Battle of the Somme

Battle of the Somme
A German trench occupied by British soldiers of the 11th Cheshire Regiment during the Battle of the Somme. One soldier keeps watch whist his exhausted comrades sleep where they lie.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Battle of the Somme, fought from 1 July 1916 to 18 November 1916 was a giant Allied offensive against the Germans who were dug in along trenches lining both sides of the Somme River in northern France. This picturesque location was to be the site of one of the most prolonged periods of mass slaughter in history with over one million soldiers either wounded or killed.

A combined British and French offensive, it was designed to take pressure off Verdun, where the Germans had been attacking relentlessly since February. The British Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig was the architect of the battle that relied on a massive 2,000 heavy gun bombardment of the German trenches that lasted virtually continuously for six days when hundreds of thousands of shells rained down upon the German positions. But the Germans were well dug in and waited some 30ft underground for the barrage to cease – a sign that the ground assault was about to begin. The British assumed that the Germans were virtually wiped out and believed that their soldiers could advance on the German trenches with only light resistance.

But when the British attacked on 1 July, the Germans climbed out from their underground bunkers, manned their machine guns and mowed down the advancing enemy in unprecedented numbers. Far from being a simple victory the British losses on that calamitous day were some 58,000 troops were killed or wounded – the worst day in the history of the British Army. A British officer described the terrible scene after that first day:

“The trench was a horrible sight. The dead were stretched out on one side, one on top of each other six feet high. I thought at the time I should never get the peculiar disgusting smell of the vapour of warm human blood heated by the sun out of my nostrils. I would rather have smelt gas a hundred times. I can never describe that faint sickening, horrible smell which several times nearly knocked me up altogether.”

That tragic start set the pattern of what was to continue for the next four months – a war of attrition, with both sides suffering grievous losses for little apparent gain. The main battle subdivided into some 12 separate operations that were each major battles in their own right. One of these was the Battle of Fromelles in which the Australian 5th Division lost over 5,000 men in just 24 hours.

Some features of the Somme gradually emerged that were a little unusual – the first appearance of tanks on the battlefield during the Battle of Flers – Courcelette and the use of aircraft to harass the enemy ground formations. The coordination of these forces, plus that of artillery, pointed to the future development of land warfare. Finally in November after more than 600,000 allied casualties and more than 450,000 German, the battle wound down with the onset of winter. For this obscene loss and maiming of human life the British had managed to advance less than 10km across a 26km front – perhaps a success in military terms but a shocking disaster by virtually any other yardstick. In the words of Friedrich Steinbrecher, a German officer:

“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word”.