The Battle of the Somme, or the Somme Offensive, was fought during World War I on the Western Front. The battle was drawn between the Anglo-French forces of the Entente on one side, and the German Empire on the other. It took place on both sides of the river Somme, in France. More than one million men were wounded or killed during the battle, making it one of the bloodiest in history. At the end of the battle, the British and French had penetrated some 10 km into German occupied territory, taking more ground than in any of their previous offensives since 1914. However the Germans held their ground at Péronne and Bapaume, where they spent the following winter.
The sheer size of the commitment demanded by the Battle of Verdun soon derailed any thoughts of the French Army making the major contribution to the planned offensive on the Somme. Instead, General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, exerted increasing pressure on Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, to launch a British-led offensive as early as possible. Haig preferred to delay as he recognized that many of his new divisions would need time to evolve into a powerful attacking force. Yet Joffre was desperate and Haig had little option but to accept a start date of the 1st of July 1916.
There were no major strategic objectives. The Somme battlefield had been chosen by Joffre simply because it was adjacent to his forces rather than for any more cogent reasons. The Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was charged with carrying out the Somme Offensive, while the Reserve Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, would exploit any breakthrough. The Somme operation demanded logistical preparations which dwarfed anything previously attempted by the BEF.
By June 1916 the BEF comprised well over a million men. Its divisions were organized into five armies and included formations from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. This expansion was the product of colossal feats of improvisation in Britain and her Dominions. The decline of voluntary recruiting had forced Britain to introduce conscription. However, compulsory service had not yet made an impact on the BEF, which, alone among the major armies in mid-1916, was still composed of volunteers. The problem was that relatively few had seen any real action.
The German trenches on the ridges of the Somme bore little resemblance to the single trench line at Neuve Chapelle, or even the series of lines and strong points at Loos. By the summer of 1916 the British were faced by a number of separate trench systems under various stages of completion. Behind belts of barbed wire up to thirty yards thick, the German Front Line System consisted of three trench lines, complete with deep dugouts and a system of linking communication trenches. There were intermediate positions of strong earthwork redoubts such as the Schwaben Redoubt lying behind the Front Line System at Thiepval.
The British response to the complex German defences was to some extent simple: they would rely on the power of their massed guns. Yet the guns were required to clear the barbed wire, destroy several lines of trenches and strong points and eradicate the threat of far more numerous German gun batteries. One tactical innovation employed by some divisions was the ‘creeping barrage’. Another crucial British tactical advance was the integration of aircraft into the battle plans.
The war in the air formed an integral part not only of military planning, but of the practical execution of the bombardments. As the reconnaissance and artillery observation aircraft of both sides became increasingly effective in fulfilling their functions, it became ever more important to thwart them. The most simple expedient was to shoot them down, thus both sides developed the use of anti-aircraft guns. Scout aircraft were also developed to shoot down enemy airplanes. In all the RFC amassed 185 aircraft in the Somme area, plus other aircraft flying on bombing missions. The German Air Force had only 129 aircraft. The Germans were soon struggling.
The preliminary barrage was intended to last for five days, but overcast weather hampered the crucial work of the RFC and there was a two-day postponement. From the British perspective the barrage seemed devastating. At first some of the German garrison looked upon the barrage as little more than a minor inconvenience. Any such attitudes did not survive long as the constant barrage wore away at their defences, slowly eroding their numbers and severely testing their morale. Overall the visual impression of the barrage proved far more devastating than the truth on the ground.
The barrage swelled up to a crescendo and the men got ready to advance across No Man’s Land. This is the moment that has come to symbolize the whole of the Great War. The attack was a disaster. On the left and in the center of the advance the artillery had not achieved its objectives. The German defences, although battered, were still functioning. Further south, the situation was more mixed as British troops attacked the fortress villages of Fricourt and Mametz. Only in the far south of the British line was there any real success. Here the British captured the village of Montauban.
South of the British, the French attack was launched on both sides of the River Somme by their Sixth Army under the command of General Émile Fayolle. The Germans were not expecting an assault here. The French also had the inestimable advantage of copious experience of offensive action over the last eighteen months, in contrast to the British troops. In particular the French artillery was a truly lethal beast which ruthlessly targeted and then silenced the German batteries. The French infantry smashed through the German front lines and soon overran the villages of Frise, Dompierre, Becquincourt and Fay, before pushing on to Herbécourt and Assevillers by the late afternoon. Here they were hit by vicious counterattacks which for the moment stemmed the tide.
The pattern of the fighting appears clear enough from our perspective, but the breakdown in communications on the day was such that few of the senior British generals had much idea of what was happening to their troops. Certainly, the briefings forwarded on to Haig lacked both detail and accuracy – yet he had to make an almost immediate decision as to what do next. What Haig did not know was the scale of the disaster that had befallen the Fourth Army, which had suffered 57,470 casualties. The British tactics were not ill-considered, but they proved inadequate to cope with the augmented strength of the German defences.
