Battle of the Somme, June-November 1916: Day of Infamy for the British Army

The Battle for the Somme has a unique place in British military history. Haig was in the middle of preparations for a British offensive but came under strong pressure to mount an attack due the French commitment to the Battle for Verdun, a city which held an important place in the nation's psyche and that the Germans had attacked in February 1916. Any Allied offensive would therefore have to be carried mainly by the British. Haig was therefore forced to undertake an offensive near to where the British and French lines met, near Bray-sur-Somme in Picardy, although he would have preferred to attack further north and to have had longer with which to prepare his new army. The battlefield was bisected by both the Albert – Bapaume Road and the River Somme, and was a series of gentle chalk ridge lines into which the Germans had dug a series of well-prepared fortifications. Haig's plan called for Rawlinson's Fourth Army to achieve a breakthrough in the centre (in the process capturing the Pozières ridgeline) after which Gough's Reserve Army (later renamed the Fifth Army) that happened to include cavalry, would exploit, roll up the German defences and capture Bapaume. Allenby's Third Army would undertake a diversionary attack on Gommecourt, which lay to the north.

The massive preparatory bombardment, meant to destroy the German defences started on 24 June 1916 at 06.00. Over 1.7 million shells were fired but a high proportion, some 30 percent, failed to explode as the Ministry of Munitions had abandoned any semblance of quality control in order to be able to produce the quantities needed in time. Tunnelling companies dug hollowed out chambers underneath key German strongpoints and filled them with explosives. The shelling had started on 'U' Day and was meant to go on until 'Z' Day, which was 29 June 1916 but heavy rains caused the approach roads, trenches and crater ridden No-Man's land too muddy and so the assault was postponed until 1 July. Just after dawn on 1 July, the first British wave clambered out of their trenches and started to make their way towards the German frontline. As they did, seventeen enormous mines were detonated and the barrage moved forward. The infantry followed behind and although there were local gains on the first day – the 36th Ulster Division had some success near Thiepval and Montauban was taken – generally things looked bleak. The British suffered 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed and 2,152 missing) that was an unprecedented experience for the British Army. Some thirty-two battalions lost over 500 men – twenty were from Kitchener's 'New Army', many being 'Pals' battalions, groups of men who had joined up together. Seven 'New Army' divisions attacked, alongside three Territorial and four regular Army divisions. The French attack on the right of the British line was smaller than had been originally intended as troops had to be diverted to the fighting around Verdun but their attack went relatively successfully and the preponderance of heavy guns in the French sector also helped the British forces adjacent to them.

Walking Wounded from Mametz Woodin Pommier Redoubt, Somme, 1916
Walking Wounded
from Mametz Wood
in Pommier Redoubt
Somme, 1916

Astonishing though the casualties on the first day were, they tend to cloud the image of the entire campaign. The British Army suffered, over the course of the entire 142-day campaign, some 415,000 casualties, which works out to be around 3,000 per day. So the casualty rate on the 1 July should be seen as a historical anomaly. The image of disproportionate British casualties can also be viewed against the casualties for the Germans – perhaps as high as 650,000, and so could be argued to be a freak day of battle and unrepresentative of 1916 and even the war as a whole. The Somme campaign involved some twelve separate battles and finally came to and end on 18 November when the 51st Highland Division took Beaumont Hamel that had in fact been an objective for the first day. After the initial setback of the first day, Gough's Fifth Army took over the task of attacking Pozières in the north, while Rawlinson's Fourth Army focused on securing a series of ridgelines in the Mametz-Montauban area. The 38th (Welsh) Division suffered heavy casualties taking Mametz Woods and the fighting up to 13 July cost the Fourth Army around 25,000 casualties. On 14 July, Longueval and Bazentin fell to a well coordinated night attack that managed to open a gap in the German second line. However, Delville Wood took longer to subdue and German reinforcements arrived to plug the gap between High Wood and Delville Wood and remained there for the rest of the summer. On 15 September 1916 tanks made their first ever appearance in warfare and supported the attack on Flers-Courcelette that led to the breakup of the German third line and the capture of High Wood. Although 1 July had not seen the breakthrough achieved as predicted, by the middle of November, Haig could claim a victory of sorts. Territory had been taken; the Germans had been pushed back and badly mauled. One officer has described the Somme as the 'muddy grave of the German field army' but it should be remembered that the French also fought on the Somme with eleven divisions and suffered 200,000 casualties.

