Battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916

Battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916

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Battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916

The battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916, was the final phase of the first battle of the Somme. It involved an attack on the German front line as it crossed the Ancre River, a sector of the front that had first been attacked on the first day of the battle without success. The attack along the Ancre had originally been planed for 15 October, as part of the battle of the Ancre Heights, but had been postponed repeatedly by bad weather. By November the original plan had been reducing in scope from an attempt to push the Germans back up to five miles along the Ancre to one to capture Beaucourt and push the Germans back at most two miles.

This was a strong sector of the German front. The first British objective involved an advance of 800 yards and would require the capture of at least three lines of trenches. The next target was the German second line, from Serre south to the Ancre. Finally it was hoped to capture Beaucourt, on the Ancre.

The attack would be launched by II Corps south of the river and V Corps to the north, with V Corps carrying out the main offensive. The attack immediately north of the river was to be carried out by the 63rd (R.N.) Division, under Major-General C. D. Shute. This was the first time they had taken part in an attack on the Western Front, and so extra care was taken to make sure everybody knew what was expected of them. Amongst their officers was Lieutenant-Colonel B. C. Freyberg, later to hold high command in the Second World War, who commanded the Hood Battalion (the Naval battalions were named after famous sailors – Hood, Drake, Nelson and Hawke). The division captured the German front line despite heavy German resistance.

Further north the attack made less progress, and so despite Freyberg’s optimism the attack on Beaucourt was delayed until the next day. 51st Division captured Beaumont Hamel, and 2nd Division managed to capture parts of Redan Ridge, but further north no progress was made.

The attack was renewed on 14 November. This time the 63rd Division was able to secure Beaucourt, which fell at 10.30am. The success at Beaucourt encouraged Gough to plan for a more ambitious offensive, but Haig ordered him to wait until after he could return from the Chantilly Conference of 15-16 November.

One final attack was made, on 18-19 November. This began in snow and sleet and descended into chaos. On the right of the line the 4th Canadian Division captured its first objectives, but elsewhere little was achieved.

The attack was a relative success. Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt were captured, but Serre and the northern part of the German line remained untouched. Once again mud intervened to help the defenders, preventing the use of the few available tanks, and making all communication difficult. All the early successes on the Ancre achieved was the creation of a British held salient on the Ancre, which proved to be a very dangerous area to be posted over the winter of 1916-17.

Amongst the casualties on the Ancre was the writer H.H. Munro, better known as Saki, killed by a sniper’s bullet on 14 November during the attack on Beaumont Hamel.

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

Battle of the Ancre

This is the last in our series of blogs marking the contribution of Commonwealth nations to the Somme offensive a century ago. Today – 18 November – was the last day of the last battle of that four-and-a-half month struggle a battle named after another river and tributary of the Somme, the Ancre. This blog will explore the contribution made by the 4th Canadian Division to that fight.

Since the beginning of the Somme battles in July, Commonwealth and French armies had made limited gains north and south of the Somme river. After the initial, massive thrust of the first phase had been checked by German defences at some cost, the battles of early autumn were comparatively constrained. Nonetheless, their tempo was dictated by the promise of exhausting the reserves of German manpower and exploiting the weaknesses in their new, hastily constructed positions. As a series of battles running from July to November, however, the offensive naturally experienced most of the seasons and, with them, the full gamut of Northern European weather. This became particularly problematic as autumn rolled on, and the prospect of sustained operations into the winter gradually diminished they were to continue, weather permitting.

By the middle of October rain and mist were obscuring the battlefields and making living conditions extremely trying for soldiers. These conditions also limited the scope of artillery and aircraft. Without the ability to survey the ground from above and with gun barrels worn from months of continuous action, counter-battery fire (engaging German artillery) and accurate bombardment of German defences were at times difficult. Nonetheless, as a prelude to the final action and after a number of delays, what became known as the Battle of the Ancre Heights was fought between 15 October and 12 November. This was an effort to secure Stuff Trench and Regina Trench, thereby occupying the continuation of the Thiepval Ridge defences and the high ground around the River Ancre. After a number of false starts thanks to waterlogged ground and frequent rain, the ridge was eventually captured by 21 October with small, consolidating actions taking place into the next month and finishing on 11 November.

These earlier battles had seen the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions heavily engaged before being relieved on 17 October. The recently arrived 4th Canadian Division had joined the battle on the following day, gaining a foothold in Regina Trench on 21 October and completing its capture in the early hours of 11 November. The next and final phase of the offensive would begin again in two days, with the 4th Canadian Division playing a central role. Its objective was to capture the newly-dug Desire Fire Trench and Desire Support Line Trench to the north of Regina.

The Canadian contribution to this action began in the early hours of 18 November. The first snow of the year had fallen in the night on the firmer ground, which promised to make going easier for the infantry after weeks of rain. A small rise in temperature at dawn, however, saw ice turn to slush, the snow to sleet and finally to rain. To make matters worse, the snow unhelpfully obscured the battlefield and the enemy. As the official history would later state, “more abominable conditions for active warfare are hardly to be imaged” (Military Operations France and Belgium 1916, p.514).

Nonetheless, at 6.10am, in the limited visibility of that November morning, the artillery and machine gun barrage opened to support the advance. In part, this was to be a rolling barrage, falling 200 yards in front of Regina Trench for four minutes, before rolling forwards at the rate of 50 yards per minute until it merged with the standing barrage already falling on the Desire Support Line. At 14 minutes from zero hour, the barrage would lift from the main objective and settle 250 yards north as a defensive measure. By shifting in this way, the artillery was – in theory at least – doing some of the infantry’s fighting for it, allowing it to storm and occupy the enemy’s trenches before the surviving defenders could reorganise.

The attacking battalions had been in or in front of Regina Trench before zero hour waiting for the barrage to start, each arranged in 4 waves the 10th brigade operating on the right, the 11th (with the 38th Battalion of 12th Brigade attached) on the left. The assault began in whirling sleet which meant many lost their way initially, although by 9.20am the 11th Brigade was reporting success in having gained its primary objective, with two battalions – the 38th and 87th – establishing a foothold in Grandcourt Trench beyond (see brown arrows).

