The Battle of the Somme: 141 Days of Horror

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. For five months the British and French armies fought the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front.

The aims of the battle were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides.

1st July 1919—The First and Bloodiest Day.  The Allies bombarded German trenches for seven days and then sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German lines.

The day was a disaster for the British.  The Germans weathered the artillery fire in deep trenches and came up fighting.  As the British soldiers advanced, they were mown down by machine gun and rifle fire.  In total, 19,240 British soldiers lost their lives.  It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.  However, the French had more success and inflicted big losses on German troops.  In spite of heavy British losses, Douglas Haig, the British general, agreed to continue the attack.

The Lochnagar mine crater is the largest man-made mine crater.  It was laid by the British Army’s 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers underneath a German strongpoint called “Schwaben Höhe”.  The mine was exploded two minutes before 07.30 am Zero Hour at the launch of the British offensive against the German lines on the morning of 1st July 1916.  Despite the successful blowing of the mine and the damage caused to the German strongpoint, the German defenders managed to get into well-placed positions to fire at the advancing British soldiers.  Within half an hour of the start of the infantry attack many hundreds of them were already dead or wounded.

2nd July 1916—The British Push Forward.  After the first day, where they captured three square miles of territory, the British attempted to press their advance.

Over a two week period, the British made a series of small attacks on the German line, in preparation for another large-scale assault.  On 4 July, British soldiers engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat to take Mametz wood and nearby forests.  Progress was slow and the British suffered another 25,000 casualties (dead and wounded).  The Germans were under increasing pressure and were forced to redeploy guns and men from Verdun to reinforce their lines.

7th July 1916—’Pals Battalions’ Mourned at Home.  Although the British press put a positive spin on the start of the “Big Push”, the casualty lists told a different story.

In the second week of July, lists of the dead and wounded began to appear in the papers.  The home towns which provided the volunteers for General Kitchener’s “Pal’s battalions” were hit hardest.  The 11th East Lancashire battalion was known as the Accrington Pals.  Of the 720 men who went into action on 1 July, 584 became casualties.  Although they were still behind the war effort, people at home wore black arm bands to commemorate those who had lost their lives.

14th July 1916—Night Assault on Bazentin Ridge.  Under cover of darkness, British soldiers gathered in no-man’s land, getting ready for a massive dawn assault in the northern part of the Somme.

At 3.20 am the British guns pounded the enemy lines with five times the intensity of the first day of the Somme.  As the sun rose, 22,000 British troops attacked.  The Germans were taken by surprise.  The British achieved an early victory advancing 6,000 yards into enemy territory and occupying Longueval village.  Two regiments of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division were sent into action.  However they failed to take High Wood, which remained in German hands.

15th July 1916—South Africans Take ‘Devil’s Wood’.  Delville Wood would come to be known as “Devil’s wood” by the soldiers who fought there.

Situated at the southern end of the British line, the dense woodland was a key Allied military objective.  On 15 July, 3,000 soldiers of the 1st South African brigade occupied the wood.  The Germans unleashed fierce machine gun and artillery fire and launched a brutal series of counter-attacks.  Terrible weather turned the wood into a muddy grave.  Undaunted, the South Africans held on.  When they were relieved five days later, 143 men were left standing.

23rd July 1916—The Anzacs Capture Pozières.  In July, the British were reinforced by the First Anzac Corps, with three Australian divisions composed largely of inexperienced volunteers.

After a short intense artillery bombardment, they stormed the village of Pozières which stood high on the crest of Thiepval Ridge.  The Germans unleashed an intense barrage and counter-attacked on the ground.  Over six weeks the British and Australian forces tried and failed to take the nearby Mouquet Farm.  The battle claimed over 12,000 Australian casualties – more than at Gallipoli.  It has gone down in popular history as further testament to the indomitable Anzac spirit.

10 August 1916—Twenty Million Watch the Battle of the Somme Film.   Made by the War Office as a public information film for the home front, “The Battle of the Somme” featured real footage from the war.

