The Battle of the Somme is best known today for its horrific casualties: On the first day of the battle alone, the British lost nearly 60,000 men, of whom almost a third were killed. This day, July 1, 1916, would hold the distinction for the greatest single-day losses in all of the First World War. It was, however, only the first engagement of a battle that would stretch on into November. Moreover, no battle truly begins on the first day that troops cross the frontier; the Battle of the Somme was the product of months of planning, and developed in an atmosphere of a sometimes difficult alliance between the British and the French.
1914: The German defeat at the Marne, preventing the capture of Paris, unleashed a series of flanking maneuvers at the north of both lines. Known as the Race to the Sea, these maneuvers built the skeleton of the trench system. With neither side able to amass enough force to rupture local enemy defenses before reinforcements could be brought to bear, improvised defenses were expanded into formidable, and often elaborate, fortifications.
1915: Trench warfare acquired its systematic character. Attacks began with the intense use of artillery along the area of front selected by the attacker. Defenders would hunker down for as much cover as possible while their own artillery attempted to suppress enemy artillery. When the barrage stopped, the defenders left cover to man their posts while the attackers climbed up from their own defenses to march across “No Man’s Land” and attempt to seize those same posts. If the attackers met with some success in claiming sections of enemy trench, the other side would soon open up a new offensive to reclaim it.
Strategically, there was one important difference between the Anglo-French allies and the Germans: The Germans were already occupying enemy territory, and most of that land would eventually be given back as a result of the inevitable peace deal. The Germans had little interest in incrementally expanding their holdings in France and Belgium, and were instead focused on holding their existing gains with as few men as possible while they struggled to knock the Russians out of the war. For their part, the French were determined to recover French territory, and the British were equally resolute in the recovery of Belgian territory; consequently, the French and the British went on the offensive far more often than the Germans did. This meant that German trenches tended to be stronger defensive systems than British and French trenches. After all, the Germans meant to occupy them longer.
December, 1915: Plans for an attack on German lines north of the River Somme resulted from political developments between the western Allies. The British presence in Europe had risen, and General Douglas Haig was sent to replace General Sir John French. With a larger British presence and increasing tensions within the French army, French military leaders pressed for greater cooperation. On December 29, Allied leaders agreed to a joint attack along the Somme, which was largely where the French left flank met the British right flank.
February, 1916: The Germans diverged from their largely defensive strategy, unleashing a strong attack on the defenses of Verdun. The site was accurately chosen as one that the French would defend at all costs; as was generally the case with offensives in this war, it also took a greater toll on the attackers than expected, and for months a stalemate held.
Two consequences resulted from this. Firstly, the French were in much less of a position to participate in a joint offensive with the British. Secondly, they were even more desperate to see the British launch an offensive to the north than they had been. And so, for political reasons, it was decided to proceed with plans for a Somme offensive with limited French assistance. For equally political reasons, plans within the British command suffered from the hybrid application of competing goals: Haig desired a fast attack that would allow the British to cut through the three lines of defense that the Germans had built in the area; his subordinate, Rawlinson, sought a more modest push that would permit the consolidation of moderate gains.
June, 1916: The British build-up did not go unnoticed by the Germans, who formed a reasonably accurate estimate of British numbers and proceeded to bolster their already effective defenses. Roughly three-quarters of the target zone, from Fricourt to the north, was in terrain that already aided the defense; the remainder, extending southeast to the River Somme, was in less favorable terrain and was therefore manned more heavily.
June 24: The British artillery barrage opened. It was meant to be five days of shelling, but unfavorable weather on June 28 led to a two-day extension. The plan was that it would kill virtually every German in the affected zone, and permit British troops to merely cross over and occupy the German trenches. The barrage certainly heartened British troops and temporarily suppressed the German defenders, but failed to wipe out their capacity for resistance. It also failed to break up German barbed wire.
July 1: The British soldiers went “over the top” at 7:30 am. Slowed down by full gear and barbed wire, the British were easy prey for machine gun positions that were manned once the artillery barrage ended. At the cost of nearly 60,000 men lost, the British had modest gains in the southeastern sector and negligible gains north of Fricourt.
July 14: Fighting continued on after the first day, with British forces doggedly nibbling at German strongholds and the Germans fiercely defending them. During the second week of the attack, the British varied their tactics, with modest but telling effect: A three-day artillery barrage preceded the July 14 attack, but this time the artillery was consolidated in a smaller front, and the attack itself was undertaken at night. The final assault was only announced by five minutes of artillery fire that erupted at 3:20 am. Initial gains were fairly impressive, amounting to much of the Germans’ second line of defense, but ground conditions made it impossible to capitalize upon these successes.
September 15: The British finally had enough tanks in theatre to use them in a concerted fashion, and so the British attacks in the area of Courcelette and Flers mark the first use of tanks in battle. These early tanks were unreliable and too slow for long-term use, but they contributed to some additional gains. Still, the German line held.
November 13: The British Fifth Army captured Beaumont-Hamel in the final offensive within the Battle of the Somme. It had been one of the original targets of the first day of battle.
In the end, it was the approach of winter rather than any particular gains that ended the Battle of the Somme. Allied lines had moved no further than eight miles to the east, with enormous casualties on both sides. Allied losses were considered somewhat over 600,000; German losses are more difficult to pin down, but seem to be roughly comparable. Haig did not achieve the breakthrough he had sought, but the broader political goal had been accomplished: The Allies had made a moderately successful joint effort at the intersection of their forces, and in doing so, they also eased the pressure on Verdun, which ultimately held.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
Holmes, Richard. The Western Front: Ordinary Soldiers and the Defining Battles of World War I. TV Books, 1999.
Robertshaw, Andrew. Somme 1 July 1916: Tragedy and Triumph. Osprey, 2006.
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