WO 95/3900 extract from 11th Brigade Headquarters diary

However, all was not so well with 10th Brigade on the right of the operation. The left-hand attacking company of 50th Battalion suffered considerable casualties when confronted by machine gun fire from a German strongpoint, the exact position of which was not known, and artillery fire from the Neighbourhood of Pys to their north-east. At the time their sister brigade was reporting success, elements of the 10th Brigade were falling back on Regina Trench. By early afternoon, the 10th Brigade was ordered to strengthen its position in Regina Trench – its starting point – and link up the small section of the new German line still in their hands (see small green line on the right of the map).

WO 95/3880 General Staff Headquarters diary, 4th Canadian Division

WO 95/3880 General Staff Headquarters diary, 4th Canadian Division

The uncertain situation on the right and left of the more successful elements of 11th Brigade potentially left their flanks exposed, so the decision was made to pull back the outposts in Grandcourt Trench and to dig in on the original objective. By 3.30 in the afternoon – presumably with the light beginning to fade – an end was called to the battle and wider Somme campaign, with the Canadian brigades receiving instructions for the Division’s defensive arrangements on the captured line.

WO 95/3900 extract from 11th Brigade Headquarters diary

WO 95/3895 10th Brigade Headquarters diary: “the attack as far as the 10th CIB [Canadian Infantry Brigade] was concerned was not successful.” Unfortunately the promised appendix does not seem to have survived

WO 95/3900 example of communications flowing from Divisional HQ to 11th Brigade Headquarters

Thus ended the infamous Somme campaign, 140 days after it began, in snow and sleet rather than summer sun. Though relatively insignificant in comparison to earlier events, the Battle of the Ancre did hold some importance for the British Expeditionary Force as well as for the commander of the Fifth Army and this section of the front, General Sir Hubert Gough. Success in November ensured that the Somme offensive finished with a victory, albeit a limited one, which provided a much needed reputational boost for senior command and their direction of the war. The 4th Canadian Division’s contribution to that victory was clear but it came at a cost, in part due to the awful conditions endured. As the official history concluded, “to the sheer determination, self-sacrifice and physical endurance of the troops must be attributed such measure of success as was won” (Military Operations France and Belgium 1916, p 514).

WO 95/3880 Divisional casualties as reported by the Headquarters, General Staff war diary, 4th Canadian Division

Despite its reputation, the Somme campaign was neither an exclusively British fight nor an unbroken series of failures. As this series of blogs has demonstrated, not only was it fought in coalition with the French, it also drew heavily on the forces of the Commonwealth. Far more long lived than the bloody failure of 1 July, later battles on the front showed that, with limited objectives and the application of novel technologies, a degree of success was possible. Breakthrough, however, would not come in 1916 in fact, it would not come for another two years. Though no answers to the deadlock were found, some lessons were learned lessons that would be applied with mixed results to the BEF’s next major offensive at Arras in the spring of 1917.

Battle of the Ancre. 7 Bn KSLI / 10 Bn RWF / 155 Bgde RFA / 16 Bn Lancs. Fusiliers. November 1916.

The Battle of the Ancre,13-18 November 1916 was the final engagement of the Somme Offensive. The objective was to capture ground north of the River Ancre and the villages of Serre and Beaumont Hamel. The weather by now had broken and there was heavy rain, turning the front into a muddy quagmire. The assault was launched from the same front lines as the failed 1 July attack. By the end of the battle Beaumont Hamel had been captured but not Serre. With the onset of winter the Somme Offensive came to an end and fighting was scaled back.

  • Serre. 7 Bn King’s Shropshire Light. 13 November 1916.
  • Serre. 10 Bn Royal Welsh Fusiliers. 13 November 1916.
  • BeaumontHamel. 155 (CLV) Brigade Royal Field Artillery. 17 November 1916
  • BeaumontHamel. 16 Bn Lancashire Fusiliers. 21 November 1916.


  • 7 Bn King’s Shropshire Light. 13 November 1916.
  • 10 Bn Royal Welsh Fusiliers. 13 November 1916.

The 7 Bn King’s Shropshire Light and 10 Bn Royal Welsh Fusiliers were both in 76 Brigade, 3 Division and would fight side by side in the action at Serre.

The 7 Bn KSLI would advance in the sector to the right of Mathew Copse, the10 Bn RWF to the left and up to Mark Copse. The battalions were in support and it was planned that they would pass through the assaulting troops to capture Serre village. Zero hour was 5.45am. on 13 November. In a gloomy dark dawn of rain, thick fog and mist the battalions left the support trenches and advanced down a slope. Despite the poor visibility, glutinous mud, in places waist deep, progress at first was good. They reached the British front line and then continued forward to the German lines. Things now began to turn. The assaulting troops became held up and the deteriorating conditions made communications and observation very difficult. Direction was lost, units became intermingled and the situation became confused and obscure. Many men became isolated. The enemy began shelling no man’s land and the British front line adding to the chaos. Efforts were made to reorganise the troops but under the conditions it was impossible. By 9am orders were received to withdraw back to the start points with the hope that the attack would recommence later in the day. Again, not knowing where the men were, it was impossible to pass the order on. Over the course of the day groups and individuals drifted back, the last to return came in during the evening. All told the KSLI lost over 224 wounded, killed or missing, the RWF 289. The assaults at Serre had been a failure. Both battalions spent another two days in the line anticipating enemy counter attacks but none came, the Germans perhaps recognising the poor conducive conditions for success.

GOOGLE MAPS Satellite view centres on Serre battle ground

  • BeaumontHamel. 155 (CLV) Brigade Royal Field Artillery. 17 November 1916

Between the 4 and 12 November 1916 the 115 Brigade Royal Field Artillery moved to White City, an area of ground about mid way between Auchonvillers and Beaumont Hamel. The brigade operated howitzer guns and would be in action for the attacks on Beaumont Hamel and Serre – zero hour was timed at 5.45am on 13 November 1916. Visibility and observation were variable, some days were overcast and foggy, others bright and clear depending on conditions they were tasked with firing on enemy assembly points in the rear or front line trenches. The guns were directed from observation points as well as aeroplane spotters. Throughout the time they were subjected to counter battery fire on 14 November 2 guns from A Battery were buried by shell fire and 1 gun from B Battery was put out of action with 1 OR wounded. On 16 November a shell hit D Battery’s ammunition pit with 1 OR KIA and 1 wounded. On 17 November A battery’s telephone dug out was hit with 1 OR killed and 2 OR wounded. No other casualties are reported. The Brigade remained in the area of White City until the end of the month.

