Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War, resulting in over one million casualties. 2016 marks the centenary of the battle.

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. It is one of the most famous battles of the First World War because of the loss of 19,000 British troops killed in a single day (from a total of 58,000 casualties) – the first day of the battle. No other conflict, before or since, can state such a statistic.

The battle began with an attack on a 25km front in France, north of the Somme river, between the towns of Arras and Albert. Fighting raged for almost five months, from 1 July to 18 November 1916.

Originally planned as a joint British and French offensive, its aims were both to exhaust the German forces and to gain territory. At the start of 1916, however, the Battle of Verdun had drained France of most of their troops, thus the Somme attack became predominantly British and, in addition, was brought forward from August to relieve the pressure on the French.

Sir Douglas Haig, the new British Commander in Chief, took over the planning and execution of the attack and worked with General Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army was to lead the assault. In preparation, the British bombarded the German lines for eight days in June 1916. They intended to destroy the German defences so that the British could attack over ‘no man’s land’ and capture the German lines.

The Germans, however, had built heavy concrete bunkers together with ferocious barbed wire barriers – the British bombardment failed to destroy either. Many of the poorly constructed British munitions failed to work and the eight-day British assault alerted the Germans to the impending attack – they were armed, ready and solidly defended by concrete and barbed wire.

The British, having been led to believe there would be little enemy opposition, were pushed back by the German machine guns or simply mown down as they crossed no man’s land, leading to the infamous statistics relating to the highest number of deaths ever on a single day of battle. Despite the losses, the British and French continued the attack. German troops were reinforced from Verdun and despite occasional Allied victories (Pozieres was captured by the Australians in July) most advances were rarely followed up and were quickly lost again.

Poor weather, including snow, finally stopped the Somme offensive on 18 November 1916. During the attack, the Allies had gained approximately 12km of ground at an estimated cost of 620,000 casualties (420,000 British, 200,000 French). The Germans lost around 500,000 men.

PALS

Pals battalions were a uniquely British phenomenon. After the First World War started, it quickly became clear that the small professional British Army was not large enough for the conflict ahead. Thousands of men volunteered for Service in a wave of patriotic fervour in Lord Kitchener's New Armies. It was realised that many more men would enlist if they could serve alongside their friends, relatives and workmates.

The first Pals battalion was raised from the stockbrokers the City of London in 1914. Later they became synonymous with the towns of northern Britain - Bradfield, Leeds, Sheffield, Accrington, Hull and Durham - but were also raised from Birmingham to Bristol and from Cambridge to Cardiff. They were made up of groups of friends, of team mates in sports clubs or colleagues at work and spent up to 18 months in training before arriving in norther France in the spring of 1916.

Many Pals battalions didn't see their first major action until the first day of the Somme and they suffered catastrophic losses, with whole units dying together, leaving their close-knit communities at home devastated. With the introduction of conscription in 1916, the close-knit nature of the Pals battalions was never to be replicated.

over the top

British folk memory of the Battle of the Somme is dominated by one moment: 7.30am on 1 July 2016. Officers sounded their whistles and their men scrambled up ladders our of the trenches into no man's land - they went 'over the top'.

Going ‘over the top’ at the Somme was ironically the first taste of battle for many British troops who had enlisted to show their patriotism.

The lost generation

The Battle of the Somme had dire political and social consequences in Britain. People spoke of 'the lost generation' and many found it almost impossible to justify the loss of 88,000 men per mile of ground gained. 

Unsurprisingly, many famous individuals fought at the Somme. Two caught the public imagination then. Raymond Asquith, Fellow of All Souls and son of the Prime Minister, was killed near Lesboeufs with the Grenadier Guards on 15 September. His father was shattered but so were those for whom Raymond’s abilities made him the embodiment of what came to be called ‘the lost generation’. Serving alongside him, and wounded, was another Harold Macmillan, a future prime minister. 

Siegfried Sassoon, nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ by his comrades, won the Military Cross serving with the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Mametz in July 1916. Although his 'Memoirs of an infantry officer' would not be published until after the war, his poetry made him well known during the war, and his decision to throw his MC in the Mersey in 1917 in protest against the war prompted the War Office to regard him (not without reason) as suffering from shell shock.

Weapons of war

Even after two years of conflict, British military faith was still being placed in cavalry attacks. A cavalry regiment was put on stand-by at the Battle of the Somme to ‘exploit the hole in the German defences created by the British infantry attack'.

But the Battle of the Somme also saw several different weapons being used including mines, poisonous gas and machine guns. Some of the larger machine guns needed 12 men to operate them. The best known innovation of 1916 was the tank, first used in battle at Flers on 15 September 1916. Armoured, tracked vehicles were designed to cross trenches, crush barbed wire and give direct fire support. 

For the British Royal Flying Corps, the Somme was a key moment with aircraft providing the photographs to map enemy positions for counter-battery fire. 

remembering the Somme

The Thiepval Memorial is the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world and bears the names of more than 72,000 men who died on the Somme and have no known grave. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, it is also commemorates the alliance between the British Empire and France. Beside the memorial is a cemetery with equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves, brought together from all over the battlefield.

2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. A commemorative event took place on 1 July 2016 at Thiepval

Other events in France include:

The Legion is encouraging local communities to host their own Somme 100 events and has prepared a special commemorative toolkit. Find out more about the toolkit and all Somme 100 activities here

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