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Forces War Records Blog

THE 101ST ANNIVERSARY OF THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME - THE BEGINNING OF THE BATTLE

July 1st, marks the 101st Anniversary of the ‘Battle of the Somme’, which was the main Allied attack on the Western Front during the First World War. It was also one of the bloodiest. On the first day of the offensive, 58,000 British troops were lost (20,000 of whom were killed) as they 'went over the top' in a massive assault on German lines. This remains a one-day record for the amount of soldiers killed on the first day of battle. By the end of the campaign the Allies and Central Powers lost more than 1.5 million men. Fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916 near the Somme River in Northern France, the battle turned the opening engagements of what was described as the one final and mighty push needed to break the German lines, into the worst day in the history of the British Army.

Whistle for the advance has sounded British infantry fix bayonets before leaving their trench on the Somme
Whistle for the advance has sounded British infantry fix bayonets before leaving their trench on the Somme

Seven-Mile Advance for 600 Thousand Lives The Somme Offensive evolved from the need to relieve the pressure growing on the French lines at Verdun as the Germans launched their own offensive in that area. The British plan involved the mass bombardment of the German lines on the Somme which resulted in a week long barrage with over 1 Million shells fired. The Bombardment would be followed by a general advance of 22 British and French Infantry Divisions, passing through the German barricades, obstacles and barbed wire. So confident were General Douglas Haig and his local Commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson that they actually went so far as to tell soldiers they would be able to walk to the German lines. General Haig’s tactics remain controversial to this day. The Germans had carefully prepared a deep defence line with doubled and tripled layers of barbed wire, concrete recesses and dugouts. This was all repeated in a second line far enough back from the front to force attackers to halt and move up their artillery before launching a second attack. The Anglo-French Offensive was walking into a carefully prepared killing ground that even the intense bombardment preceding the attack would do little to remedy. The German defenders were well protected in their deep concrete dug outs and as the Allied Artillery Fire ceased they scrambled to re-occupy their trench line and set up their machine guns. The eight hundred and one men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment marched onto the battlefield from the reserves and only 68 made it out unharmed with over 500 of 801 dead. This day of fighting had snuffed out a major portion of an entire generation of Newfoundlanders. British attacks astride the Albert-Bapaume road also failed, despite the explosion of two mines at La Boisselle. Here another tragic advance was made by the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the 34th Division, which started nearly one mile from the German front line, in full view of German machine-guns. The Irish Brigade was wiped out before it reached the front trench line. South of the road however, British and French troops found more success. Here the German defences were weaker and the French Artillery, which was substantially better than its’ British counterpart at the time, was highly effective in destroying and suppressing the German lines. Despite the initial surprise of the offensive the Germans very quickly recovered, utilising their extensive defences to slowly grind down the Allied Advances.

British Mark I male tank at the Somme, 25 September 1916
British Mark I male tank at the Somme, 25 September 1916

By the beginning of August, British command had realised a Breakthrough was now unlikely and wound down their operations to small-scale actions in preparation for the next “big push”. Mid-September saw the introduction of the Tank by the British Army to support their offensives. While there were some notable successes, 41st Division were able to advance 3.5kms supported by tanks taking the town of Flers. It was not all a walk in the park though and British troops won a costly victory at High Wood only because the German defenders disengaged after they became aware their flanks were exposed. Once again the fabled decisive breakthrough had eluded the Allies. The Allied efforts slowed by November as more German reinforcements and reserves poured in to contain the offensive. Limited gains were made in the Battles of Thiepval Ridge, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights, and Ancre itself. The furthest British advance took troops only 7 Miles. With a total casualty estimate at 400 thousand British and 200 Thousand French, that means for every centimetre of ground gained, two men paid the ultimate sacrifice. There have been many various conclusions drawn from the Battle of Somme, swinging from a “Hard Fought Victory” to “Slaughter” with the famous phrase “Lambs Leading Lions” summing up the general view of the battle now. In 1916 the British Army was essentially “New”, un-tested in battle and on the receiving end of Lord Kitchener’s recruitment drive for volunteers. It was vastly different to the comparatively battle-hardened army of Germany supported by its’ strong military tradition, something that just wasn’t present in Britain, although one could possibly make exception for the Royal Navy. Commentary Despite the huge loss of life, which contrary to popular belief was exceeded in some battles during the Second World War, the Battle of the Somme paved the way to victory for the Allies in the First World War. The Somme turned the mass army of volunteers from a 1 Million strong, poorly trained militia, into a formidable, battle experienced mass Army which went on to blunt the German Spring Offensives in 1918 before pushing on to victory. At the same time, the German Army saw its’ effectiveness and morale drop as a result of the Somme Offensive. 400 Thousand Germans were killed in the fighting and each casualty sapped the experience and effectiveness of the Army, which had entered the war with a well-trained force of regulars and reservists.

British soldiers, tired-out by sustained resistance to the onslaught on the Somme front, snatching brief sleep while awaiting the renewal of the attack
British soldiers, tired-out by sustained resistance to the onslaught on the Somme front, snatching brief sleep while awaiting the renewal of the attack

 

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