Battleground: The Campaign for the Somme

At 7:30am on 1st July 1916, British and French forces launched an offensive on the Somme that would last until 18th November and would claim over one million casualties on both sides.

The Somme

The Somme offensive was intended to achieve a decisive victory for the Allies over the Germans on the Western Front after 18 months of trench deadlock. Instead it became one of the most costly campaigns of the First World War. The controversy surrounding the bloodbath still rages, exactly ninety years after the tragic massacre.

Private George Morgan of the 1st Bradford Pals wrote:

There was no lingering about when zero hour came. Our platoon officer blew his whistle and he was the first up the scaling ladder, with his revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 'Come on, boys,' he said, and up he went. We went up after him one at a time. I never saw the officer again. His name is on the memorial to the missing which they built after the war at Thiepval. He was only young but he was a very brave man.

PREPARATION

At a conference held in December 1915 the Allies decided to seek victory the following year by mounting 'The Big Push' consisting of simultaneous offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian Fronts.

It was agreed that a combined attack by the British and French on the Western Front would take place in Picardy, north and south of the River Somme, in July 1916. When the time came, the British had to assume the main role in the operation as French forces had been considerably weakened by a German offensive at Verdun on 21 February 1916.

The infantry assault was originally scheduled for 29 June, but because of bad weather it was postponed for 48 hours. Zero Hour was set for 07:30 on 1 July 1916.

A Vickers machine gun

A Vickers machine gun

WEEK-LONG BOMBARBMENT

For an entire week before the attack the Allied artillery pounded German lines to ensure speedy and safe advancement across No Man's Land, firing 1.6 million shells in the process.

It's important to remember that by this point in the War the massive expansion of the British Army meant that soldiers were put into positions of responsibility for which they had no experience.

None of Britain's senior commanders had any training for their positions of authority they had to take at the Battle of the Somme. No training, however, could have prepared them for what was about to happen.

After a week's shelling these British commanders were so confident they had ruined the German front line they ordered their troops to simply walk slowly towards the enemy. The plan was that once the German line had been seized, cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans. Nothing, it seemed, could go wrong.

GERMAN CUNNING

The reality of what happened on the first day of the Battle of the Somme was very different from what the Allies had planned. The Allies failed to conceal their preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning.

Aside from the fact that many of the British shells had failed to explode, the Allies did not count on the fact that the German trenches were far more fortified than their own; the Germans initiative had constructed reinforced bunkers far underground, a huge contrast from the shallow muddy ditches of the Allied trenches.

When the bombardment began, all the Germans had to do was simply move underground and wait. When the shelling was over, the Germans were ready. They left their bunkers and set up their positions by the machine guns. The strolling Allied soldiers never saw it coming.

Unearthing WWI Trailer

THE FIRST DAY

As the 11 British divisions slowly walked towards German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. By many accounts all the Germans had to do was move the machine guns, cutting row upon row of Allied soldiers in half. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.

The only substantial British success was in the south, but those few units who reached the German trenches found out quickly enough that the shells had not cut through the German barbed wire and they were soon were driven back. In other areas, whole units died together.

By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day were killed.

WAR OF ATTRITION

From that tragic day onwards the campaign was characterised by relentless attacks and counterattacks on both sides. With the 'decisive breakthrough' now a decisive failure, Field Marshall Haig accepted that advances would be concentrated in the south.

The British took the German positions there on 14 July, and for the next two months saw bloody stalemate, with the Allies gaining hardly any ground at all.

The tank was first used in World War One

The tank was first used in World War One

DEBUT OF THE TANK

By mid September the British were ready to assault the German defences with a new weapon, the tank. However these early models were lightly armed and often broke down.

Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points. Despite startling the German soldiers, ultimately they made little impact.

THE FINAL BATTLE

Torrential rain in October had turned the battleground into a muddy quagmire by torrential rain. In these dreadful conditions the last act of the Somme offensive took place by the River Ancre sector from 13th to 19th November 1916. It goes down as an Allied success although it is hard to state any battle during the campaign as a 'success'. However, the campaign for the Somme was finally over.

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THE COST

Over a million men became casualties in the long and bitter struggle on the Somme. The offensive cost Britain and the Empire 419,654 casualties, 125,000 of them dead. In Britain the impact of the losses was severe, particularly in the north of England where many of the battalions had been recruited - men like Private George Morgan were lucky to survive.

While French casualties numbered 204,253, estimates of German casualties are reported between 400,000 and 680,000. A German staff officer described the Somme as 'the muddy grave of the German field army.'

Now, almost a century on from that destructive conflict, it is still vital that we remember these men, many of whom never stood a chance as they walked blindly into oblivion.