The Battle of the Somme
1st July - 18th November 1916
At the Chantilly Conference in December 1915 the Allied military leaders met to discuss plans for coordinated operations against the Central Powers in 1916. Britain agreed to support the French in a joint offensive on the Somme sector of the Western Front.
In February 1916 the German Army attacked the fortress at Verdun. Knowing that French national pride would never let them give up the fight for Verdun, Chief of the German General Staff General Erich Von Falkenhayn intended to “bleed France white” and force them out of the war. More and more French troops were sent to fight at Verdun, which had turned into a bloody war of attrition.
The responsibility for the Somme offensive now fell to the British. With many of their troops committed to the fight at Verdun the French could only offer a supporting role. The French Commander in Chief General Joseph Joffre wanted the offensive to begin as soon as possible to relieve the pressure on Verdun. General Douglas Haig, who had replaced Sir John French as Commander in Chief at the end of 1915, preferred to wait until August when the British Army would be in a much stronger position. Men were arriving from the abandoned Gallipoli campaign and there were the New Army battalions raised by Lord Kitchener, but Haig felt they needed more training and were not yet ready for a major offensive. In the end Joffre and Haig agreed to a start date of June 29.
The Plan of Attack
The main attack would be undertaken by General Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army along a fourteen mile front from Serre in the north to Maricourt in the south. The objective was to capture the high ground of the Pozieres Ridge and create a gap in the German lines. This gap would be exploited by the cavalry who would push through to Bapaume, which lay nine miles behind the German front line. The advance would then continue north towards Arras. The French Sixth Army would take part in the attack along their line, which ran either side of the River Somme, to protect the British right flank.
Two miles to the north of Serre the 46th (North Midland) and 56th (London) Territorial Army divisions of General Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army would launch a diversionary attack on Gommecourt. The purpose of their attack was to draw as much enemy fire as possible away from the main assault and protect the British left flank.
The German Second Army had been on the Somme for nearly two years. They held the high ground and as ordered by General Von Falkenhayn had constructed an extensive defensive system. The soft chalk allowed them to build deep dug outs, some up to 40ft below ground level, which provided shelter from artillery shells. Most places had three lines of defences, with deep trenches up to 10ft deep surrounded by barbed wire entanglements and protected by concrete pill boxes that housed machine gun posts. Villages along the line were fortified and defensive positions known as redoubts were constructed.
General Rawlinson drew up the plan of attack with the approval of General Haig. There was to be a prolonged, heavy bombardment to destroy the deep German bunkers and to cut the lines of barbed wire and create a path for the infantry. The Tunnelling Companies placed eight large and eleven small mines under key German defensive positions, which would be detonated shortly before zero hour.
So confident was Rawlinson of the devastation the artillery barrage would bring, that the infantry were to go over the top in waves. They were to walk in extended line formation at a slow, steady pace towards the German front line before occupying the deserted trenches. These they were to hold, repelling any counter attacks before moving on to their next objective which had already come under artillery bombardment according to the pre-arranged timetable.
The infantry were to go ‘over the top’ carrying full packs. Men in the rear waves carried more such as supplies of ammunition, even rolls of barbed wire and duck boards. Communication from the front line was always difficult so some of the men carried signal flares and many wore tin triangles on their back so observers at the rear could monitor their progress. Baskets of carrier pigeons and rolls of telephone wire were also to be carried forward.
Zero hour was at 7.30am. To aid their artillery observers the French had insisted that the attack was launched in broad daylight.
The artillery bombardment had begun on June 24. It continued day and night and the noise could be heard from southern England. Bad weather forced the attack to be postponed until July 1 by which time over 1,500,000 artillery shells had been fired at the German front line.
The infantry moved up to their assembly trenches. The Somme offensive had been meticulously planned and the men had practiced on mock ups of the battlefield behind the lines. Captain Wilfred Nevill of the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment had given his men two footballs to kick across No Man’s Land.
At 6.30am the artillery barrage intensified. The Hawthorn Ridge mine was detonated at 7.20am, ten minutes before zero hour. The rest were detonated a few minutes later. At 7.30am the barrage lifted and moved on to its secondary targets and the main assault began.
The deep German dug outs had protected them from the worst of the shelling. It is estimated that up to 1/3 of the shells used were duds and there were not enough of the heavy guns that were necessary to destroy these deep dug outs. As soon as the bombardment lifted the Germans left the shelters and manned their defences. Machine guns strafed No Man’s Land. Artillery shells rained down across the battlefield and on to the men waiting in the assembly trenches. The lines of infantry were easy targets for the German machine gunners.
In most places the attacks failed. The 31st division opposite Serre was mainly made up of Pals Battalions from the north of England. They were mown down by machine gun fire, most within a hundred yards of the British front line. 60% of the battalions taking part on the first day were New Army or Pals Battalions. These were made up of men who had responded to Lord Kitchener’s call for volunteers in 1914 and signed up ‘ to do their bit’ for the duration of the war.
The detonation of the mine at 7.20am under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt had destroyed the German strongpoint, however it had also alerted the Germans that an infantry attack was imminent. The German defenders were in place before the units of the 29th Division, back from Gallipoli, began their attack towards Beaumont Hamel. Most didn’t make it across No Man’s Land.
Near Thiepval units of the 36th (Ulster) division initially managed to capture the Schwaben Redoubt but were eventually forced to withdraw. Corporal George Sanders of the 1/7th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for holding on “at all costs” to a small corner of the redoubt with only 30 men for 36 hours. They had no food or water as the water had been given to the wounded men on the first night.