The film broke box office records and in autumn 1916 nearly half the population of the UK watched it at the cinema.  The most powerful scene, depicting British soldiers going over the top to face the Germans, was reconstructed behind the lines.  The film had a huge impact on British audiences. Seeing the horror of industrial warfare for the first time imbued the British public with a determination to see the conflict through to the end.

29th August 1916—German General Resigns.  By August, the Germans had suffered nearly 250,000 casualties.  Morale was low and many German leaders believed the battle was lost.

The Germans were losing ground at the Somme and at Verdun the French were attacking in earnest.  The Allied naval blockades of the North Sea and the Adriatic Sea, caused food shortages in Germany.  Bread, meat, sugar, eggs and milk were rationed.  Germany’s general, Falkenhayn, resigned and was replaced by General Hindenburg and his chief of staff Ludendorff. They employed new tactics – German soldiers were to concede ground in order to inflict the maximum number of casualties on the Allies.

15th September 1916—Tanks Attack!  At the Battle of Flers Courcelette, the British deployed a new piece of technology – the tank.

By early September, the French had made significant gains and this put General Haig under pressure to launch a major attack.  On 15 September the British artillery unleashed 828,000 shells and 12 divisions of men advanced, aided by their secret weapon, 48 Mark I tanks.  Yet many broke down – only 21 made it to the front line.  The British advanced about 1.5 miles, finally taking High Wood.  However, the exhausted British soldiers could not progress any further – they sustained 29,000 casualties.

17th September 1916—The Germans Fight Back on Land and in the Air.  From the beginning of the battle, the Allies had dominated the skies.  However, in September the Germans deployed new planes and new tactics.

The Fokker DII, the Halberstadt and the Albatros DI and DII outclassed their British counterparts.  The British could no longer compete with the Germans in the air and this hampered observation and artillery targeting.  Having gained air superiority, the Germans launched a massive infantry attack, sending thousands of soldiers over the top.  However, their advance was thwarted by French artillery and machine guns, which stopped them in their tracks.

25—28th September 1916—Allied Victory in Sight.  In late September, the British made two substantial gains – Morval and Thiepval Ridge.

At Morval, the British mastered an important tactic – the “creeping barrage”, in which artillery was fired just in front of its advancing infantry to ease their progress.  On 27 September, the British 18th Division captured a key German defensive position – Thiepval fortress village.  However, the next day, German planes strafed the British trenches and their artillery let loose a powerful bombardment.  The British troops had to dig-in at the nearby network of German trenches – Schwaben Redoubt.

1st October 1916—British Halted by Atrocious Weather.  In early October, the weather began to deteriorate and British soldiers were bogged down in yet another muddy battlefield.

At the Battle of Le Transloy Ridge on 1 October, the British struggled in a futile, uphill battle of attrition. Though exhausted, the men fought on for three weeks, trying and failing to capture the German trenches. The British soldiers came under heavy artillery fire and German planes bombed their trenches. The worsening weather hindered the British air observation – rendering their artillery ineffective. The British suffered 57,000 casualties and gained little ground.

13th November 1916—The Last Battle of the Somme.  In mid-November, the British carried out their final battle on the Somme on the River Ancre.

The “creeping barrage” was deployed again with great success and the British troops stormed the German defences. The 51st Highland Division took Beaumont Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division took Beaucourt, capturing 7,000 German prisoners. Further south, the French gave up trying to capture St.Pierre Vast Wood as winter weather set in and a battle against the elements replaced that against the enemy.

19th November 1916—Offensives Cease and Troops Dig in.  With winter closing in, the fight was now suspended. Haig deemed the soldiers had done enough and resolved to resume the offensive in February.

In 141 days the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to break the German defence. Some historians believe that with a few more weeks of favourable weather the Allies could have broken through German lines. Others argue the Allies never stood a chance. In any case, the British army inflicted heavy losses on the German Army. In March 1917, the Germans made a strategic retreat to the Hindenburg line rather than face the resumption of the Battle of the Somme.