GOOGLE MAPS Street view looking across to White City – the earth bank was the location of many dug outs and storage depots (see photo below).

Troops parading at White City.(IWM Q 796)

The 16 Bn Lancashire Fusiliers were not engaged in the fighting during the Battle of Ancre. The battalion arrived at billets near to Mailly Maillet on 17 November and spent a day on carrying parties up to the line at the recently captured Beaumont Hamel. On 19 November they relieved the 2 Bn KOYI in Wagon Road – a track way running north from Beaumont Hamel. There was frequent shelling of Wagon Road and of Beaumont Hamel. Between 19 and 22 November casualties were ORs 13 KIA and 35 wounded.

GOOGLE MAPS Beaumont Hamel

WAR DIARY 155 Brigade Royal Field Artillery.

WAR DIARY 7Bn KSLI, Regimental History KSLI

WAR DIARY 10Bn RWF. Regimental History RWF

WAR DIARY 16 Bn Royal Lancs. Fusiliers.

B&O 1916. Somme. Battle of the Ancre. 7BnKSLI, 10BnRWF, 16BnLancsFus. 155Brdg RFA. 19-21 Nov1916

Canada and the Battle of the Somme

Canadian soldiers returning from the Battle of the Somme in France, November 1916.

1 July 1916

After two years of stalemate in the vast trench works held by the Allied and German armies on the Western Front, the British launched a massive offensive in the Somme River valley in northern France. It was hoped the assault on a 25 km section of the front would not only break the stalemate, but relieve pressure on beleaguered French forces defending against the long-running German assault further south, at Verdun.

The Somme offensive opened with a massive artillery bombardment, which lasted five days and did little to knock out enemy troops and artillery guns. The Germans simply hid in their deep and reinforced dugouts until the barrage ended, emerging largely unscathed to face the oncoming attackers. Many British shells had also been poorly manufactured and turned out to be duds others lacked the fuses necessary to explode on contact with the barbed wire strung across no man’s land between the opposing sides.

A Canadian heavy howitzer during the Battle of Somme, France. November, 1916. Image courtesy of Canadian Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000917.

When British soldiers “went over the top” of their trenches in the wake of the barrage, the result was catastrophe: tens of thousands were mown down by machine-gun fire or caught up in barbed wire and then killed as they tried to reach the German lines. The British lost more than 57,000 men killed or wounded on only the first day of the battle, with little to show for their sacrifice.

Battle of Beaumont-Hamel

At the northern end of the Somme front, near the village of Beaumont-Hamel, about 800 troops of the First Newfoundland Regiment were gathered on 1 July in a support trench nicknamed St. John’s Road. They were part of a third wave of troops to attack German lines. At 9:15 a.m., the Newfoundlanders began their assault, crossing no man’s land in rehearsed lines. Out in the open, they saw that the first waves of British attackers had failed — the troops lying dead, or trapped in no man’s land, cut down by machine guns and artillery fire while trying to navigate a few narrow gaps in the barbed wire.

The Newfoundlanders pressed forward into this firestorm. Some were hit before they even reached the front of the existing British lines. Others died upon reaching the base of the Danger Tree, a prominent tree halfway between the British and German lines, where enemy bullets soon found them.

Less than 30 minutes after leaving their trench, it was all over for the Newfoundlanders. Small groups of survivors attempted in vain to fight on. Hundreds of injured men were left to fend for themselves on the battlefield through the night, where they died of their wounds or were killed by German snipers.

More than 700 soldiers of the First Newfoundland Regiment were cut down at Beaumont-Hamel. Of the regiment’s 801 members, only 68 could answer roll call by the end of the opening day.

Every 1 July, while Canadians celebrate Canada Day, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador gather to also observe Memorial Day in honour of the men who fought at Beaumont-Hamel. The battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel is now a park. At its highest point, a statue of a caribou, the official emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment, looks out over the field where so many died.

The caribou statue atop the memorial commemorating the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, at the Beaumont-Hamel battlefield, France.

Canadian Corps

Canadian forces, stationed in Belgium near the city of Ypres, were spared the first few months of fighting on the Somme. By the end of August, however, with manpower on the Somme running low, the first three divisions of the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) were relocated to the battle to help with the offensive, still grinding on under the orders of British generals.

The Canadians entered the battle on 30 August, taking part in a number of bloody attacks from September through November, supported by the first tanks used in action on the Western Front (see Armaments). The corps captured a series of strategic objectives including Courcelette, Thiepval and Ancre Heights. In November, the 4th Division of the Canadian Corps, then fighting alongside British troops, helped capture the German stronghold of Regina Trench.

James Franklin, one of the first Black Canadians to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces was likely the first Black Canadian (and first Black North American) killed in action in the First World War. Franklin served in the 76th and 4th Battalions and was killed during the Battle of the Ancre Heights, part of the Battle of the Somme.

Hamilton Spectator, 10 November 1916. Courtesy of the Hamilton Public Library, Local History & Archives

Battle of Courcelette

On 15 September, Canadian soldiers launched a large-scale attack, capturing the remnants of the village of Courcelette and holding their new ground in the following days against German counterattacks (see Battle of Courcelette).

During the attack, Canadian soldiers used a new military tactic that would eventually solve the riddle of the trenches in later engagements. Known as the creeping barrage, Canadians walked behind an artillery assault that steadily advanced across German lines — keeping enemy soldiers in their dugouts — until the Canadians were on top of enemy lines and ready to fight. (Before this innovation, soldiers would wait for their army’s artillery bombardment to end before charging across no man’s land and into enemy guns.)

The Red Chateau. One of the last homes left standing in the French village of Courcelette, during the Battle of the Somme, October 1916. This building was used by the Germans and then Canadians as a field dressing station, then was destroyed in November.

Tanks were also tried on the battlefield for the first time, alongside the Canadians, at Courcelette. Although slow, plodding and difficult to move, the large and imposing tanks were an effective psychological weapon against the Germans.

Courcelette was captured by the Canadian Corps on the first day of the assault, a rare Allied victory on the Somme, at the cost of several thousand Canadians casualties. Only one tank met its objectives, the rest failed because of mechanical issues, becoming stuck or being hit by shellfire.

