalled on the wire. It may have seemed that the Allies were simply throwing away lives, and at first this may have been the case. For example, one German regiment took 180 casualties on the first day of the Somme whereas the British force facing it lost more than 25 times as many men.

For a fortnight little was achieved. Then, on the 14th July a force of French and British troops managed to make some gains along the flanks of the Somme River. Minor gains followed, but the cost was immense, and fresh troops were fed into the battle on a regular basis as shattered formations had to be pulled out. Through July and August the slaughter went on, though now it was less one sided. Forty two German divisions were deployed to the Somme sector in those two months, and the necessity of counter attacking Allied gains resulted in heavy casualties. At the end of July, casualties reached 200,000 for the Allies and 160,000 among German troops. The Allies had only advanced a mere 3 miles, and even by the end of August, very little had changed.

A New Weapon

A British Mark I 'male' tank, which made its debut in the battle in late September 1916.
A British Mark I 'male' tank, which made its debut in the battle in late September 1916. | Source

World War One Tanks In Action

New Ideas

Tactics had been evolving during the long struggle, and the raw British troops had learned from their more experienced French counterparts. Techniques like pre-dawn attacks had achieved some successes. The Allies were becoming more flexible and inventive. It was time to try something new. The main problems facing the Allies were wire and machine guns, and now they, potentially had a means to deal with both. Created specifically as a machine gun destroyer, the monstrous armoured fighting machine known as a ‘tank’ made its first appearance. At this time tanks came in two types. ‘Male’ tanks mounted a main armament of 6 pounder guns derived from naval weapons, whilst ‘female’ tanks carried only machine guns. Both types were slow, prone to mechanical breakdown and required a large crew to operate. They could cross trenches, crush wire and, usually shrug off small arms and machine gun fire, which gave them a fighting chance.

Thirty six tanks were deployed for a renewed assault, despite the fact that their crews were not fully trained. Only 18 went into action as the rest had broken down, but their appearance shocked the defenders into a panic. The Allies gained 3500 yards for a relatively slight cost, easily the biggest success of the offensive to date. However, it was not possible to exploit the breakthrough and several tanks were lost to artillery fire. The rest either broke down or simply got stuck.

Tanks were not a decisive weapon on the Somme, mainly because they were committed in difficult terrain and in small numbers. Their success prompted further experiments, which were locally useful but achieved little on a strategic scale. That would change with the massed tank action at Cambrai in 1917, but for now the tank was simply another factor in a desperate struggle.

Recovering The Wounded

Stretcher bearers recovering a wounded soldier in late September 1916- the final phase of the battle.
Stretcher bearers recovering a wounded soldier in late September 1916- the final phase of the battle. | Source

The Offensive Winds Down

As the weather worsened through October and November, the Allies attacked again and again, battering the German positions until the 19th November, when the operation was ceased. At that point the Allies had advanced more than 7 miles along a 20 mile front. In mid-November, the casualty figures came to 419,654 for the British and 194,541 for the French. Remember also that, at the same time the large scale slaughter of human life was on-going at Verdun. These immense losses- just short of 615,000- were sustained in failing to break through the Somme positions. However, the German army took 650,000 casualties in repelling the assault, bringing with it serious repercussions in terms of the overall outcome of the war. The German army in 1914 was a splendid military instrument built on Prussian military traditions and impressive victories in France and Austria. As 1917 began it was a tired and dispirited force whose best men had fallen in the bloodbath that was the Somme. In fact so many good young officers and NCO’s had fallen that the German army never really recovered.

Battle's End

A map of the Somme battlefield showing the progression of the battle from July-November 1916.
A map of the Somme battlefield showing the progression of the battle from July-November 1916. | Source

A BBC Docu-Drama About The Somme

Aftermath

The Somme shook the confidence of the British army in its commanders and political leaders. It finished Joffre’s military career, though Haig was promoted to Field Marshal at the end of the year. The battle is remembered mostly as the worst slaughter in British military history, but in some ways it did manage to achieve its aims. The German army had received a thorough bashing and were utterly dismayed at the sheer doggedness of their attackers. In February 1917 it fell back to the more easily defendable Hindenburg Line.

Casualties Of The Somme

Nationality
Total Casualties
Killed/Missing
Prisoners
United Kingdom
350,000+
 
 
Canada
24,029
 
 
Australia
23,000
 
<200
New Zealand
7,408
 
 
South Africa
3000+
 
 
Newfoundland
2000+
 
 
Total British Commonwealth
419,654
95,675
 
French
204,253
50,756
 
Total Allied
623,907
146,431
 
Germany
465,000
164,055
31,000

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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 14 months ago from Sittingbourne

      Excellent and well researched article with relevant photos. Thank you for filling in many factual gaps.

      kind regards Peter

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Julia.

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 4 years ago from Southern California, USA

      Very concise summary on the Battle of the Somme.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you Eddy.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      Well written,interesting and useful. Thanks for sharing and I share all around too.

      Eddy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Agreed Chris.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Something I hope is never repeated. World War One was just madness on all sides.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's a good point rfmoran. I think the problem was that you had men schooled in 19th century warfare fighting a war with 20th century weaponry. I remember watching a documentary about the Battle of Jutland, and apparently they were still using flags to signal other ships, despite the fact that the flags were invisible against a backdrop of smoke pumping out of the modern destroyers.

    • rfmoran profile image

      Russ Moran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

      Great hub voted up and awesome. One wonders, although I'm sure books have been written about this, why air power, new as it was. didn't make more of a difference, both for surveillance and for bombing hardened defenses. Excellent and concise summary of a tragic battle.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's a very interesting parallel you make there UH, as both WW1 and Vietnam ultimately became unpopular wars. But to be honest every conflict since 1914 has been unpopular. I often wonder whether H.G. Wells was being metaphorical when he described the Great War as 'the war to end all wars.' Personally I consider WW1 as an end to the popular image of warfare, an image of romance, prestige and honour. It's always sucked, it's that just when WW1 came along, everybody figured it out.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      JK, another great hub. On that first day the British were indeed burdened with heavy backpacks that slowed them down, but they were UNDER ORDERS to walk across No Man's Land because strict timetables had to be adhered to. The British generals certainly impressed the Germans by continuing to feed troops into the butchery of the Somme. Reminds me of the American Generals who wanted to impress the Russians by feeding American soldiers into Vietnam to show that they were willing to sacrifice soldiers and that the "decadent" and "soft" youth of America could be counted on to fight and die even for a lost cause. War sucks. Voted up, awesome and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      You're absolutely right Judi; a complete and total shambles, as was the rest of the war to be brutally honest. Thanks for popping by- nice to hear from you again.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 4 years ago from UK

      The Allies couldn't have done a better job of announcing their intentions than with those days of shelling prior to the assault. I know it's easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight, but what an absolute shambles.

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