World War I: Battle of the Somme

First day at the Somme
British troops attack during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of the Somme was fought from July 1 to November 18, 1916 during World War I (1914-1918). In 1916, the British and French intended to launch a large-scale offensive along the Somme River. With the beginning of the Battle of Verdun in February, the focus changed to a British-centric operation with the goal of relieving pressure on the French. Moving forward on July 1, the British sustained massive losses in the opening hours of the offensive while French troops made some gains. Far from the breakthrough hoped for by the high command, the Battle of Somme became an extended, grinding affair that came to symbolize the futility of the fighting on the Western Front. 

Background

Meeting at Chantilly in December 1915, the Allied high command worked to develop war plans for the coming year. It was agreed that the most effective path forward would be simultaneous offensives on the Eastern, Western, and Italian Fronts. This approach would preclude the Central Powers from being able to shift troops to meet each threat in turn. On the Western Front, the British and French planners moved forward and ultimately decided to mount a large, combined offensive along the Somme River. The initial plan called for the bulk of the troops to be French with support from the British Fourth Army in the north. While supportive of the plan, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, General Sir Douglas Haig, had originally desired to attack in Flanders.

As plans for the Somme offensive were developed, they were soon changed in response to the Germans opening the Battle of Verdun in late February 1916. Rather than delivering the crippling blow to the Germans, the Somme offensive's principal goal would now be to relieve pressure on the beleaguered French defenders at Verdun.  Additionally, the primary composition of the troops involved would be British rather than French.

Planning

For the British, the main push would come north of the Somme and would be led by General Sir Henry Rawlinson's Fourth Army. Like most parts of the BEF, the Fourth Army was largely composed of inexperienced Territorial or New Army troops. To the south, French forces from General Marie Fayolle's Sixth Army would attack on both banks of the Somme. Preceded by a seven-day bombardment and the detonation of 17 mines under German strong points, the offensive began at 7:30 AM on July 1. Attacking with 13 divisions, the British attempted advance up an old Roman road that ran 12 miles from Albert, northeast to Bapaume.

Armies & Commanders

Allies

Germany

  • General Max von Gallwitz
  • General Fritz von Below
  • 10 divisions (rising to 50)

Disaster on the First Day

Advancing behind a creeping barrage, British troops encountered heavy German resistance as the preliminary bombardment had been largely ineffective. In all areas the British attack achieved little success or was repulsed outright. On July 1, the BEF suffered over 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Dubbed the Battle of Albert, Haig persisted in pushing forward over the next several days. To the south, the French, utilizing different tactics and a surprise bombardment, achieved more success and reached many of their initial objectives.

Grinding Ahead

As the British attempted to re-start their attack, the French continued to advance along the Somme. On July 3/4, the French XX Corps nearly achieved a breakthrough but was forced to halt to allow the British on their left flank to catch up. By July 10, French forces had advanced six miles and had captured the Flaucourt Plateau and 12,000 prisoners. On July 11, Rawlinson's men finally secured the first line of German trenches, but were unable to breakthrough. Later that day, the Germans began shifting troops from Verdun to reinforce General Fritz von Below's Second Army north of the Somme (Map).

As a result, the German offensive at Verdun was ended and the French achieved the upper hand in that sector. On July 19, German forces were reorganized with von Below shifting to First Army in the north and General Max von Gallwitz taking over Second Army in the south. In addition, von Gallwitz was made an army group commander with responsibility for the entire Somme front. On July 14, Rawlinson's Fourth Army launched an attack Bazentin Ridge, but as with other earlier assaults its success was limited and little ground was gained.

In an effort to break the German defenses in the north, Haig committed elements of Lieutenant General Hubert Gough's Reserve Army. Striking at Pozières, Australian troops carried the village largely due to the careful planning of their commander, Major General Harold Walker, and held it against repeated counterattacks. Success there and at Mouquet Farm allowed Gough to threaten the German fortress at Thiepval. Over the next six weeks, the fighting continued along the front, with both sides feeding a grinding battle of attrition.

Efforts in the Fall

On September 15, the British mounted their final attempt to force a breakthrough when they opened the Battle of Flers-Courcelette with an attack by 11 divisions. The debut of the tank, the new weapon proved effective, but was plagued by reliability issues. As in the past, British forces were able to advance into the German defenses, but could not fully penetrate them and failed to reach their objectives. Subsequent small assaults at Thiepval, Gueudecourt, and Lesbœufs achieved similar results.

Entering the battle on a large scale, Gough's Reserve Army began a major offensive on September 26 and succeeded in taking Thiepval. Elsewhere on the front, Haig, believing a breakthrough was near, pushed forces towards Le Transloy and Le Sars with little effect. With winter approaching, Haig initiated the final phase of the Somme Offensive on November 13, with an attack along the Ancre River to the north of Thiepval. While assaults near Serre failed completely, attacks to the south succeeded in taking Beaumont Hamel and achieving their objectives. A final attack was made on the German defenses on November 18 which effectively ended the campaign.

Aftermath

The fighting at the Somme cost the British approximately 420,000 casualties, while the French incurred 200,000. German losses numbered around 500,000. During the campaign British and French forces advanced around 7 miles along the Somme front, with each inch costing around 1.4 casualties. While the campaign achieved its goal of relieving pressure on Verdun, it was not a victory in the classic sense.

As the conflict increasingly became a war of attrition, the losses incurred at the Somme were more easily replaced by the British and French, than by the Germans. Also, the large-scale British commitment during the campaign aided in increasing their influence within the alliance. While the Battle of Verdun became the iconic moment of the conflict for the French, the Somme, particularly the first day, achieved a similar status in Britain and became a symbol of the futility of war.