The Royal 22e Régiment (or the Van Doos — from vingt-deux, meaning 22 in French) was the only francophone infantry unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force that was active on the front. The Van Doos’ first major attack of the First World War took place at Courcelette. The French-Canadian soldiers, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas-Louis Tremblay, pushed back repeated German assaults and held the village while surrounded on all sides for three days and three nights (see also The “Van Doos” and the Great War).

Soldier and war artist Louis Weirter witnessed Canadian troops' capture of the village of Courcelette, during the Battle of the Somme, in September 1916. He then painted the scene in 1918.

Casualties at the Battle of the Somme

Canadian officer C. G. Barns recalled the heavy losses that were typical of the battles of the Somme offensive: “We went in about 40 strong to a platoon, 160 to a company, and if you brought out 40 or 50 men out of a company of 160, you did well. They weren’t all killed, they were wounded, but out of action…. (The Germans) had these cement redoubts stuffed with machine guns, and you’ve got to go over to get them knocked out. You had to circle and come in behind them. Well, 75 per cent of your men are knocked down before you can get in there.”

Canadians dressing the wounded in a trench at Courcelette, during the Battle of the Somme, September 1916.

Rain and snow finally brought the Battle of the Somme to an end. After five months of fighting, the Allies had only penetrated about 13 km along a 25 km front. Allied losses were estimated at 614,000, of whom more than 24,700 were Canadians and Newfoundlanders. German losses were estimated at 440,000.

Canadian soldiers returning from the trenches during the Battle of the Somme, November 1916.


The seemingly pointless slaughter on the Somme led to questions and severe criticism of the Allied leadership, especially General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, of which both the Canadian Corps and the First Newfoundland Regiment were a part. But the offensive’s failures also sparked new thinking about military tactics — including the design of shells and the use of artillery, better planning and coordination among attacking forces on the battlefield, and the importance of allowing small groups of ordinary soldiers to exercise leadership and personal initiative during the changing fortunes of an assault.

Some of these ideas were already being experimented with among the Canadian Corps in the final months of fighting on the Somme. They would be successfully refined, contributing to the achievements of the corps in 1917 at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Mary Riter Hamilton, oil on commercial canvas board.


Allied war strategy for 1916 was decided at the Chantilly Conference from 6th to 8th December 1915 . Simultaneous offensives on the Eastern Front by the Russian army, on the Italian Front by the Italian army and on the Western Front by the Franco-British armies were to be carried out to deny time for the Central Powers to move troops between fronts during lulls. In December 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig replaced Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. Haig favoured a British offensive in Flanders, close to BEF supply routes, to drive the Germans from the Belgian coast and end the U-boat threat from Belgian waters. Haig was not formally subordinate to Marshal Joseph Joffre but the British played a lesser role on the Western Front and complied with French strategy. [8]

In January 1916, Joffre had agreed to the BEF making its main effort in Flanders but in February 1916 it was decided to mount a combined offensive where the French and British armies met, astride the Somme River in Picardy before the British offensive in Flanders. [9] A week later the Germans began the Battle of Verdun against the French army. The costly defence of Verdun forced the army to divert divisions intended for the Somme offensive, eventually reducing the French contribution to 13 divisions in the Sixth Army, against 20 British divisions. [10] By 31st May, the ambitious Franco-British plan for a decisive victory, had been reduced to a limited offensive to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun and inflict attrition on the German armies in the west. [11]

Battle of Verdun Edit

The Battle of Verdun ( 21 February–16 December 1916) began a week after Joffre and Haig agreed to mount an offensive on the Somme. The German offensive at Verdun was intended to threaten the capture of the city and induce the French to fight an attrition battle, in which German advantages of terrain and firepower would cause the French disproportionate casualties. The battle changed the nature of the offensive on the Somme, as French divisions were diverted to Verdun, and the main effort by the French diminished to a supporting attack for the British. German overestimation of the cost of Verdun to the French contributed to the concentration of German infantry and guns on the north bank of the Somme. [15] By May, Joffre and Haig had changed their expectations of an offensive on the Somme, from a decisive battle to a hope that it would relieve Verdun and keep German divisions in France, which would assist the Russian armies conducting the Brusilov Offensive. The German offensive at Verdun was suspended in July, and troops, guns, and ammunition were transferred to Picardy, leading to a similar transfer of the French Tenth Army to the Somme front. Later in the year, the Franco-British were able to attack on the Somme and at Verdun sequentially and the French recovered much of the ground lost on the east bank of the Meuse in October and December. [16]

Brusilov offensive Edit

Tactical developments Edit

The original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of six divisions and the Cavalry Division, had lost most of the British pre-war regulars in the battles of 1914 and 1915. The bulk of the army was made up of volunteers of the Territorial Force and Kitchener's Army, which had begun forming in August 1914. Rapid expansion created many vacancies for senior commands and specialist functions, which led to many appointments of retired officers and inexperienced newcomers. In 1914, Douglas Haig had been a lieutenant-general in command of I Corps and was promoted to command the First Army in early 1915 and then the BEF in December, which eventually comprised five armies with sixty divisions. The swift increase in the size of the army reduced the average level of experience within it and created an acute equipment shortage. Many officers resorted to directive command to avoid delegating to novice subordinates, although divisional commanders were given great latitude in training and planning for the attack of 1 July, since the heterogeneous nature of the 1916 army made it impossible for corps and army commanders to know the capacity of each division. [20]

