The battle of Albert, 1-13 July 1916, is the official name for the British efforts during the first two weeks fighting of the first battle of the Somme. As such it includes the first day of the Somme, the most costly day in British military history and one that has coloured our image of the First World War ever since.
The battle of the Somme had been intended to be a big Anglo-French assault on the centre of the German lines. The original plan had been somewhat disrupted by the German attack at Verdun on 21 February, which pulled in an ever increasing number of French troops. By the time the battle began, it had turned into a largely British affair, with support from the French Sixth Army on the Somme itself.
The artillery bombardment began seven days before the infantry were due to go in. It was not as effective as had been hoped, leaving large portions of the German front line intact. The German lines on the Somme contained a large number of deep concrete bunkers, which protected the Germans from the British bombardment, allowing them to emerge once the bombardment ended. Worse, along most of the British front the bombardment failed to destroy the German wire.
The attack on 1 July was made by eleven divisions along a fourteen mile front from Montauban to Serre. Haig hoped to capture the German front line along this entire front, then break through their second and third lines, before turning left and rolling up the German lines to the sea.
This would prove to be the most ridiculously optimistic plan. Along the northern two thirds of the front virtually no ground was taken. A few lodgements were made in the German front lines, but they were impossible to extend and difficult to support. The British suffered 57,000 casualties on 1 July, the most costly single day in British military history. Thirteen divisions at full strength contained 130,000 men, so the British suffered over 40% casualties in a single day.
On the right of the line the picture was a little less depressing. Between Maricourt and Fricourt the British XIII corps captured the entire German front line. To its left the 7th Division (XV corps) failed to take Fricourt, but the 21st Division, also of XV corps, captured 1,000 yards of the line, isolated Fricourt, which the Germans abandoned overnight.
At the end of the first day the British High Command had little idea of the scale of the disaster. Communications back from the front line were difficult or impossible, and it would take the best part of a week before the total casualty figures for the first day were known. Haig was encouraged to order a renewal of the assault along the entire front on 2 July.
2 July began with an unsuccessful German counterattack at the junction of the British and French armies, where both had advanced from their own front lines. During the day Haig’s planned attack was cancelled corps by corps as the scale of the losses suffered on the previous day became clearer. Very few brigades were still in a fit state to organise another major assault so soon.
The army was still in chaos on 3 July, when an attempt was made to capture Ovillers and Thiepval. The plan of attack was repeated changed, partly to allow units longer to prepare and partly in an attempt to save the already limited stocks of artillery ammunition. The German counter-bombardment had destroyed most of the field telephone wires connected various head quarters to their artillery batteries, so the changes in orders often failed to get through in time.
Haig now realised that his best change of success was to focus on the right of the line, where some progress had been made. This was an awkward area to fight from, cramped and away from the best roads, but elsewhere the German front line was essentially intact. General Joffre did not approve of this change of emphasis, even attempting to order Haig to attack further north, but without success.
The rest of the fighting in the battle of Albert involved a series of attacks on the front east of the village of La Boisselle, on the Albert-Bapaume road. This slowly pushed the Germans back towards their second position, on Bazentine Ridge. Haig’s intention was to launch an attack with XV and XIII corps against that part of the German second line, starting on 14 July (battle of Bazentine Ridge, 14-17 July).
The battle of Albert is best viewed as two entirely different battles. The first day of the battle, which saw the British attack on a wide front and suffer a heavy defeat, has come to dominate the image of the Somme campaign, deservedly so for it was an unparalled disaster. However it was not typical of the campaign as a whole. The remaining days of the battle of Albert were much more typical of what was to come between then and the end of the battle in November. A series of attacks were made, each with more limited objectives, most of which made some progress, but without ever quite achieving all of their objectives. The search for a breakthrough soon turned into a battle of attrition (or of material).