Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in World War I and human history. The Allied forces, including troops from England, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa, took on the German lines in the northern part of France. The front stretched for about twelve miles in a vertical line that ran to the north and south of the River Somme, hence the battle’s name.
The commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, General Douglas Haig and French commander General Joseph Joffre agreed in February of 1916 to mount a combined offensive near the Somme River. When the Germans attacked Verdun in late February, it became apparent that the French would have to move some of their forces to support that battle and the British would provide the bulk of the forces at Somme. Thus, the purpose of the Battle of the Somme shifted from being a decisive attack on German front lines to providing a distraction for German forces from Verdun.
Prior to the battle, the British Royal Flying Corps had established air superiority in the area, allowing them to use planes and observation balloons to spot for artillery. They fielded a total of 185 aircraft, with the Germans having only 129 aircraft. The Germans had the advantage of holding the high ground and were pretty well dug in with trenches and bunkers since they had held the area since October of 1914. At the start of the battle, there were thirteen French and twenty British divisions ready to take on the Germans.
The British and French fired their artillery at the Germans for a full week before the battle began. The British fired over 1.7 million shells during the initial bombardment. They planned to use thirteen British divisions (from the Fourth and Third Army) and eleven French divisions (from the Sixth Army) and the Germans were defending with the German Second Army, commanded by General Fritz von Below. As part of the offensive, the British also tunneled under the German entrenchments to plant explosive mines.
On July 1, 1916, the attack was planned for 7:30 AM. Ten minutes before the attack, the British detonated the mine below the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, with the other mines going off two minutes before the attack. The explosives below the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt were about 40,000 lb and left a massive crater that the Germans quickly moved to occupy. At 7:30 AM, the British infantry advanced across No Man’s Land, facing heavy artillery and machine gun fire.
It was soon apparent that the artillery bombardment had been largely ineffective, since most of the shells were incapable of piercing the German bunkers. The British troops suffered tremendous losses and the few that reached the German line were easily cut down. Heavy German bombardment of the No Man’s Land made it impossible for reinforcements to get through or for survivors to get intelligence back.
Poor communications led the British command to mistakenly assume the assault was working and send forward reinforcements. A false report that the 29th Division had taken Beaumont Hamel led to the ordering of a reserve brigade forward along with the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. The 1st suffered 91% casualties, with over 500 dead out of 801 men and only 68 escaping unscathed. Similar slaughter occurred along the Albert-Bapaume Road, where the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the 34th Infantry Division started their advance across a mile of open field and were wiped out before reaching their own forward trench line. Despite these heavy British losses, some battalions from the 36th Division and 56th Division managed to successfully capture German lines.
To the south, the French managed to do much better. They managed to gain ground from Montauban south to the Somme, partly thanks to more effective artillery and less German defenses. South of the Somme, the French even surpassed their first-day objectives, taking Fay, Dompierre, and Becquincourt. By 11:00 AM, they had reached the German second line without needing reserve troops. By the end of the day, the French had gained 1.5 km on the north bank of the Somme and 2 km on the south bank.
The first day was a disaster overall, with the British suffering 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 21,152 missing, and 585 prisoners, resulting in a total loss of 57,470 British troops. The French suffered only 7,000 casualties. The Germans suffered an estimated 7,000 casualties. The worst defeat for the Allies was at Ovillers, where the 8th British Division had 5,121 casualties while the German 180th Regiment suffered only 280 casualties.
Eventually realizing the heavy losses, British command largely suspended the offensive for a time, missing several opportunities to hit weak points in the German line between Ovillers and Longueval. The delay in the offensive allowed the Germans to fill gaps in their defensive positions and reoccupy strategic points. In the meantime, the French continued their assault south of the Somme, capturing Frise, Buscourt, Chapitre Wood, Flaucourt, and Asseviller as well as 8,000 German prisoners by the end of July 3rd. On the 5th they seized Hem, followed by Hardecourt-aux-Bois, Monacu Farm, Biaches, Maisonnette, and Fortress Biaches by the end of July 10th.
The French had made tremendous progress in the first ten days and some in their ranks began to resent their British allies for lagging behind. The French had advanced 10 km at some points and captured 12,000 prisoners, 85 cannons, 100 machine guns, and suffered relatively few casualties. The British made little progress over the same time, suffering 25,000 casualties between the 3rd and 13th of July from 46 small offensive pushes. The British commander Haig differed from French commander Joffre in that he concentrated on smaller blows, whereas Joffre preferred single massive blows.
The battle did have one major benefit in that it forced Germany to divert forces from Verdun and call off the offensive. On July 19th, Von Below was placed in charge of the First Army in the northern sector, with General Max von Gallwitz taking command of the Second Army in the southern sector. On July 2nd, Germany sent seven German divisions to the Somme from Verdun, followed by seven more over the next week. Over the months of July and August, the Germans brought a total of 42 divisions to the Somme.
