The battle of the Somme, 1 July – 18 November 1916

Photo:  Sign for visitors near the Ancre cemetery, Beaumont Hamel, the Somme in the languages of the former combatants

675 words / 4 minute read

“The aim was to end the stalemate on the Western Front; the result was carnage.”

At five in the morning of 1 July 1916, the first British air reconnaissance of the day took place over German lines.  Before the battle on the ground began, British aircraft were bombing German railway yards, cuttings and bridges far behind the lines.  Béthune and Cambrai were both targeted.  Each bomber carried two 112-pound bombs.

Then, starting at 7 a.m., nearly a quarter of a million shells were fired at the German positions in just over an hour.  This was an average of 3,500 shells a minute.  So intense and so loud was the barrage that it was heard on Hampstead Heath in north London, almost two hundred miles away.  It was an astonishing sound, as guns of all calibres fired simultaneously.  In some parts of the line British soldiers sat on their parapets cheering at each explosion, but their enthusiastic shouts were lost in the thunder of the guns.  The sound was so intense that if a man screamed at the top of his voice into another man’s ear, he could not be heard. 

The British planners had gravely underestimated the German capacity to survive in their deep dugouts, and then to emerge with their fighting ability unimpaired and their machine guns ready to open an intense and unremitting fire into the lines of the advancing infantry.

The human cost of the fighting on July 1 was higher than on any other single day of battle in the First World War.  In all, 19,240 men had been killed and large numbers seriously wounded; the Royal Army Medical Corps recorded that from six in the morning of July 1 to six the following morning, British field ambulances collected 26,675 wounded men.  Several thousand more were lying in No-Man’s Land, beyond the reach of succour or rescue.

The heroism of the infantrymen and the horrors they faced were undoubted.  The reason for failure did not lie in any lack of zeal.  The men who went over the top were determined to succeed, and had been instilled with a fierce hatred of the enemy.  On all but the southern sector of the front, however, they had been let down by the inability of their own artillery to make sufficient breaches in the German wire, or to destroy the deepest German dugout, or to sue its counter-battery fire to undermine the German artillery power.

The Battle of the Somme had only just begun, as had the creation of the cemeteries that are today a sombre, defining feature of the landscape.  Twelve miles behind the German front line at Villers-au-Flos, one of several German cemeteries was begun on that first day of battle.  Today it holds the remains of 2,449 men, their names in pairs under black crosses.  In the British war cemeteries and on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing are the names of 118 boys aged seventeen or under who died on that first day.

The Big Push had failed to achieve its initial and most ambitious aim:  a breakthrough that could be exploited by cavalry, driving the Germans back to the cities of Cambrai and Douai.  It did succeed in its crucial secondary aim:  to break the intensity of the German attack on Verdun, and give the French forces embattled there a breathing space to recover their strength.  It also prevented the Germans from transferring troops to where they were badly needed on the Russian and Romanian Fronts.

The four-and-a-half month battle had forced the Germans out of their strongly fortified first and second line of trenches, and out of much of their third line, inflicting enormous casualties upon them.  While not breaking the German determination to continue the fight, the Allies had weakened the Germans’ military capacity, forcing them to pull back in February 1917 as much as thirty miles in search of a more defensible line, fearful that the battle on the Somme would be renewed.  The Allied losses were so heavy that they might have sapped the British and Commonwealth will to fight, but they did not do so.

ReadThe Somme

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