How it Began
The Battle of the Somme (French: Bataille de la Somme, German: Schlacht an der Somme), also known as the Somme Offensive, was a battle of the First World War fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the River Somme in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
A Franco-British commitment to an offensive on the Somme had been made during Allied discussions at Chantilly, Oise, in December 1915. The Allies agreed upon a strategy of combined offensives against the Central Powers in 1916, by the French, Russian, British, and Italian armies, with the Somme offensive as the Franco-British contribution. The main part of the offensive was to be made by the French Army, supported on the northern flank by the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
At the start of 1916, most of the British Army had been an inexperienced and patchily trained mass of volunteers. The Somme was the debut of the Kitchener Army created by Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits at the start of the war. The British volunteers were often the fittest, most enthusiastic and best educated citizens but British casualties were also inexperienced soldiers and it has been claimed that their loss was of lesser military significance than the losses of the remaining peace-trained officers and men of the German army. British casualties on the first day were the worst in the history of the British army, with 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed.
British survivors of the battle had gained experience and the BEF learned how to conduct the mass industrial warfare, which the continental armies had been fighting since 1914. The continental powers had begun the war with trained armies of regulars and reservists, which were wasting assets. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria wrote, “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield”. A war of attrition was a logical strategy for Britain against Germany, which was also at war with France and Russia. A school of thought holds that the Battle of the Somme placed unprecedented strain on the German army and that after the battle it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like, which reduced it to a militia.
The destruction of German units in battle was made worse by lack of rest. British and French aircraft and long-range guns reached well behind the front-line, where trench-digging and other work meant that troops returned to the line exhausted. Despite the strategic predicament of the German army, it survived the battle, withstood the pressure of the Brusilov Offensive, and conducted an invasion of Romania. In 1917, the German army in the west survived the large British and French offensives of the Nivelle Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, though at great cost.
The British and French advanced about 6 mi (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 mi (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 to 432,000 British and about 200,000 French casualties, against 465,181 to 500,000 or perhaps even 600,000 German casualties. Until the 1930s the dominant view of the battle in English-language writing was that the battle was a hard-fought victory against a brave, experienced and well-led opponent. Winston Churchill had objected to the way the battle was being fought in August 1916, Lloyd George when Prime Minister criticised attrition warfare frequently and condemned the battle in his post-war memoirs. In the 1930s a new orthodoxy of “mud, blood and futility” emerged and gained more emphasis in the 1960s when the 50th anniversaries of the Great War battles were commemorated.
The Battle of the Somme was one of the costliest battles of World War I. The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly Conference on 15 November 1916, was 485,000 British and French casualties and 630,000 German. A German officer wrote,
“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” — Friedrich Steinbrecher
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When the German Army began the Battle of Verdun on the Meuse on 21 February 1916, many French divisions intended for the Somme were diverted and the supporting attack by the British became the principal effort.
The first day on the Somme (1 July) was a serious defeat for the German Second Army, which was forced out of its first line of defence by the French Sixth Army, from Foucaucourt-en-Santerre south of the Somme to Maricourt on the north bank and by the British Fourth Army from Maricourt to the vicinity of the Albert–Bapaume road.
This was the worst day in the history of the British Army, which saw 19,240 deaths of a total of 57,000 casualties, mainly on the front between the Albert–Bapaume road and Gommecourt, where the attack was defeated and few British troops reached the German front line. The British Army on the Somme was a mixture of the remains of the pre-war regular army, the Territorial Force and the Kitchener Army, which was composed of ‘Pals’ battalions recruited from the same places and occupations.
At the end of the battle, British and French forces had penetrated 10 km (6 mi) into German-occupied territory, taking more ground than in any of their offensives since the Battle of the Marne in 1914. The Anglo-French armies failed to capture Péronne and halted 5 km (3 mi) from Bapaume, where the German armies maintained their positions over the winter. British attacks in the Ancre valley resumed in January 1917 and forced the Germans into local withdrawals to reserve lines in February, before the scheduled retirement to the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) began in March. Debate continues over the necessity, significance and effect of the battle. David Frum opined that a century later, “‘the Somme’ remains the most harrowing place-name” in the history of the British Commonwealth.