Despite considerable debate among German staff officers, Erich von Falkenhayn continued the policy of unyielding defence in 1916. Falkenhayn implied after the war that the psychology of German soldiers, shortage of manpower and lack of reserves made the policy inescapable, as the troops necessary to seal off breakthroughs did not exist. High losses incurred in holding ground by a policy of no retreat were preferable to higher losses, voluntary withdrawals and the effect of a belief that soldiers had discretion to avoid battle. When a more flexible policy was substituted later, decisions about withdrawal were still reserved to army commanders. [21] On the Somme front, Falkenhayn's construction plan of January 1915 had been completed. Barbed wire obstacles had been enlarged from one belt 5–10 yards (4.6–9.1 m) wide to two, 30 yards (27 m) wide and about 15 yards (14 m) apart. Double and triple thickness wire was used and laid 3–5 feet (0.91–1.52 m) high. The front line had been increased from one trench line to a position of three lines 150–200 yards (140–180 m) apart, the first trench (Kampfgraben) occupied by sentry groups, the second (Wohngraben) for the bulk of the front-trench garrison and the third trench for local reserves. The trenches were traversed and had sentry-posts in concrete recesses built into the parapet. Dugouts had been deepened from 6–9 feet (1.8–2.7 m) to 20–30 feet (6.1–9.1 m), 50 yards (46 m) apart and large enough for 25 men . An intermediate line of strongpoints (the Stützpunktlinie) about 1,000 yards (910 m) behind the front line was also built. Communication trenches ran back to the reserve line, renamed the second position, which was as well-built and wired as the first position. The second position was beyond the range of Allied field artillery, to force an attacker to stop and move field artillery forward before assaulting the position. [22]

Anglo-French plan of attack Edit

British objectives evolved as the military situation changed after the Chantilly Conference. French losses at Verdun reduced the contribution available for the offensive on the Somme and increased the urgency for the commencement of operations on the Somme. The principal role in the offensive devolved to the British and on 16 June, Haig defined the objectives of the offensive as the relief of pressure on the French at Verdun and the infliction of losses on the Germans. [23] After a five-day artillery bombardment, the British Fourth Army was to capture 27,000 yards (25,000 m) of the German first line, from Montauban to Serre and the Third Army was to mount a diversion at Gommecourt. In a second phase, the Fourth Army was to take the German second position, from Pozières to the Ancre and then the second position south of the Albert–Bapaume road, ready for an attack on the German third position south of the road towards Flers, when the Reserve Army which included three cavalry divisions, would exploit the success to advance east and then north towards Arras. The French Sixth Army, with one corps on the north bank from Maricourt to the Somme and two corps on the south bank southwards to Foucaucourt, would make a subsidiary attack to guard the right flank of the main attack being made by the British. [24]

Betrayal of British plans Edit

Research in German archives revealed in 2016 that the date and location of the British offensive had been betrayed to German interrogators by two politically disgruntled soldiers from Ulster several weeks in advance. The German military accordingly undertook significant defensive preparatory work on the British section of the Somme offensive. [25]

German defences on the Somme Edit

After the Autumn Battles (Herbstschlacht) of 1915, a third defensive position another 3,000 yards (1.7 mi 2.7 km) back from the Stützpunktlinie was begun in February 1916 and was almost complete on the Somme front when the battle began. German artillery was organised in a series of Sperrfeuerstreifen (barrage sectors) each officer was expected to know the batteries covering his section of the front line and the batteries ready to engage fleeting targets. A telephone system was built, with lines buried 6 feet (1.8 m) deep for 5 mi (8.0 km) behind the front line, to connect the front line to the artillery. The Somme defences had two inherent weaknesses that the rebuilding had not remedied. The front trenches were on a forward slope, lined by white chalk from the subsoil and easily seen by ground observers. The defences were crowded towards the front trench with a regiment having two battalions near the front-trench system and the reserve battalion divided between the Stützpunktlinie and the second position, all within 2,000 yards (1,800 m) of no man's land and most troops within 1,000 yards (910 m) of the front line, accommodated in the new deep dugouts. The concentration of troops at the front line on a forward slope guaranteed that it would face the bulk of an artillery bombardment, directed by ground observers on clearly marked lines. [26]

First phase: 1–17 July 1916 Edit

Battle of Albert, 1–13 July Edit

The Battle of Albert was the first two weeks of Anglo-French offensive operations in the Battle of the Somme. The Allied preparatory artillery bombardment began on 24 June and the Anglo-French infantry attacked on 1 July, on the south bank from Foucaucourt to the Somme and from the Somme north to Gommecourt, 2 mi (3.2 km) beyond Serre. The French Sixth Army and the right wing of the British Fourth Army inflicted a considerable defeat on the German Second Army, but from the Albert–Bapaume road to Gommecourt the British attack was a disaster where most of the c. 60,000 British casualties were incurred. Against Joffre's wishes, Haig abandoned the offensive north of the road, to reinforce the success in the south, where the Anglo-French forces pressed forward towards the German second line, preparatory to a general attack on 14 July. Following such was a reviewal noting that the British companies present moved at full-kit due to the overconfidence of general field NCO's to the German Location after witnessing such a bombardment upon their location. [27]

The First day Edit

The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days and was the opening day of the Battle of Albert. The attack was made by five divisions of the French Sixth Army on the east side of the Somme, eleven British divisions of the Fourth Army north of the Somme to Serre and two divisions of the Third Army opposite Gommecourt, against the German Second Army of General Fritz von Below. The German defence south of the Albert–Bapaume road mostly collapsed and the French had "complete success" on both banks of the Somme, as did the British from the army boundary at Maricourt to the Albert–Bapaume road. On the south bank the German defence was made incapable of resisting another attack and a substantial retreat began on the north bank the abandonment of Fricourt was ordered. The defenders on the commanding ground north of the road inflicted a huge defeat on the British infantry, who had an unprecedented number of casualties. Several truces were negotiated, to recover wounded from no man's land north of the road. The Fourth Army took 57,470 casualties , of which 19,240 men were killed, the French Sixth Army had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army had 10,000–12,000 losses . [28]

Battle of Bazentin Ridge, 14–17 July Edit

The Fourth Army attacked the German second defensive position from the Somme past Guillemont and Ginchy, north-west along the crest of the ridge to Pozières on the Albert–Bapaume road. The objectives of the attack were the villages of Bazentin le Petit, Bazentin le Grand and Longueval which was adjacent to Delville Wood, with High Wood on the ridge beyond. The attack was made by four divisions on a front of 6,000 yd (5.5 km) at 3:25 a.m. after a five-minute hurricane artillery bombardment. Field artillery fired a creeping barrage and the attacking waves pushed up close behind it in no man's land, leaving them only a short distance to cross when the barrage lifted from the German front trench. Most of the objective was captured and the German defence south of the Albert–Bapaume road put under great strain but the attack was not followed up due to British communication failures, casualties and disorganisation. [29]

