The Somme

July 1 to November 18, 1916

The British Army at the beginning of the Great War was a small, professional force, with the six division British Expeditionary Force being small compared to the 62 divisions that France could muster.  The BEF was just big enough, though, to play an important part in stopping the initial German attack in August 1914.

By 1916, the BEF had suffered heavy losses in the Race to the Sea, Ypres, and in several attacks in 1915.  Now under Douglas Haig, the BEF was 60 divisions, bigger than ever, with the addition of untested volunteers organized in local 'pals' battalions and Territorial units.  The British and French had envisioned a joint offensive that year in conjunction with offensives from Russia and Italy.  The German attack at Verdun came first, however.  With French losses mounting, and with the symbolic town of Verdun in danger of falling, the French pressured the British to attack to relieve the pressure.  Even after the crisis at Verdun had subsided, planning for the attack continued.  Twenty British and 13 French divisions would attack.

The Western Front was in deadlock, with machine guns and artillery making infantry attacks costly and unsuccessful.  Not even poison gas could not force a decisive breakthrough.  Perhaps another way would be successful.  If enough artillery could be assembled, and if they could fire for long enough, the German artillery and machine guns could be largely destroyed.  Then it would be relatively simple for the infantry to move forward and occupy the German trenches.  The army commander, Rawlinson, had planned for a "bite and hold" attack on the German first line, then a consolidation with the artillery moved forward to support an attack on the second line.  Douglas Haig, the BEF commander, overruled Rawlinson and ordered a bombardment on both the German first and second lines followed by what he hoped would be a breakthrough attack.  For "The Big Push" to be decisive, cavalry was ready to exploit the expected gaps in the German defenses.  

A five day bombardment was planned.  After the attack was delayed, the bombardment was extended to a week.  Surely the German defenders would be shattered.


British Artillery

The bombardment was less effective than expected.  Compared to French Army practice, there were fewer and smaller guns for any given section of the front.  Many of the rounds fired were anti-personnel rounds which were of little use considering the vast majority of the Germans had taken cover in dugouts deep underground.  The largest of the British artillery was unable to penetrate enough earth to destroy these dugouts.  It was hoped that the bombardment would destroy the barbed wire in front of the German trenches.  Much of the wire was still intact.  Lower levels within the army reported their discoveries of intact wire and of hearing Germans singing inside their dugouts, but the top-down command system discouraged the upward flow of information, and the high command tried to force an optimistic view on the army.  When the bombardment lifted on the morning of July 1st, the Germans eagerly left their dugouts to return to their positions in the trenches.  Expecting the bombardment to have smashed the enemy, the attacking British infantry for the most part advanced carrying heavy packs, slowly in line in order to maintain order.


July 1st:



Hawthorn Crater

Newfoundland Memorial Park


La Boiselle

Fricourt and Mametz


Along most of the 20 mile front progress had been non-existent.  Only near the border with the French army was there decent progress.  The Germans and the French suffered heavy losses, but the British losses were frightful.  Although the high command did not know it yet, over 57,000 British troops had been lost that day - 19,000 of those had been killed.  With the other Allies doing their part - Russia, Romania, Italy, and France all cooperating to put maximum pressure on the Central Powers, there was never any question about halting the Somme attack.  If they continued, perhaps the Germans would become exhausted and a decisive breakthrough was possible.  So the battle continued into November.  By the end, the Allies had lost over 600,000 men killed, wounded, captured, and missing.  The Germans had lost over 450,000 men.  The land at the Somme was so filled with unexploded ordnance and the debris of war that the government wanted to let the area grow into a forest, but the locals would have nothing of it.  The people returned and rebuilt, and the battlefield is now a beautiful and somber place that is rewarding to visit, especially if you take the time to carefully prepare yourself.

Bernafay Wood Cemetery

On July 3-4, Bernafay Wood was captured by the 9th Division.  Here immediately adjacent to Bernafay Wood there was a dressing station for the wounded, which became the cemetery.

Delville Wood Cemetery

Fighting near Delville Wood extended from mid July to early September.  South African troops were prominent here.                          

Mouquet Farm

Beginning in early August and extending to late September, Australian attacks were costly, so they were replaced by Canadian troops who were later replaced by British troops.


Tank Corps Memorial, Pozieres Windmill

In early August, the Australian Corps reached the area of Pozieres Windmill.  On September 15th, Canadian troops attacked from here.  Tanks were then used for the first time.  It has often been said that this use of tanks was premature.  It was only next year at Cambrai that tanks were used en masse.

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