There was no question of abandoning the offensive. To abandon that was to abandon France. Without the benefit of hindsight, rightly or wrongly, Haig was determined to resist tactical interference from Joffre and decided to reinforce the relative degree of success attained in the south. To this end he reorganized his forces, directing the Fourth Army under Rawlinson to push on in the southern sector, while Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army – later recast as the Fifth Army – was given the northern sector.
The Germans, meanwhile, had their own tactical issues to consider. Falkenhayn had a clear and simple dictat: that any lost ground should be recaptured immediately, no matter the cost. This intransigence would cost the Germans dearly.
As July wore on, Gough's Reserve Army took over the northern half of the British zone on the Somme, its junction with Fourth Army running just to the south, or right, of the Albert-Bapaume road. Haig rejected Joffre's pleas for him to renew the assault in the tricky central sector of his front from Thiepval to Pozieres and decided instead to try to exploit the early gains on his right, near Montauban. Accordingly, Rawlinson's Fourth Army tried to take Contalmaison, Mametz Wood and Trones Wood to secure the flanks of a forthcoming attack on the German second main position.
The next few days saw a series of piecemeal British attacks intended to improve the tactical position prior to the next ‘Big Push’ against the German Second Line System on Bazentin Ridge. Many of these attacks were hopeless affairs, characterized by a lack of artillery coordination, and with foolishly staggered start times which allowed the Germans to destroy the attacks in sequence. What the British had been working towards was the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. This marked an overdue lurch forward for the British tactical rollercoaster. The instigator of the new plans was Rawlinson.
When the barrage began it was far more concentrated than before. It was also concentrated on a frontage of just 6,000 yards and against trenches which were far less developed than the original German front line. Behind the bursting shells the British infantry moved forward ready to close with the Germans a few seconds after the barrage lifted. When they reached the German trenches there were varying degrees of resistance. The British managed to breach the German Second Line System and capture the villages of Longueval, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. Yet British attempts to exploit partial breakthrough proved stillborn.
The success of the new tactics unveiled at Bazentin did not set the pattern for subsequent British attacks. Instead, there was a failure to concentrate sufficient artillery during a plethora of narrow front attacks which provoked thousands more casualties and only minor gains. Haig railed from the sidelines, but he seemed unable to get a grip on his subordinates too immersed in the day to-day complexities of fighting the battle to look at the bigger picture. The Germans, outnumbered, sent reinforcements from Verdun to the Somme area.
During this first phase on the Somme, the cumulative developments and experimentation that pushed forward the boundaries of air warfare severely disadvantaged the Germans, whose air force was found wanting at this crucial moment. This did not go unnoticed by elements of the German High Command, who were appalled at the consequences of this inability to contest for dominance of the skies on behalf of their troops on the ground. But the Germans were already moving fast to correct the aerial imbalance with a new generation of fighter scouts. Soon the RFC would face a sterner challenge in the skies above the Somme.
The fighting became more and more attritional as the British ground their way forward. Intensive fighting flared first of all around the village of Longueval and Delville Wood. The power of the massed guns allowed the British infantry to capture a local objective; but the German guns allowed them to counterattack successfully. The wood was not completely in British hands until well over a month of fighting. The neighbouring High Wood finally fell to Rawlinson two months later.
The attack was expanded to the north, where Gough’s Reserve Army began a series of operations designed to capture the German Second Line System on the Pozières Ridge and thereby weaken the German grip on Thiepval Spur. The 1st Australian Division, newly arrived from Gallipoli, was flung into the fight. They would find it a brutal awakening to the grim realities of industrialized warfare. The fighting ended with the British taking the plateau north and east of the village.
To the south, Rawlinson did his best to assist the French Sixth Army as it crept towards Peronne, but the Fourth Army was unable to capture Guillemont and Ginchy until the beginning of September. Rawlinson was left in no doubt about Haig's dissatisfaction with repeated attacks by inadequate forces on narrow frontages.
After Pozières, the next objective that lay ahead was Mouquet Farm, hitherto an insignificant name on the map that was to become the graveyard of thousands of young Australians. The farm was won, then lost, then won again. This was the wearing-out phase of the battle. Both sides would come to realise that the Somme – when added to the equivalent attritional blood-letting of Verdun – was a crucial battle in the grim process of grinding down the German reserves. But it was an inhuman business all the same: this was the pity of war. The German soldiers at the front were suffering just as much as their opponents, with the prevailing mood one of despair.
At the level of High Command, the Germans were showing signs of the incredible strain not only of operating on two fronts, but of fighting two major attritional battles at the same time: Verdun and the Somme. When the Brusilov Offensive burst upon the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front, Falkenhayn’s overall strategy was already unravelling. Although his reasons for launching the Verdun Offensive had been cogent, he had underestimated the French will to resist. Falkenhayn was called upon to resign and Paul von Hindenburg was appointed Chief of General Staff, with Erich Ludendorff appointed to the new position of Quartermaster General.
