Battle of the Somme: A Sunlit Picture of Hell

The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in history, and it characterized the Western Front during the First World War.

Jul 30, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
battle of somme

 

SUMMARY

  • The Battle of the Somme took place in 1916 during World War I and aimed to break the deadlock on the Western Front.
  • The British and French forces planned a joint offensive on the German lines near the River Somme. However, the Germans were aware of their plans and heavily fortified their defenses.
  • The battle lasted for five months, resulting in over 600,000 Allied casualties and little territorial gain. It is considered a costly and futile battle that exemplifies the larger tragedy of World War I.

 

Midway through 1916, the Great War had been raging for two years. The battle lines were static, as the defensive capabilities of each nation were far greater than their opponents’ offensive capabilities. Attacks foundered in no man’s land as heavy machine-gun fire raked the oncoming masses, adding more individuals to the fallen dead. Artillery pounded around the clock, deafening the combatants and driving them insane. The British hoped for a breakthrough. The Battle of the Somme was meant to smash the deadlock and turn the tide in favor of the Allies. Instead, it became just another meat grinder, culling the flower of Europe’s youth.

 

Background to the Battle of the Somme

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Colorized photograph of French troops at Verdun, from Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images, via History

 

In 1915, at the Chantilly Conference, the Allies agreed that they would begin planning a combined and coordinated strategic offensive on all fronts against the Central Powers. The effort on the Western Front would consist of British and French forces making a combined push on a 40-kilometer (25-mile) section of the German lines near the River Somme.

 

Before the battle had even begun, however, the Allies ran into a strategic conundrum. In February 1916, the Germans attacked the French lines at Verdun. With a huge portion of the French troops occupied in other areas, not only did the British find themselves without the full complement expected for the Somme Offensive, but they were forced to start the battle early in order to relieve the pressure on their French allies at Verdun.

 

The Allied Commanders Formulate Plans

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Field Marshal Douglas Haig, via BBC

 

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Since it was a joint operation, the Allies had to consider the fact that they had two commanders. The British Empire Forces (BEF) were led by General Douglas Haig, while the French forces were led by Joseph Joffre. French general Marshal Ferdinand Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander, so despite the British forming the bulk of the offensive forces at the Somme, Haig would be answerable to the Foch and have to take French decisions into consideration.

 

Despite the difficult situation, Haig was confident that the Allied forces could achieve a breakthrough in the German lines instead of simply pushing them back. Haig’s plan focused on three main areas. In the north, the British Third Army, and in the south, the French Sixth Army, would make diversionary attacks. In the center, the British Fourth Army would enact the bulk of the offensive operation. If successful in breaking the German lines, the cavalry in reserve would be able to move in swiftly and roll up the German forces. In all, Haig expected the Allies to advance 25,000 meters (27,000 yards).

 

Unbeknownst to the British and the French, however, the plans were already known to the Germans, who had been informed by two British soldiers weeks in advance. The Germans, thus, put extra effort into fortifying the defenses along the area. Commanding the German troops were Rupprecht of Bavaria, Max von Gallwitz, and Fritz von Below.

 

In total, the Allies would field 2,500,000 men while the Germans had 1,000,000 to hold the line.

 

The Battle of the Somme Begins

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Map of the Battle of the Somme, from A History of the World in 500 Maps, Thames & Hudson, 2023, via Maps on the Web

 

On June 24, 1916, the Allies began the preparatory artillery bombardment, and on July 1, the Anglo-French infantry attacked across a wide front. The British army included soldiers from all over the empire, including Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada.

 

In the south, the French Sixth Army and the right wing of the British Fourth Army experienced significant successes and were able to inflict defeats on the German Second Army. In the North, however, the offensive was a complete disaster.

 

On the first day, 20,000 British and British Empire soldiers died, most of them in the first hour. Another 37,000 were wounded. The first day of the Battle of the Somme would set the tone for another 140 days. It was the bloodiest day in British military history.

 

This first action was known as the Battle of Albert and it lasted until July 13. Following the Battle of Albert was the Battle of Bazentin Ridge which lasted for three days. Four divisions of the British Fourth Army pushed forward under a creeping barrage. Their objectives were the towns of Bazentin le Petit, Bazentin le Grand, and Longueval. The attack was a success, but disorganizaion, high casualties, and communication problems made following up the attack an almost impossible task despite the German defenses being put under heavy pressure.

