Ancient history

The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme it is today considered synonymous with military madness and pointless bloodshed, although, in reality, there were good reasons for attempting the massive assault. The military balance of the time favored the defender, but there seemed to be no other way to break the deadlock.

Somme battle data

  • Who: The British Fourth Army, supported by the British Third Army and the French Sixth Army, attacking the German Second Army.
  • How: After a massive artillery buildup, British and French forces attacked German positions and trudged forward, forcing costly counterattacks to regain lost ground.
  • Where: Between the Somme and Ancre rivers, on the western front in France.
  • When: From July 1 to August 18, 1916.
  • Why: With the war at a standstill and enemy troops entrenched on Allied soil, it was necessary to recover the offensive and break through the German lines. The need to reduce pressure on Russia and the French at Verdun also played a role.
  • Result: After bloody fighting and casualties on both sides, few gains were made. However, the German army lost many of its best men and later withdrew to the Hindenburg line.


At the beginning of the First World War, military thinkers expected a war of maneuver, in which the cavalry would play its traditional role as the attacking arm. At first, in fact, something like that happened, and in some areas of the eastern front the war retained a nineteenth-century character, including occasional saber-rattling between opposing cavalry brigades.
In the West, however, it soon became clear that the defender had an enormous advantage over the attacker. Things had been going this way for some time. During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, the accurate long-range firepower of infantry rifles made infantry or cavalry assaults dangerous maneuvers. The machine guns tipped the scales further, though they were heavy and unable to reorganize quickly. Warfare on the Western Front took on many of the characteristics of a siege, with well-entrenched forces on both sides fighting from behind barbed-wire obstacles.
Between the great offensives, the war became a succession of attacks and counterattacks in which the artillery pounded the enemy trenches. The infantry defending the forward positions were subjected to horrible conditions, huddled in their muddy dug-out dugouts and enduring the bombardment without being able to respond. Being under fire without being able to respond is one of the most morally draining experiences that man can undergo, and, unsurprisingly, morality became an issue.
Something had to be done, for several reasons. The presence of German troops on Allied soil meant that it was not politically feasible to remain on the defensive, hoping that the naval blockade would eventually bring Germany into submission. The French fortress of Verdun was then also under pressure. In short, the German army had to be attacked and defeated. It would be an expensive undertaking in terms of material and casualties; however, when the plan was formulated in January 1916, the Allies believed it could be done.

The plan

The main supporter of the plan was the French commander, Marshal Joseph Joffre (1852-1931). He wanted an offensive in the Somme region, for the reasons stated above, and the English commander, General Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928), was willing to consider it. Haig preferred the idea of ​​an attack elsewhere, like in Flanders, where the
terrain was better and there were more strategic objectives. He too wanted to await the reinforcements that the new levy system would offer, and the arrival of new troops from across the empire. There was also the possibility that a new secret weapon, codenamed Tank, might be of some help. However, Joffre could not wait.
Haig proposed an assault in mid-August; however, Joffre firmly maintained that the French army would then not exist. He had originally proposed using two French armies in the Somme offensive, but the Verdun meat grinder reduced the French chances, and the initial offer of 40 divisions was modified to 16. The rest would have to come from the English. However, the attack seemed feasible, and it was vital to do something, so Haig agreed. The start date of the offensive was set at July 1, 1916 , and a force consisting of 21 divisions was assigned for the initial offensive, with three infantry and five cavalry divisions in reserve to follow up on a victory.

Strong defenses

Although the Somme sector had been fairly quiet, German defensive preparations had been continuous. The trenches were backed by fortified posts and dugouts in an impressive defensive complex, which also contained medical facilities, kitchens, laundries, and power plants. Many of these facilities were hidden in forests or villages, and their existence was not obvious to the Allied side.
The Allies would have to cross low ground and fight uphill to the first line of German positions, which were dominated by the second, and so on. The defenders enjoyed excellent views of the battlefield, making hidden preparations and maneuvers very difficult, and had vast reserves of ammunition and numerous heavy weapons. Their elevated position also had psychological advantages, as Allied troops would trudge uphill against strong resistance.
Allied preparations for the offensive were not only observed from enemy positions. Operational security was poor, and comments from English and French officers spilled over into German intelligence reports. When the Allies began their massive artillery barrage on June 24, the Germans already knew something was afoot. They had even guessed the date of the planned assault.
Although 1.75 million artillery shells were fired at German positions in the six-day preparatory bombardment, the defenses were not seriously disrupted. The artillery fire was supposed to cut through the enemy barbed wire, though all it tended to do was dislodge and entangle them further. Muddy shell craters made progress difficult, and to complete the ordeal, heavy rains turned the entire region into a quagmire.
Although compulsory levies had been introduced in England, most of the soldiers waiting to jump out of the trenches were volunteer units of Kitchener's new army. Among the attackers were several notable names:future military commanders Montgomery and Wavell, as well as Siegfried Sassoon and John Masefield.
On the German side, troops, including a volunteer Austrian corporal named Adolf Hitler, were prepared to meet and repulse the assault. There were casualties, and a six-day bombardment, even deep in a bunker, is no joke. However, the defenders knew they were well prepared to meet the oncoming attack. His artillery had the entire battlefield registered by map grids, and fire could be quickly called in on any enemy concentration.
The defenders clearly saw the terrain in front of their positions and knew the obvious narrowings and routes into which the attackers would funnel. Their machine guns were ready to sweep these areas as the enemy passed through them. If the first line of trenches were somehow taken, the defenders could withdraw to secondary positions and continue the fight from there.