Battle of Fromelles, 19–20 July Edit

The Battle of Fromelles was a subsidiary attack to support the Fourth Army on the Somme 80 km (50 mi) to the south, to exploit any weakening of the German defences opposite. Preparations for the attack were rushed, the troops involved lacked experience in trench warfare and the power of the German defence was "gravely" underestimated, the attackers being outnumbered 2:1 . On 19 July, von Falkenhayn had judged the British attack to be the anticipated offensive against the 6th Army. Next day, Falkenhayn ordered the Guard Reserve Corps to be withdrawn to reinforce the Somme front. The Battle of Fromelles had inflicted some losses on the German defenders but gained no ground and deflected few German troops bound for the Somme. The attack was the debut of the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front and, according to McMullin, "the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history". [30] Of 7,080 BEF casualties , 5,533 losses were incurred by the 5th Australian Division German losses were 1,600–2,000, with 150 taken prisoner. [31]

Second phase: July–September 1916 Edit

Battle of Delville Wood, 14 July – 15 September Edit

The Battle of Delville Wood was an operation to secure the British right flank, while the centre advanced to capture the higher-lying areas of High Wood and Pozières. After the Battle of Albert the offensive had evolved to the capture of fortified villages, woods, and other terrain that offered observation for artillery fire, jumping-off points for more attacks, and other tactical advantages. The mutually costly fighting at Delville Wood eventually secured the British right flank and marked the Western Front debut of the South African 1st Infantry Brigade (incorporating a Southern Rhodesian contingent), which held the wood from 15–20 July. When relieved, the brigade had lost 2,536 men , similar to the casualties of many brigades on 1 July. [32]

Battle of Pozières, 23 July – 7 August Edit

The Battle of Pozières began with the capture of the village by the 1st Australian Division (Australian Imperial Force) of the Reserve Army, the only British success in the Allied fiasco of 22/23 July, when a general attack combined with the French further south, degenerated into a series of separate attacks due to communication failures, supply failures and poor weather. [33] German bombardments and counter-attacks began on 23 July and continued until 7 August. The fighting ended with the Reserve Army taking the plateau north and east of the village, overlooking the fortified village of Thiepval from the rear. [34]

Battle of Guillemont, 3–6 September Edit

The Battle of Guillemont was an attack on the village which was captured by the Fourth Army on the first day. Guillemont was on the right flank of the British sector, near the boundary with the French Sixth Army. German defences ringed the British salient at Delville Wood to the north and had observation over the French Sixth Army area to the south towards the Somme river. The German defence in the area was based on the second line and numerous fortified villages and farms north from Maurepas at Combles, Guillemont, Falfemont Farm, Delville Wood and High Wood, which were mutually supporting. The battle for Guillemont was considered by some observers to be the supreme effort of the German army during the battle. Numerous meetings were held by Joffre, Haig, Foch, General Sir Henry Rawlinson (commander of the British Fourth Army) and Fayolle to co-ordinate joint attacks by the four armies, all of which broke down. A pause in Anglo-French attacks at the end of August, coincided with the largest counter-attack by the German army in the Battle of the Somme. [35]

Battle of Ginchy, 9 September Edit

In the Battle of Ginchy the 16th Division captured the German-held village. Ginchy was 1.5 km (0.93 mi) north-east of Guillemont, at the junction of six roads on a rise overlooking Combles, 4 km (2.5 mi) to the south-east. After the end of the Battle of Guillemont, British troops were required to advance to positions which would give observation over the German third position, ready for a general attack in mid-September. British attacks from Leuze Wood northwards to Ginchy had begun on 3 September, when the 7th Division captured the village and was then forced out by a German counter-attack. The capture of Ginchy and the success of the French Sixth Army on 12 September, in its biggest attack of the battle of the Somme, enabled both armies to make much bigger attacks, sequenced with the Tenth and Reserve armies, which captured much more ground and inflicted c. 130,000 casualties on the German defenders during the month. [36]

Third phase: September–November 1916 Edit

Battle of Flers–Courcelette, 15–22 September Edit

The Battle of Flers–Courcelette was the third and final general offensive mounted by the British Army, which attacked an intermediate line and the German third line to take Morval, Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt, which was combined with a French attack on Frégicourt and Rancourt to encircle Combles and a supporting attack on the south bank of the Somme. The strategic objective of a breakthrough was not achieved but the tactical gains were considerable, the front line being advanced by 2,500–3,500 yards (2,300–3,200 m) and many casualties were inflicted on the German defenders. The battle was the debut of the Canadian Corps, the New Zealand Division and tanks of the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps on the Somme. [37]

Battle of Morval, 25–28 September Edit

The Battle of Morval was an attack by the Fourth Army on Morval, Gueudecourt and Lesboeufs held by the German 1st Army, which had been the final objectives of the Battle of Flers–Courcelette (15–22 September). The attack was postponed to combine with attacks by the French Sixth Army on Combles, south of Morval and because of rain. The combined attack was also intended to deprive the German defenders further west, near Thiepval of reinforcements, before an attack by the Reserve Army, due on 26 September. Combles, Morval, Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt were captured and a small number of tanks joined in the battle later in the afternoon. Many casualties were inflicted on the Germans but the French made slower progress. The Fourth Army advance on 25 September was its deepest since 14 July and left the Germans in severe difficulties, particularly in a salient near Combles. The Reserve Army attack began on 26 September in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. [38]

Battle of Thiepval Ridge, 26–28 September Edit

The Battle of Thiepval Ridge was the first large offensive mounted by the Reserve Army of Lieutenant General Hubert Gough and was intended to benefit from the Fourth Army attack at Morval by starting 24 hours afterwards. Thiepval Ridge was well fortified and the German defenders fought with great determination, while the British co-ordination of infantry and artillery declined after the first day, due to confused fighting in the maze of trenches, dug-outs and shell-craters. The final British objectives were not reached until the Battle of the Ancre Heights (1 October – 11 November). Organisational difficulties and deteriorating weather frustrated Joffre's intention to proceed by vigorous co-ordinated attacks by the Anglo-French armies, which became disjointed and declined in effectiveness during late September, at the same time as a revival occurred in the German defence. The British experimented with new techniques in gas warfare, machine-gun bombardment and tank–infantry co-operation, as the Germans struggled to withstand the preponderance of men and material fielded by the Anglo-French, despite reorganisation and substantial reinforcements of troops, artillery and aircraft from Verdun. September became the worst month for casualties for the Germans. [39]

