The 1916 Somme offensive was one of the greatest battles of World War One (1914-18). The opening day of the attack, 1 July 1916, saw the British Army sustain 57,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in its history. The campaign finally ended in mid-November after an agonising five-month struggle that failed to secure a breakthrough.
At the start of World War One, the Germans invaded France through Belgium. They hoped to capture Paris before turning east to fight Russia. By October it was clear that their plan for quick victory had failed. The Germans ‘dug-in’ on the ground they held in France and Belgium. The trenches extended from the Channel in the north to the Swiss border in the south. With so much territory in enemy hands a negotiated peace might favour the Germans. As a result, the Allies mounted a series of unsuccessful attacks in 1915 to break the stalemate.
In 1916 a new plan was developed. A ‘Big Push’ on the Western Front would coincide with attacks by Russia and Italy elsewhere. The British wanted to attack in Belgium, but the French demanded an operation at the point in the Allied line where the two armies met. This was on the River Somme in northern France. The attack was planned for August along a 25-mile (40km) front.
On 21 February 1916, aiming to wear down the French in a battle of attrition, the Germans attacked Verdun. In order to assist the French, the Somme offensive was launched earlier than planned with the inexperienced 'New Armies' providing the bulk of the British troops involved.
General Sir Douglas Haig’s plan was that while Lieutenant-General Sir Edmund Allenby’s British Third Army made a diversionary attack in the north and the French Sixth Army attacked in the south, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth British Army would break through in the centre. Lieutenant-General Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army, including cavalry, would then exploit this gap and roll up the German line.
The British and Empire forces were commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928). Under pressure to attack at a time and place not of his choosing, Haig also disagreed with his senior commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson. The latter advocated modest ‘bite and hold’ tactics, having little confidence in the potential for a breakthrough, while Haig was more optimistic.
At this stage of the war the French were the ‘senior’ partner in the alliance so Haig also had to accommodate their views. General Ferdinand Foch (1851-1929) led the French on the Somme. Originally their planned commitment was much greater, but the desperate situation at Verdun reduced their role in the operation.
The Germans, on the defensive, were commanded by Generals Max von Gallwitz (1852-1937) and Fritz von Below (1853-1918). Their men were stationed behind a formidable set of defences, the strength of which had been underestimated by Allied intelligence.
On 24 June 1916 a seven-day preliminary bombardment began. Haig’s artillery was expected to destroy German defences and guns, and cut the barbed wire in front of the enemy lines. When the attack began, it would provide a creeping barrage behind which the infantry could advance. The British believed that the Germans would be so shattered by this bombardment that the infantry would rush over and occupy their trenches.
They had overestimated the power of their artillery. The guns were too thinly spread for the task in hand. Although they fired 1.5 million shells, two-thirds of them were shrapnel, which threw out steel balls when they exploded. These were devastating against troops in the open, but largely ineffective against concrete dugouts and the men sheltering in them. Furthermore, it has been estimated that as many as 30 per cent of the shells failed to explode. As a result the German defences were not destroyed and in many places the wire remained uncut.
At 7.30am on 1 July 1916, 14 British divisions attacked. In most cases they were unable to keep up with the barrage that was supposed to take them through to the German trenches. This gave the Germans time to scramble out of their dugouts, once the barrage had lifted, man their trenches and open fire. Haig’s infantry were met by a storm of machine-gun, rifle and artillery fire and suffered over 57,000 casualties during the day. Although the French made good progress in the south and there were some local successes, in most places the attack was a bloody failure. But with the French still under pressure at Verdun, there was no question of calling off the offensive.
More attacks were mounted between 3 and 13 July, and a further 25,000 men were lost. Gradually, the British tactics improved. On 14 July four British divisions made a dawn attack on Longueval Ridge. Supported by an intense artillery bombardment, they caught the Germans by surprise and by mid-morning they had captured the ridge. Attacks continued through the summer, mostly on a series of individual objectives with the Germans frequently mounting counter-attacks of their own.
The offensive eventually included 12 separate battles, many of which became slogging matches that lasted for weeks. On 15 September the British used tanks for the first time, in support of an attack on Flers-Courcelette. They advanced about 1.5 miles (2km), but no breakthrough was made. Finally, on 18 November 1916, Haig shut down the offensive after the weather had deteriorated. For an advance of seven miles (12km) the British Empire had suffered 420,000 casualties and the French 200,000. German losses were at least 450,000 killed and wounded.
The Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in history. For many, the offensive exemplified futile slaughter and military incompetence. While Haig’s tactics were sometimes inflexible and remain controversial to this day, such views ignore the fact that the Somme was a tough lesson in how to fight a large-scale war. A more professional and effective Army emerged from it. The tactics developed there, including the use of tanks and creeping barrage, laid some of the foundations of the Allies’ successful attacks in 1918.
The objective of relieving pressure on the French at Verdun was achieved. Indeed, Haig had no option but to fight on the Somme. Abandoning the French at Verdun would have greatly tested the unity of the Entente.
Enemy casualties were equally heavy and, with a smaller pool of manpower, Germany was less able to sustain such losses. One German officer described the battle 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. In the spring of 1917 the Germans retreated to the ‘Hindenburg Line’, a shortened defensive position. This move was caused by troop shortages resulting from the Somme fighting.
The huge losses among the ‘Pal’s Battalions’ of the ‘New Armies’ plunged many British communities into grief. Ever since, the Somme, and especially the first day, has become a popular symbol for the ‘futility’ of war.
The battle’s position in the public consciousness was reinforced by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell’s film ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916). During its first six weeks it was seen by nearly 20 million people in the UK, almost half the population - a record only eclipsed by ‘Star Wars’ in 1977. For many at home it was their first glimpse of the reality of trench warfare. Some scenes were staged for the camera but most show real events.
The popular image of a ‘futile’ battle led by ‘incompetent’ generals increased after Haig’s death in 1928. Through their memoirs, writers such as Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves became the voices of the war generation. In the 1930s criticism by historian Basil Liddell Hart and wartime prime minister David Lloyd George added to this image.
The debate rose again in the 1960s, as interest in the war grew. Alan Clark tore into the reputations of the generals with his book ‘The Donkeys’ (1961). Joan Littlewood’s musical ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’ (1963) and later the BBC drama ‘The Monocled Mutineer’ (1986) and comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ (1989) added to the popular stereotype.
Writers like John Terraine, Gary Sheffield and William Philpott have re-assessed the Somme and the role of commanders like Haig, concluding that the battle was actually an Allied strategic success. Despite their best endeavours, the popular view is still one of bloody failure.
Over 150,000 British soldiers are buried on the Somme. The cemeteries there were created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) and have become sites of pilgrimage and tourism. The Royal British Legion and the CWGC remember the battle on 1 July each year at Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates 72,000 officers and men who have no known grave.