The Battle of the Somme was one of the defining events of the First World War, resulting in over one million casualties. 2016 marks the centenary of the battle.
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. It is one of the most famous battles of the First World War because of the loss of 19,000 British troops killed in a single day (from a total of 58,000 casualties) – the first day of the battle. No other conflict, before or since, can state such a statistic.
The battle began with an attack on a 16 mile front in France, north of the Somme river, between the towns of Arras and Albert. Fighting raged for almost five months, from 1 July to 18 November 1916.
Originally planned as a joint British and French offensive, its aims were both to exhaust the German forces and to gain territory. At the start of 1916, however, the Battle of Verdun had drained France of most of their troops, thus the Somme attack became predominantly British and, in addition, was brought forward from August to relieve the pressure on the French.
Sir Douglas Haig, the new British Commander in Chief, took over the planning and execution of the attack and worked with General Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army was to lead the assault. In preparation, the British bombarded the German lines for eight days in June 1916. They intended to destroy the German defences so that the British could attack over ‘no man’s land’ and capture the German lines.
The British, having been led to believe there would be little enemy opposition, were pushed back by the German machine guns or simply mown down as they crossed no man’s land, leading to the infamous statistics relating to the highest number of deaths ever on a single day of battle. Despite the losses, the British and French continued the attack. German troops were reinforced from Verdun and despite occasional Allied victories (Pozieres was captured by the Australians in July) most advances were rarely followed up and were quickly lost again.
Poor weather, including snow, finally stopped the Somme offensive on 18 November 1916. During the attack, the Allies had gained approximately 7 miles of ground at an estimated cost of 620,000 casualties (420,000 British, 200,000 French). The Germans lost around 500,000 men.
The Battle of the Somme had dire political and social consequences in Britain. People spoke of ‘the lost generation’ and many found it almost impossible to justify the loss of 88,000 men per mile of ground gained.
Unsurprisingly, many famous individuals fought at the Somme. Two caught the public imagination then. Raymond Asquith, Fellow of All Souls and son of the Prime Minister, was killed near Lesboeufs with the Grenadier Guards on 15 September. His father was shattered but so were those for whom Raymond’s abilities made him the embodiment of what came to be called ‘the lost generation’. Serving alongside him, and wounded, was another Harold Macmillan, a future prime minister.
Siegfried Sassoon, nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ by his comrades, won the Military Cross serving with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at Mametz in July 1916. Although his ‘Memoirs of an infantry officer’ would not be published until after the war, his poetry made him well known during the war, and his decision to throw his MC in the Mersey in 1917 in protest against the war prompted the War Office to regard him (not without reason) as suffering from shell shock.
Even after two years of conflict, British military faith was still being placed in cavalry attacks. A cavalry regiment was put on stand-by at the Battle of the Somme to ‘exploit the hole in the German defences created by the British infantry attack’.
But the Battle of the Somme also saw several different weapons being used including mines, poisonous gas and machine guns. Some of the larger machine guns needed 12 men to operate them. The best known innovation of 1916 was the tank, first used in battle at Flers on 15 September 1916. Armoured, tracked vehicles were designed to cross trenches, crush barbed wire and give direct fire support.
For the British Royal Flying Corps, the Somme was a key moment with aircraft providing the photographs to map enemy positions for counter-battery fire.
There have been millions of casualties in conflicts since WW1 including WW2,Iraq and Afghanistan. We owe the fallen and wounded men and women from our great country profound thanks and gratitude for their service in defence of our freedoms.
We Will Not Forget.
- Update: Meet at the Parish Hall at 10:30am to take part in the march to St. James’ Church for the memorial service.
Further reading: http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/what-we-remember/first-world-war/battle-of-the-somme/