The next major offensive on the Somme would be the battle of Flers-Courcelette. This was the battle intended to reap the rewards from all the hard graft that had preceded it. Success here might foreshorten the war; failure would certainly prolong it. Over ten divisions of the Fourth and Reserve Armies would advance together on the German lines. This was a battle the scale of which would have been unthinkable for the BEF just a year before. It also marked a significant step forward in the British tactical approach to the offensive with the first use of the tank. In the event, the sheer unreliability of the tanks proved greater than expected.
The British were still faced by three defensive trench systems on the Somme. Among the British High Command there was considerable debate as to tactics. In the end the attack was to be carried out on a wide front, but with the main thrust centered on the village of Flers-Courcelette. By now the concept of using a creeping barrage as the troops attacked was fully accepted. But the importance of counter battery fire to silence the German guns was still not properly grasped, and the guns assigned to the task were nowhere near sufficient. The tanks were spread out in small groups with the task of breaching the enemy trenches.
Haig was sufficiently encouraged by the development of the tank to order a thousand shortly after the battle. He was also consoled by the success of the latest version of British offensive tactics. Many of the German First Line positions had been overrun all along the 9,000-yard front, while in the Flers sector the Second Line had been breached to such an extent that a couple of days later the Germans retreated to Le Transloy Ridge. The Germans were in deep trouble, but the British had still not broken through.
Within ten days the British had assimilated some of the lessons learned. In their plans for the Battle of Morval they reined in their ambitions, aiming for an advance of about 1,500 yards to take the latest German front line. The tanks were also used in a more focussed way, following the infantry in order to assist in the destruction of troublesome strong points – in other words, as a useful but secondary weapon. The result was a dramatic success. Indeed, in most places the tanks could not keep up with the infantry as they advanced across the ground razed by the barrage.
Similar tactics brought equal success when Gough attacked Thiepval Spur and Schwaben Redoubt. This triggered an intensive period of vicious fighting, but slowly the British were inching forward and loosening the German grip on the high ground that had remained inviolate since the start of the Somme. Yet there was a price to pay: whenever they captured a German position there always seemed to be more lines ahead of them. In the time it took to organize and execute a ‘bite and hold’ attack, the Germans could dig new trench lines; and so the process rumbled on ad infinitum.
Haig was determined to press on, trusting that the twin hammer blows of the Somme and Verdun would undermine German resolve. This time his plan was fairly simple: keep attacking in order to exert all possible pressure. But the Germans responded to the challenge by moving up more gun batteries and sending in fresh divisions. Once again the campaign degenerated into a series of small-scale assaults launched to ever-diminishing effect throughout October. Failure again became the norm for the British attacks.
By this time the Royal Artillery was relying heavily on the RFC to photograph and chart the exact locations of German trenches and gun batteries before using the aircraft artillery observation to eliminate them. But flying was often impossible due to the inclement weather. Also, the German Air Service was starting to offer more vigorous opposition. The first step was a deadly new aircraft, the Albatros DI. Just as deadly was the codified version of aerial tactics prepared by Captain Oswald Boelcke. Facing these new threats, the British decided to rely on numbers and accept casualties as best as they could.
The conditions on the Somme in the late autumn of 1916 began to match the horrors of Verdun. Morale was declining among the British soldiers called to endure impossible conditions of service. And in front of them the Germans seemed as implacable as ever. By November it was apparent that there was no longer time for the BEF to finish their grim business that year. With the depths of winter looming, it was evident that the German Army was simply too strong. The war would continue deep into 1917.
The priorities of the British High Command changed: now they sought to gain the best possible tactical positions for the winter, ready for the resumption of fighting in the new year. And so there was to be one final attack: the Battle of the Ancre. This time they attacked north towards St Pierre Divion to finally clear the south bank of the Ancre River, while at the same time an assault was made along the line from Serre to Beaucourt on the north bank of the river. During the fighting that followed, Beaucourt fell and the British also made ground on Redan Ridge.
On the Somme, as at Verdun, both sides suffered terrible casualties. By the end of 1916 it was the very nature of war that had changed. Success in battle was not necessarily measured in terms of ground gained, unless it included objectives of supreme tactical significance or threatened a genuine breakthrough of prepared fortifications. Perversely, such success only provoked a wild intensification of counter-attacks. Young men had become a national resource to be measured in millions. But millions at arms meant millions of casualties. Germany was a mighty industrial state, its army second to none, and it was not done yet.
The Somme and the equally ugly Verdun have come to symbolize the Great War: futile battles fought with people’s lives by incompetent and uncaring generals. In particular, for the British, the disaster of the first day on the Somme has become the sole prism through which the conduct of the whole of the Great War has been viewed. Explanations of what went wrong and why are thrust aside; indeed in the past, subdued references to a ‘learning curve’ for the generals have been seen as an insult to the dead. There remains a widespread belief that ‘there must have been a better way’; something else could, or should, have been done; someone must be blamed.