Battle of the Transloy Ridges, 1 October – 11 November Edit

The Battle of Le Transloy began in good weather and Le Sars was captured on 7 October. Pauses were made from 8–11 October due to rain and 13–18 October to allow time for a methodical bombardment, when it became clear that the German defence had recovered from earlier defeats. Haig consulted with the army commanders and on 17 October reduced the scope of operations by cancelling the Third Army plans and reducing the Reserve Army and Fourth Army attacks to limited operations, in co-operation with the French Sixth Army. [40] Another pause followed before operations resumed on 23 October on the northern flank of the Fourth Army, with a delay during more bad weather on the right flank of the Fourth Army and on the French Sixth Army front, until 5 November. Next day, the Fourth Army ceased offensive operations, except for small attacks intended to improve positions and divert German attention from attacks being made by the Reserve/Fifth Army. Larger operations resumed in January 1917. [41]

Battle of the Ancre Heights, 1 October – 11 November Edit

The Battle of the Ancre Heights was fought after Haig made plans for the Third Army to take the area east of Gommecourt, the Reserve Army to attack north from Thiepval Ridge and east from Beaumont Hamel–Hébuterne and for the Fourth Army to reach the Péronne–Bapaume road around Le Transloy and Beaulencourt–Thilloy–Loupart Wood, north of the Albert–Bapaume road. The Reserve Army attacked to complete the capture of Regina Trench/Stuff Trench, north of Courcelette to the west end of Bazentin Ridge around Schwaben and Stuff Redoubts, during which bad weather caused great hardship and delay. The Marine Brigade from Flanders and fresh German divisions brought from quiet fronts counter-attacked frequently and the British objectives were not secured until 11 November. [42]

Battle of the Ancre, 13–18 November Edit

The Battle of the Ancre was the last big British operation of the year. The Fifth (formerly Reserve) Army attacked into the Ancre valley to exploit German exhaustion after the Battle of the Ancre Heights and gain ground ready for a resumption of the offensive in 1917. Political calculation, concern for Allied morale and Joffre's pressure for a continuation of attacks in France, to prevent German troop transfers to Russia and Italy also influenced Haig. [43] The battle began with another mine being detonated beneath Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. The attack on Serre failed, although a brigade of the 31st Division, which had attacked in the disaster of 1 July, took its objectives before being withdrawn later. South of Serre, Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre were captured. South of the Ancre, St. Pierre Division was captured, the outskirts of Grandcourt reached and the Canadian 4th Division captured Regina Trench north of Courcelette, then took Desire Support Trench on 18 November. Until January 1917 a lull occurred, as both sides concentrated on enduring the weather. [44]

Ancre, January–March 1917 Edit

After the Battle of the Ancre (13–18 November 1916), British attacks on the Somme front were stopped by the weather and military operations by both sides were mostly restricted to survival in the rain, snow, fog, mud fields, waterlogged trenches and shell-holes. As preparations for the offensive at Arras continued, the British attempted to keep German attention on the Somme front. British operations on the Ancre from 10 January – 22 February 1917 , forced the Germans back 5 mi (8.0 km) on a 4 mi (6.4 km) front, ahead of the schedule of the Alberich Bewegung (Alberich Manoeuvre/Operation Alberich) and eventually took 5,284 prisoners . [45] On 22/23 February, the Germans fell back another 3 mi (4.8 km) on a 15 mi (24 km) front. The Germans then withdrew from much of the R. I Stellung to the R. II Stellung on 11 March, forestalling a British attack, which was not noticed by the British until dark on 12 March the main German withdrawal from the Noyon salient to the Hindenburg Line (Operation Alberich) commenced on schedule on 16 March. [46]

Hindenburg Line Edit

General Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, was sacked and replaced by Hindenburg and Ludendorff at the end of August 1916. At a conference at Cambrai on 5 September, a decision was taken to build a new defensive line well behind the Somme front. The Siegfriedstellung was to be built from Arras to St. Quentin, La Fère and Condé, with another new line between Verdun and Pont-à-Mousson. These lines were intended to limit any Allied breakthrough and to allow the German army to withdraw if attacked work began on the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) at the end of September. Withdrawing to the new line was not an easy decision and the German high command struggled over it during the winter of 1916–1917. Some members wanted to take a shorter step back to a line between Arras and Sailly, while the 1st and 2nd army commanders wanted to stay on the Somme. Generalleutnant von Fuchs on 20 January 1917 said that,

Enemy superiority is so great that we are not in a position either to fix their forces in position or to prevent them from launching an offensive elsewhere. We just do not have the troops. We cannot prevail in a second battle of the Somme with our men they cannot achieve that any more. (20 January 1917) [47]

and that half measures were futile, retreating to the Siegfriedstellung was unavoidable. After the loss of a considerable amount of ground around the Ancre valley to the British Fifth Army in February 1917, the German armies on the Somme were ordered on 14 February, to withdraw to reserve lines closer to Bapaume. A further retirement to the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) in Operation Alberich began on 16 March 1917, despite the new line being unfinished and poorly sited in some places. [48]

Defensive positions held by the German army on the Somme after November 1916 were in poor condition the garrisons were exhausted and censors of correspondence reported tiredness and low morale in front-line soldiers. The situation left the German command doubtful that the army could withstand a resumption of the battle. The German defence of the Ancre began to collapse under British attacks, which on 28 January 1917 caused Rupprecht to urge that the retirement to the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) begin. Ludendorff rejected the proposal the next day, but British attacks on the First Army – particularly the action of Miraumont (also known as the Battle of Boom Ravine, 17–18 February) – caused Rupprecht on the night of 22 February to order a preliminary withdrawal of c. 4 mi (6.4 km) to the R. I Stellung (R. I Position). On 24 February the Germans withdrew, protected by rear guards, over roads in relatively good condition, which were then destroyed. The German withdrawal was helped by a thaw, which turned roads behind the British front into bogs and by disruption, to the railways, which supplied the Somme front. On the night of 12 March, the Germans withdrew from the R. I Stellung between Bapaume and Achiet le Petit and the British reached the R. II Stellung (R. II Position) on 13 March. [49] The withdrawal took place from 16–20 March, with a retirement of about 25 mi (40 km), giving up more French territory than that gained by the Allies from September 1914 until the beginning of the operation. [50] [ incomplete short citation ]