The battle has remained deeply controversial ever since. Some have contended that the British Army emerged from the blood-letting on the Somme a better-trained machine than when it started and that mistakes were made on both sides, as many German counterattacks were bloodily repulsed, just as British attacks failed with high casualties. Unfortunately Haig and Rawlinson had fundamentally different conceptions as to how the battle should have been fought – the latter had in mind a series of more modest 'bite-and-hold' attacks and had no real confidence regarding the breakthrough he was expected to achieve. In saying that, Fourth Army showed little inclination to 'bite' as many of the same objectives were attacked repeatedly with little originality behind too light a barrage.

On the British side the battle was later subdivided into a series of smaller battles that were used for battle honours and similar purposes:

Battle of Albert, 1-13 July 1916
Battle of Bazentine Ridge, 14 July-17 July 1916
Battle of Delville Wood, 15 July-3 September 1916
Battle of Fromelles, 19-20 July 1916
Battle of Pozières Ridge, 23 July-3 September 1916
Battle of Guillemont, 3-6 September 1916
Battle of Ginchy, 9 September 1916
Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15-22 September 1916
Battle of Morval, 25-28 September 1916
Battle of Thiepval Ridge, 26-30 September 1916
Battle of the Transloy Ridges, 1-20 October 1916
Battle of the Ancre Heights, 1 October-11 November 1916
Battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916

Books on the First World War | Subject Index: First World War

Bibliography

Slaughter on the Somme 1 July 1916 - The Complete War Diaries of the British Army's Worst Day, Martin Mace and John Grehan. An invaluable reference work for anyone interested in the First Day of the Somme, the most costly single day in the history of the British army, bringing together the war diaries entries for 1 July 1916 for every British battalion that took part in the battle and the diversionary attack Gommecourt. [read full review]
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Somme Success: The Royal Flying Corps and the Battle of the Somme 1916, Peter Hart. A compelling account of the aerial battle fought alongside the more famous fighting on the ground during the long battle of the Somme. Focuses on what the air forces were attempting to achieve and how successful they were, with the more familiar duals between air aces and technological developments placed more firmly in context than is normally the case. [read full review]
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coverThe First World War , John Keegan. An excellent narrative history of the First World War, especially strong on the buildup to war. Good on detail without losing the overall picture. Keegan keeps to a factual account of the war, leaving out the judgement calls that dominate some books. [see more]
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Images of War: The Germans on the Somme, David Bilton. This illustrated history of the Somme front during the First World War from the German perspective provides an unfamiliar view of a familiar topic, both visually and in the narrative. A valuable work that challenges the standard view of the battle of the Somme of 1916 as a British defeat, as well as giving an unusual perspective on the four year long campaign on the Somme. [read full review]
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Walking the Somme (Second Edition), Paul Reed. Sixteen walks on the Somme battlefield, each with a discussion of the historical significance of the area, supported by a good selection of contemporary and modern photographs, useful sketch maps and contemporary trench maps. Produced twenty years after the first edition, the author's knowledge of the battlefield shines through.[read full review]
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Barnett, C. The Great War, BBC Worldwide, London, 2003.
Brown, M. The Imperial War Museum Book of the Somme, Sidgewick & Jackson, London, 1996.
Evams, M M. Over the Top: Great Battles of the First World War, Arcturus Publishing, London, 2002.
Farrar-Hockley, A. The Somme, Pan Books, London, 1983.
Hart, P. The Somme, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2005.
Holmes, R. The Western Front, BBC Worldwide, London 1999.
Holmes, R. Tommy, HarperCollins, London, 2004.
Holmes, R. War Walks, BBC Worldwide, London, 1997.
Johnson, J H. Stalemate! Great Trench Warfare Battles, Cassell Military, London, 1999.
Keegan, J. The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, Pimlico, London, 2004.
MacDonald, L. Somme, Penguin Books, London, 1993.
Middlebrook, M. The First Day on the Somme, Penguin Books, London, 1971.
Prior, R & Wilson, T. The Somme, Yale University Press, Yale, 2005.
Prior, R & Wilson, T. The First World War, Cassell, London, 1999.
Sheffield, G. The Somme, Cassell Military, London, 2004.
Sheldon, J. The German Army on the Somme 1914 – 16, Leo Cooper Ltd, London, 2005.

How to cite this article: Antill, Peter (8 January 2007), Battle of the Somme, June-November 1916: Day of Infamy for the British Army, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_somme.html

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