Communication between those at the front and headquarters behind the lines was slow and there was no clear picture of what was going on. The artillery barrage stuck to the prearranged timetable despite the reality of the situation on the ground and men were continuing to be sent ‘over the top’.
Those that did make it across to capture German trenches were often few in numbers. It was impossible to send reinforcements or supplies of ammunition across No Man’s Land and many found themselves cut off. By the evening most of the gains that had been made in the northern sector were lost.
There was more success south of the Albert-Bapaume road. Here, on the right of the British line, nearly all the objectives were achieved and Montauban and Mametz were captured. The French Sixth Army also achieved nearly all of its objectives.
The 1 July had been a disaster for the British Army. Thousands of dead and wounded men lay out in No Man’s Land and the casualty clearing stations were overwhelmed. There were 57,470 casualties. 19,240 men died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. On the 2 July the attack continued all along the front line.
The Battle Continues
During the first two weeks of the Somme offensive there were a series of small scale attacks, mostly south of the Albert-Bapaume road. General Haig wanted to build on the successes that had been made here on the 1 July and put the Fourth Army in a more advantageous position in preparation for a larger assault on the Bazentin Ridge. The list of casualties grew as the Fourth Army engaged in a brutal contest to capture Trones Wood, Contalmaison and Mametz Wood.
General Haig still hoped that he could end the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front and break through the German defences. On the night of the 13/14 July almost 20,000 British infantry moved undetected into No Man’s Land and formed up within 500 yards of the German line, ready for a dawn attack on the German second defensive position between Longueval and Bazentin-le-Petit. At 3.25am the waiting infantry rushed forward after an intense lightning bombardment of only 5 minutes. The surprise attack succeeded and the German defenders were quickly overwhelmed.
However, Haig’s hoped for breakthrough was not achieved. The new British line formed a salient and no further progress could be made until Delville Wood and Longueval village were in Allied hands. Delville Wood came to be known as Devil’s Wood. The South African Brigade spent six days in close-quarter fighting trying to take it and suffered around 2,300 casualties before they were relieved. Delville Wood was eventually captured on the 9 September.
The Fourth Army were also held up at High Wood, which was strategically important and located on the crest of a low ridge. A series of costly attempts were made to capture the wood, but the Germans had constructed a strong defensive position, the Switch Line, which ran along its northern apex and had several machine gun emplacements hidden within it. It would take two months of brutal fighting before it finally fell to the British on the 15 September.
As fighting continued in the southern sector further north there was a renewed attempt to capture the Pozieres Ridge. The task of capturing Pozieres was given to the 1st Anzac Corps. On the 23 July the 1st Australian Division attacked Pozieres village. Strong German resistance hampered efforts to progress after their initial successes and there were repeated attempts to reach the German second line positions on the top of the ridge behind the village. On the 5 August, the Australians finally reached the ‘windmill’ some 500 yards beyond the village on the ridge crest. The Australian divisions continued to take part in attacks in the Pozieres area before they were withdrawn at the beginning of September. In a little over six weeks they had lost 23,000 men.
General Haig planned a major attack for mid-September, where again he hoped to break through the German line and use cavalry to exploit any gains made. For the first time Haig would also have at his disposal a newly developed weapon, the tank.
The infantry attack began at 6.20am on the 15 September with 11 divisions attacking along a front from Morval in the south to Courcelette in the north. 36 tanks, out of the 49 deployed, had made it to the start line. The tank was still largely experimental and untested in battle and it proved to be very unreliable. However, these new machines still had a disconcerting effect on the German infantry and most notably helped in the successful capture of the village of Flers. Despite some limited successes the main objectives of the battle were not achieved.
The autumn rains had turned the Somme into a sea of mud. It became an arduous task to transport supplies up to the front line and virtually impossible to move the heavy artillery. The men were constantly cold and wet and were left exhausted as they attempted to struggle through the deep mud.
Despite the deteriorating conditions General Haig was determined to continue with the Somme offensive particularly after the successful capture of Thiepval on the 26 September. Thiepval had originally been an objective of the 1 July.
The Fourth Army launched an attack on the Transloy Ridges in the middle of October. The British infantry, lacking in numbers, struggled in the appalling conditions and encountered strong German resistance which resulted in high casualties for very little gain. Meanwhile General Gough’s Reserve Army (renamed Fifth Army at the end of October) was battling to occupy the remainder of the Thiepval Ridge and gain the high ground overlooking the River Ancre. The ridge was well defended and a succession of costly assaults finally saw the capture of Stuff Redoubt, Schwaben Redoubt and Regina Trench, the latter falling to the Canadian Corps on the 11 November.
The high ground was strategically important, offering good observation of the surrounding countryside. General Haig wanted the front line to be in a more favourable position, ready to continue the offensive after the winter and achieve victory in 1917.
On the 13 November Gough’s Fifth Army launched the last attack of the Somme offensive along a front stretching either side of the Ancre River. Those to the north of the river left from the same starting position as on July 1. The Germans put up a fierce defence and the infantry had to struggle through the quagmire of the battlefield in fog, rain and snow. General Haig attending the Inter-Allied Conference at Chantilly was, however, placed in a more favourable negotiating position when he was able to report the successful capture of Beaumont Hamel.
The oncoming winter weather and appalling conditions finally brought the Somme offensive to an end on the 18 November 1916.
There were over 1 million casualties on the Somme 419,654 of which were British and Commonwealth forces. The large number of men killed amongst the Pals Battalions left a devastating impact on many small communities back in Britain. In four and a half months of fighting the British front line had advanced approximately seven miles.