The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles that occurred during World War I. It took place near the Somme River in France and lasted from July 1 to November 18 in 1916.
Who fought at the Battle of the Somme?
The battle was fought between the Allies (British and French) on one side and the German Empire on the other. Many of the British soldiers saw their first fighting at the Battle of the Somme. They were part of a volunteer army called Kitchener's Army because they were recruited by Lord Kitchener. Groups within the army were called Pal's battalions because the volunteers were guaranteed to be placed in battalions with their friends and neighbors.
Troops attacking from the trenches
Source: Library and Archives Canada
Who were the leaders?
The British were led by Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig. Other Allied leaders included French General Ferdinand Foch and British General Henry Rawlinson. The German commanders included General Rupprecht (the Crown Prince of Bavaria), General Max von Gallwitz, and General Fritz von Below.
Leading up to the Battle
For nearly two years since the First Battle of the Marne, the two sides had been engaged in trench warfare along the western front. The front had hardly moved. The British and French were planning a major offensive attack at the Somme in hopes of breaking the stalemate and pushing the Germans out of France.
However, their plans were changed when the Germans went on the offensive and attacked the French at the Battle of Verdun. French troops were sent to Verdun to hold off the Germans. The French also demanded that the British push up the attack at the Somme from August 1st to July 1st in hopes that German forces would be diverted from Verdun to the Somme.
Tanks were first used at the Battle of the Somme Photo by Ernest Brooks
Before the actual attack, the Allies began by bombarding the German lines. They believed that this bombardment would destroy the front lines of the German trenches allowing the soldiers to walk in and take over. They bombarded the Germans constantly for eight straight days with 3,000 guns. They fired over 1,600,000 shells.
However, the Germans were warned of the bombardment. They took shelter and waited. Little real damage was done to the German fortifications and many of the British shells were duds and never even exploded.
The Allied commanders refused to take warning that the bombardment didn't work. After eight days, on July 1, 1916, they ordered the attack. Thousands of British soldiers got out of their trenches and began to advance on the German lines. They were easily gunned down by the Germans. It was the worst day in the history of British warfare. They suffered around 60,000 casualties including 20,000 dead on that first day of battle.
Despite the heavy casualties, the Allies continued to attack. They didn't let up on the attack until November 18. During that time they gained around seven miles of territory, but suffered around 623,000 casualties including 423,000 British and 200,000 French. The Germans had around 500,000 casualties.
With over 1,000,000 total casualties on each side, the Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Battle of the Somme Map. Author unknown.
(Click map for larger view)
Historians today dispute the impact of the battle. Some say that British Commander Haig wasted men and resources in a flawed battle plan. Others say that he had no choice but to move ahead with the attack in order to relieve the French at the Battle of Verdun.
Interesting Facts about the Battle of the Somme
Because many men from the same town were grouped together in the British Pal's battalions, when a battalion was wiped out, often this meant that all the men from a given town in Britain were killed.
The first tanks to engage in battle were at the Battle of the Somme.
The British commanders were so confident the German defenses were destroyed that they loaded down the attacking soldiers with supplies and ordered them to walk. These soldiers were quickly gunned down.
The Allies lost around 89,000 men per mile of territory gained.
The attack ended in November mostly due to heavy snow in the region.