On July 14th, the British Fourth Army launched an important attack with the objective of taking Bazentin le Petit, Bazentin le Grand, and Longueval. Four divisions prepared to advance as the artillery launched a five minute bombardment at 3:25 AM. The barrage crept forward towards the German lines, allowing the British troops to follow and minimize their time under German fire. The British managed to seize most of their objectives, but were met with resistance in the High Wood and Delville Wood forests. On the night of July 22nd, another major offensive was launched in the area with six British divisions, but it was effectively blocked by the Germans.
On July 16th, the British captured Ovillers, which put them in an excellent position to take Pozieres. By taking Pozieres, they hoped to flank the northern German positions by gaining access to their second position trenches. The Fourth Army made several unsuccessful attempts over the next several days before Gough was placed in charge of the sector. He decided to utilize the Australian and New Zealand division of the I Anzac Corps and schedule the attack for the 23rd of July, the same day that the Fourth Army would be attacking. This would also give Major General Harold Walker time to prepare his Australian 1st Division time to prepare.
The night of the 23rd, the troops moved in after midnight and successfully took Pozieres. The troops valiantly continued on in an attempt to take the German second position trenches, but failed. The Germans formed a series of three unsuccessful counter-attacks before resorting to artillery bombardment of the village. The bombardment continued until August 7th, when the Germans gave it a final attempt. However, the I Anzac Corps fought them back, holding the vital town.
On August 8th, the Anzacs and British II Corps began fighting their way north towards the Mouquet Farm, which the Germans had heavily fortified. The Anzacs inched forward between August 12th and September 13th, but the Germans held them back. They were relieved by the Canadian Corps, which was able to capture Mouquet Farm on the 16th, but were pushed out again by the Germans. They were finally able to establish a solid position on Mouquet Farm on the 26th of September and forced the German garrison to surrender the next day. The victory was not without its sacrifices, as the Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties while assaulting Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. The New Zealand division suffered 8,000 casualties, which amounted to nearly one percent of New Zealand’s total population.
On August 29th, the Germans appointed General Paul von Hindenburg Chief of the General Staff, with General Erich Ludendorff serving as his deputy. On September 3rd, British and French forces captured Guillemont after several unsuccessful attempts over the earlier part of the month. On September 9th, the 16th Irish Division captured Ginchy, linking the British and French armies near Combles. Now, with a fairly straight front, the British could more effectively use creeping artillery bombardment for their advance. However, this progress of just under a kilometer took between July 15th and September 14th to accomplish and resulted in 82,000 casualties.
The next major attack took place on September 15th in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, using 11 British divisions and four French Corps. The British notably debuted the tank for the first time, hoping that it would enable them to easily push forward across trenches. However, the tanks at the time were unreliable and only 21 of the 49 tanks made available were able to make it to the front line and join the battle. These tanks were slow, traveling at only 2 mph or less, but they were also invulnerable to bullets and could easily traverse barbed wire.
The assault was successful, allowing the British to advance to Flers, a distance of 3.2 km. The British 41st Division led the charge into Flers along with several D-17 tanks, which easily drove over barbed wire protecting the village and took out German defenders with their mounted guns. The nearby New Zealand Division captured part of the Switch Line west of Flers and the Canadian 2nd Division captured Courcelette, assisted by two tanks. The British also managed to capture High Wood forest. At the end of the day, the British had captured about 4.1 km of the German third position, but the attack still did not manage to meet its full objectives.
On September 26th, the British attacked northwest of Pozieres, seeking to capture the city of Thiepval. They captured most of the city as well as Mouquet Farm. Over the next month or so, from October 1st through November 11th, little or no progress was made by either side, much like the attrition fighting at Verdun.
On October 1st, the Battle of Le Transloy began, with the Third and Fourth Armies seeking to seize the German Transloy Line, which ran from Le Transloy to Le Sars. Poor weather caused the battlefield to become very muddy and slowed British progress, but they were still able to capture Le Sars on October 7th. The British suffered many casualties and made no other progress. On November 5th, they attacked Butte de Warlencourt, but failed to capture the area.
As winter set in, prospects of a breakthrough became less and less likely. On November 13th, Haig ordered an attack north of Thiepval, but it was mainly for political purposes to make it looks like they were succeeding during a November 15th conference in Chantilly. The battle started with a mine explosion under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt, just west of Beaumont Hamel. The 31st Division was ordered to attack Serre, but were cut down by heavy German defensive fire. However, south of there the British were more successful and managed to seize Beaumont Hamel. On November 18th, the final push took place with an unsuccessful attack on the Munich and Frankfurt trenches.
The Battle of the Somme ended in a similar fashion to the Battle of Verdun, with minimal gains and heavy casualties over a long period of fighting. The deepest point of penetration, made by the French, was a mere 8 kilometers and the deepest for the British was only two miles. The modern consensus is that the battle was a disaster, even though it did help take German pressure off of the Verdun front. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, the French suffered 204,253 casualties and the Germans suffered 465,000 casualties. Additionally smaller countries like Canada had 24,029 casualties, Australia had 23,000 casualties, New Zealand had 7,408 casualties, and Ireland had 25,000 casualties. Adolf Hitler was one of the participants on the German side and suffered a wounded leg during the battle that kept him out of the war until March of 1917.
“Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” – Friedrich Steinbrecher (German officer)