About the Battle of the Somme
Read about the background to the Battle of the Somme, the leaders and the human story of suffering.
The Western Front moved backwards and forwards between 1914 and 1918
The British Sector covered the north (the white rectangles) from the Somme to the English Channel. It was the scene of the great battles of The Somme, Paschendale and Ypres. The greatest battle in the French Sector was at Verdun.
The end came on 11 November 1918 with the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage at Compiegne.
The Battle of the Somme was originally planned as a joint British/French operation to ease massive pressure on the French at Verdun.
However, the Battle of the Somme became an overwhelmingly British operation with some French support at the southern (Somme) end of the line.
The Battle of the Somme was the initiative of General (Later Earl) Sir Douglas Haig.
General Sir Douglas Haig – known as ‘Butcher Haig’ was born in 1861 and died in 1928.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force was the recently appointed General Sir Douglas Haig.
In many quarters he has come to be regarded as both incompetent and a butcher – indeed at the time he was sometimes referred to as ‘Butcher Haig’.
General Henry Rawlinson was in charge of the main attack on the Somme and his 4th Army were expected to advance towards Bapaume.
Henry Rawlinson, the son of an English diplomat, was born in 1864. Rawlinson joined the British Army and served under Lord Roberts in India (1887-1890), Lord Kitchener in the Sudan (1898) and the Boer War (1899-1901).
On the outbreak of the First World War Rawlinson was commander of the British expedition sent to help defend Antwerp from the German Army.
The Battle of the Somme was fought principally by the soldiers of Lord Kitchener’s ‘New Army’.
These were just ordinary men from all walks of life united by their resolve to put the Germans in their place. They were almost half a million strong, entirely volunteers, and hardly any of them had been in uniform for more than 23 months. At best they were half trained.
The Battle of the Somme was very much a battle of trench warfare. This was a new form of conflict – the term ‘trenches’ being coined at the time.
During 1914 the initial stages of the fighting were in the nature of a traditional war of movement.
It was the winter of 1914/15 and the need for continuous lines of defence that brought the trenches into being. During the winter the trenches were created to form an unbroken line extending 400 miles from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border.
Life in the trenches at the Battle of the Somme must have been terrible. Even at a supposedly ‘quiet’ time there was the constant risk of death or horrible maiming from either shellfire or snipers.
It has been suggested that as many as one third of all the casualties on the Western Front were killed or wounded while in the trenches.
The Germans chose the position of their front line at the Somme with great care to take maximum advantage of whatever strategic advantage the countryside offered.
Their front line hugged the high spurs and contours of the chalky downland such that every slope, every natural ravine, every wood and hilltop could be turned to maximum advantage for observation, concealment and defence.
General Sir Douglas Haig spent the first six months of 1916 planning a major onslaught on the German lines. He proposed to use about 700,000 men which would give him a seven to one superiority over the Germans in the chosen sector north of the River Somme.
He believed that his offensive – known to his staff as ‘The Big Push’ – would surely end the war. It was destined to be the largest and longest continuous engagement fought since the beginning of recorded history.
The Battle of the Somme itself was preceded by an eight day Allied artillery battery using 1,573 guns.
The guns started on June 24 and continued without break until the start of the offensive. At its peak they were sending over 150,000 shells an hour. It was assumed this would have destroyed the German lines, though this was not the case.
Haig’s confidence before the Battle of the Somme was misplaced. At zero hour the Allied troops climbed out of their trenches and started to advance at a steady walking pace towards the German lines.
As they did they were cut down in thousands under a hail of machine-gun fire.
In the four and a half months of the Battle of the Somme very little ground was gained. Where it was, it upset a firmly held German principle not to give up anything.
The result was that every Allied gain was followed by an immediate German counter-attack. If that failed, another was immediately started.
The result was every yard of ground had to be fought over repeatedly.
Initially public support for the Battle of the Somme offensive was tremendous. The newspapers spoke in terms of ‘advances’, ‘leaps forward’ and ‘captures’.
It was not until the offensive had been underway for some weeks that it became obvious a very high price was being paid.
Almost three months of constant fighting during the Battle of the Somme were to elapse before the German stronghold of Thiepval fell on September 27.
By October 1 the Allies had taken nearly 27,000 German prisoners, but during the next month the Allied casualties were over 60,000.
On November 13 the German positions at Beaumont Hamel fell.
In hindsight and from the British viewpoint, the Battle of the Somme was the wrong battle (effectively like sending cavalry against tanks) in the wrong place (an offensive near the Channel might have worked well) at the wrong time (it happened to be one of the wettest summers on record).