 

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A destroyed German trench at Delville Wood, via the National Army Museum, London

 

Nevertheless the Battle of Fromelles followed on July 19-20 in an attempt to support the advance of the British Fourth Army and to exploit the weakened German line. The preparations were hasty and the Germans had expected it. Australians did the bulk of the fighting and dying, losing over 5,000 men. It was described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.”

 

Next, it would be the turn of the South Africans to prove themselves as the second phase of Allied attacks began. From July 15 to September 15, the Allies would fight bitterly to secure the British right flank so that the center could advance. The Battle of Delville Wood would be the trial by fire of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade which held the wood for the first five days of the battle. They lost over 2,500 men in the process before being relieved. After two months of fighting, the flank was finally secured, but the cost had made the victory pyrrhic.

 

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The mad gaze of a soldier suffering from shellshock, via Rare Historical Photos

 

The rest of July and August was marked by confusion. Poor communication led to a breakdown in the ability to coordinate attacks, and without support, many thousands of men made attacks across no man’s land without any hope of victory whatsoever. The Anglo-French command was forced to pause and reassess their situation, which allowed the Germans the opportunity to counterattack and drag the Battle of the Somme out even longer. Poor weather also hampered opportunities for quick victories, and the soldiers were forced into miserable conditions as rain turned the trenches into a muddy hell.

 

September to November

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An Mk I tank making its way to the front line on September 15, via the National Army Museum, London

 

The month of September saw a renewed Allied push. On September 3, the village of Guillemont was captured in an effort to disrupt the German defences around the salient created by the capture of Delville Wood. The Germans made a great effort to retake the position, and six Anglo-French divisions were required to hold the newly won prize. With the capture of the town of Ginchy a few days later, and the success of the French armies, a general attack was in order across the entire battle line.

 

On September 15, the third and final offensive began. For seven days, the Allies pushed forward making territorial gains and inflicting heavy casualties on the defenders. This point in the battle saw the first use of tanks in war. The British used the battle to experiment with new ways to maneuver with tanks and infantry.

 

The month of September saw the biggest advances, and inflicted the most casualties on the German defenders.

 

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A British soldier dresses the wounds of a German prisoner, July 19, from Robert Hunt Library / Windmill Books / UIG / Getty Images, via Mashable

 

The British and French forces experienced minor victories throughout the next few weeks, especially the French on the right flank who had managed to make considerable headway.

 

Nevertheless, the months of combat had taken their toll. Progress was slow, and morale began to crumble as the breakthrough that had been hoped for failed to materialize. Winter was approaching, and on November 18, Haig put an end to offensive operations, effectively ending the Battle of the Somme.

 

The Aftermath of the Battle of the Somme

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Casualties and fatalities during the Battle of the Somme, via Statista

 

Five months of fighting had seen the Anglo-French forces advance a total of six miles. It took 600,000 casualties and failed to achieve the desired breakthrough. The Germans had lost over half a million men in casualties in the fighting as well, but their armies survived and although they had been pushed back, their defensive line was intact.

 

No side could claim victory at the Somme. With over 300,000 fatalities in total, it was a grievous wound to both sides of the conflict.

 

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British soldiers go “over the top” into no man’s land, via DK Findout!

 

The Battle of the Somme is remembered today by the British as the most famous battle of the First World War. It was costly and futile, serving as an example of the entire war itself.

 

Modern scholars debate the various factors of the battle, with some arguing that the British effort was ill-conceived and plagued by poor decision-making. This viewpoint was most famously taken up by Winston Churchill. Many academics argue, however, that the British had no alternative as to how to conduct the offensive. Technological progress at the time determined how the battle – and the war – was ultimately fought.

 

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The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Battle of the Somme, via Football and the First World War

 

The Battle of the Somme was characteristic of the First World War. It was a long, and intensely bloody affair with very little to show for the monumental effort that was thrown into it. After the war, Douglas Haig was hailed as a hero, but as the decades wore on after his death, and as public political sentiment evolved, Haig’s legacy devolved into one of being the stereotypical officer, out of touch with the common man, and responsible for sending millions to their death in ill-considered plans.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.