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The Battle of the Somme

1 July – 18 November 1916

The Battle of the Somme is one of the most famous battles in British history, not because it was a great military success but because it resulted in the biggest loss of men the British Army has ever suffered on one day. On 1st July, 1916, a British-led attack was launched on a 15-mile front in the Somme region of France.  58,000 British troops were injured, including 19,000 fatalities. 

 

Although the attack was planned as a joint British and French offensive, in the end it consisted of mainly British troops, including men from the Commonwealth and Empire under British command.

When the French military first broached planning the attack, General Joffre, the French military leader, intended it to be a battle of attrition to drain the German reserves rather than to capture large amounts of territory. The British leadership, under Douglas Haig (from December 1915), would have preferred an attack in Flanders where crucial ground could have been taken. However, the German attack on Verdun (February 1916) made the Somme offensive even more important to the French for distracting the Germans, and the attack was brought forward from August to July 1916.

In preparation for the attack, Allied artillery pounded German lines for the week preceding 1st July, firing 1.6 million shells. The intention was that the artillery fire would ‘break the German line’; meaning that the German front line defences would be destroyed.

Having witnessed the Allied preparations, the Germans had taken defensive action. During the week long bombardment, they retreated to their reserve positions and to their dugouts, which were built to withstand such an onslaught.

The British bombardment failed to break the German line but it did churn up the ground across No-man's Land making the terrain even more difficult for the British troops to cross.

When the signal for the start of the real attack came, the German troops were already back in frontline positions. The British troops, however, had been told that the line was broken and to move out across No-man's Land. Many of those troops had never seen battle before and were simply mown down by German machine gun fire.

The Battle of the Somme is chiefly remembered for the sacrifice of countless young lives. Many of the soldiers involved were part of the new ‘Pals’ battalions; groups of friends in a village or town encouraged by recruitment officers, from the start of the war, to join up together. This meant that men could fight in units with people they already knew, sometimes brother alongside brother. Entire streets of young men were injured or killed in a single 24 hours, devestating some communities.

The casualty rate amongst officers was also high as the Germans had been trained to recognise them. 60% of all officers involved on the first day were killed.

Very little was gained on the first day, with much of what had been won only to be lost hours later due to the difficulty of getting support and supplies to the front.

The first attack went on over the following days, while the Battle itself lasted until November.

There were a great many individual battles as part of the Somme offensive, testing new tactics and lessons learned from the terrible events of the first day. Tanks were introduced into the fighting for the first time at Flers-Courcelette on the 15th September 1916, with limited success, but the use of new technology was a clear sign from Senior Command of their commitment to making a breakthrough.

When the battle officially ended, after a disastrously wet October, the Allies had advanced only 8km (five miles). The British suffered around 420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000.

Military lessons were learnt from the Somme, which assisted tactical understanding and impacted on future decisions made in the conflict. Nonetheless, the battle left a scar on the British Military record and would affect the reputation of General Haig for generations to come. 

 

 

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London Jews in the First World War - We Were There Too

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