The first day

The offensive began at 07:30 in the morning of July 1 much as the Germans had anticipated. All along the line, the attacking units lurched into motion, and the defenders began firing at them.
The English forces went into action in long lines, advancing through difficult terrain and stopping to get through the tangles of barbed wire. The initial reports Haig received were quite optimistic. At 08:00 in the morning he would record that all was well and that the first enemy positions had been overrun. This was not entirely accurate. The reality is that English troops were being cut down by the thousands, often within a short distance of their trenches or in gaps in the barbed wire that were becoming clogged with bodies.
Meanwhile, the French forces were struggling. His soldiers were less loaded than the English and used more flexible tactics, running from one position to another while others covered the advance with rifle fire. Although their casualties were minor, the French force under General Fayolle did not have the strength to open a hole in the German lines.


The first day of the Somme offensive caused some 57,470 English casualties, of which almost 20,000 were killed . Only 585 men were captured, because few of the English soldiers got close enough to the German lines. Some units, such as the 1st Canadian Newfoundland Regiment, had been all but destroyed. This carnage was made worse by the heavy linear formation used by the attacking units, though with such inexperienced troops there might not be an alternative.
The British had attacked with 200 battalions in 17 divisions of about 100,000 men. Of these, only five divisions reached the enemy positions. The rest were detained in no man's land. The defenders were simply too strong. The Irish Tyneside Regiment, numbering about 3,000 men, suffered nearly 100% casualties. He began his advance behind the main line of departure, backing up the initial attack. Although this formation was not an immediate threat to the defenders, it came under such withering fire as it advanced that it failed to cross the starting line. A total of 550 men were killed or wounded in one battalion and 600 in another. Casualties might have been greater were it not for the fact that many defenders found the carnage so revolting that they stopped firing as soon as the attackers in their sector stopped, allowing the survivors to retreat unmolested.

attrition strife

Despite the fact that up to 20% of the attacking force had been killed, the allies continued to attack. Pressure had to be taken off Russia and Verdun somehow, and there was no time to concentrate on an offensive elsewhere. Logistics were taking too long, and the Allies needed to act now. Men could be taken, but it took time to gather supplies and ammunition reserves. The Allies had to succeed on the Somme, or at least attract enough German reinforcements to reduce pressure elsewhere.
At first, the carnage was very one-sided as the allies launched new assaults and these were pounded by machine guns and artillery, or stopped by barbed wire. It could seem that the allies were just wasting lives. A German regiment suffered 180 casualties on the first day on the Somme, while the English force lost more than 25 times as many men.
For two weeks there was little progress. Then, on July 14, a force of French and English troops gained some advantage along the flanks of the River Somme. Some minor advances followed, but the cost was immense, and new troops were sent into the fray periodically as shattered formations had to be withdrawn. Throughout July and August the slaughter continued, although it was now less one-sided. In these two months, 42 German divisions were deployed in the Somme sector, and the need to counterattack the Allied advances caused heavy casualties. At the end of July, casualties numbered 200,000 for the Allies and 160,000 among German troops. The allies had advanced 5 km, and little had changed by the end of August.

New ideas

Tactics had evolved, and the English troops had learned from their more experienced French counterparts. It was time to try something new. The problems were the barbed wire and the machine guns, and now the Allies had a means of dealing with both. The monstrous machine called a tank or chariot , made his appearance. There were two types of tanks:the "male" tanks mounted a main armament of 6 pounder cannons derived from naval guns, while the "female" tanks carried only machine guns. Both types were slow, prone to mechanical breakdown, and required a large crew to operate. They could cross trenches, smash through barbed wire, and usually ignore light-arms and machine-gun fire.
36 main battle tanks were deployed for a new assault, despite the fact that their crews were not fully trained. Only 18 went into action because the rest had broken down; however, his appearance shocked the defenders into panic. The Allies gained 3,200 meters at relatively little cost, which was by far the greatest success of the offensive thus far. However, several tanks fell to artillery fire. The others were damaged or immobilized.
Tanks were not a decisive weapon on the Somme, mainly because they operated in difficult terrain and in small numbers. Their success prompted more experiments, but they achieved little on a strategic scale. That would change with the mass chariot action at Cambrai in 1917, though for the time being the chariot was just another factor in a desperate contest.

The offensive is coming to an end

As the weather worsened, the Allies attacked again and again, pounding German positions until November 19, when the operation was broken off. At that time, the allies had advanced no more than 11 km along a 32 km front. By mid-November casualty figures reached 419,654 for the English and 194,541 for the French, and this as the Verdun massacre continued. These immense losses (just under 615,000) were suffered without breaking through the Somme positions. However, the German army suffered 650,000 casualties repulsing the assault, which had serious repercussions. The German Army of 1914 was a splendid military instrument built on Prussian military traditions and the victories of France and Austria. As 1917 began, it was a weary and dispirited force, whose best men had fallen in the fighting on the Somme.


The battle of the Somme weakened the confidence of the English army . It ended Joffre's military career, although Haig was promoted to field marshal at the end of the year. The battle is remembered as the worst carnage in British military history, although it somehow managed to achieve its objectives. The German army was hit hard and was perhaps appalled by the tenacity of the attackers. Whatever the reason, the German army withdrew to the more easily defensible Hindenburg Line in February 1917.

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