At the start of 1916, most of the British Army was an inexperienced and patchily trained mass of volunteers. [51] [52] The Somme was a great test for Kitchener's Army, created by Kitchener's call for recruits at the start of the war. The British volunteers were often the fittest, most enthusiastic and best-educated citizens but were inexperienced and it has been claimed that their loss was of lesser military significance than the losses of the remaining peacetime-trained officers and men of the Imperial German Army. [53] British casualties on the first day were the worst in the history of the British Army, with 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed. [54] [55]

British survivors of the battle had gained experience and the BEF learned how to conduct the mass industrial warfare which the continental armies had been fighting since 1914. [53] The European powers had begun the war with trained armies of regulars and reservists, which were wasting assets. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria wrote, "What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield". [56] A war of attrition was a logical strategy for Britain against Germany, which was also at war with France and Russia. A school of thought holds that the Battle of the Somme placed unprecedented strain on the German army and that after the battle it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like, which reduced it to a militia. [57] [56] Philpott argues that the German army was exhausted by the end of 1916, with loss of morale and the cumulative effects of attrition and frequent defeats causing it to collapse in 1918, a process which began on the Somme, echoing Churchill's argument that the German soldiery was never the same again. [3]

The destruction of German units in battle was made worse by lack of rest. British and French aircraft and long-range guns reached well behind the front line, where trench-digging and other work meant that troops returned to the line exhausted. [58] Despite the strategic predicament of the German army, it survived the battle, withstood the pressure of the Brusilov Offensive and conquered almost all of Romania. In 1917, the German army in the west survived the large British and French offensives of the Nivelle Offensive and the Third Battle of Ypres, though at great cost. [59]

BEF railway tonnage, France 1916 [60]
Month LT
January 2,484
February 2,535
March 2,877
April 3,121
May 3,391
June 4,265
July 4,478
August 4,804
September 4,913
October 5,324
November 5,107
December 5,202

The British and French had advanced about 6 mi (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 mi (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 [61] [2] [5] to 432,000 [62] British and about 200,000 French [61] [4] casualties, against 465,181 [61] to 500,000 [5] or perhaps 600,000 German casualties. [2] [3] Until the 1930s the dominant view of the battle in English-language writing was that the battle was a hard-fought victory against a brave, experienced and well-led opponent. Winston Churchill had objected to the way the battle was being fought in August 1916, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George criticised attrition warfare frequently and condemned the battle in his post-war memoirs. In the 1930s a new orthodoxy of "mud, blood and futility" emerged and gained more emphasis in the 1960s when the 50th anniversaries of the Great War battles were commemorated. [63]

Transport Edit

Until 1916, transport arrangements for the BEF were based on an assumption that the war of movement would soon resume and make it pointless to build infrastructure, since it would be left behind. The British relied on motor transport from railheads which was insufficient where large masses of men and guns were concentrated. When the Fourth Army advance resumed in August, the wisdom of not building light railways which would be left behind was argued by some, in favour of building standard gauge lines. Experience of crossing the beaten zone showed that such lines or metalled roads could not be built quickly enough to sustain an advance, and that pausing while communications caught up allowed the defenders to recover. On the Somme the daily carry during attacks on a 12 mi (19 km) front was 20,000 long tons (20,000 t) and a few wood roads and rail lines were inadequate for the number of lorries and roads. A comprehensive system of transport was needed, which required a much greater diversion of personnel and equipment than had been expected. [64]

Casualties Edit

British, French and German casualties
July–November 1916
Month British French Sub-
German (% of
July 158,786 49,859 208,645 103,000 49.4
August 58,085 18,806 76,891 68,000 88.4
September 101,313 76,147 177,460 140,000 78.9
October 57,722 37,626 95,348 78,500 82.3
November 39,784 20,129 59,913 45,000 75.0
Total 415,690 202,567 618,257 434,500 70.3
Nationality No. Killed &
United Kingdom 350,000+ - -
Canada 24,029 - -
Australia 23,000 < 200
New Zealand 7,408 - -
South Africa 3,000+ - -
Newfoundland 2,000+ - -
Total Commonwealth 419,654 [61] 95,675 -
French 204,253 [61] 50,756 -
Allied 623,907 146,431 -
German 465,000–
600,000 [65]
164,055 38,000 [66]

The Battle of the Somme was one of the costliest battles of World War I. The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly Conference on 15 November 1916, was that the Germans suffered 630,000 casualties, exceeding the 485,000 suffered by the British and French. As one German officer wrote,

Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.

However, Churchill wrote that Allied casualties had exceeded German losses. In The World Crisis (first published in the early 1920s, reprinted in 1938), he quoted the German Reichsarchiv data, showing that on the Western Front between February and June 1916, the Germans had suffered 270,000 casualties against the French and 390,000 between July and the end of the year (Appendix J) he wrote that the Germans suffered 278,000 casualties at Verdun and that around one eighth of their casualties were suffered on "quiet" sectors. [68] According to the tables, between July and October 1916, German forces on the Western Front suffered 537,919 casualties, 288,011 inflicted by the French and 249,908 by the British German forces inflicted 794,238 casualties on the Entente. [68]

In 1931, Hermann Wendt published a comparison of German and British–French casualties which showed an average of 30 per cent more Allied casualties than German losses on the Somme. [6] In the first 1916 volume of the British Official History (1932), J. E. Edmonds wrote that comparisons of casualties were inexact, because of different methods of calculation by the belligerents but that British casualties were 419,654, from total British casualties in France in the period of 498,054. French Somme casualties were 194,451 and German casualties were c. 445,322, to which should be added 27 per cent for woundings, which would have been counted as casualties using British criteria Anglo-French casualties on the Somme were over 600,000 and German casualties were under 600,000. [69] In the second 1916 volume of the British Official History (1938), Wilfrid Miles wrote that German casualties were 660,000–680,000 and Anglo-French casualties were just under 630,000, using "fresh data" from the French and German official accounts. [70]

Western Front casualties
July–December 1916
[73] [74]
Month No.
July 196,081
August 75,249
September 115,056
October 66,852
November 46,238
December 13,803
French c. 434,000
c. 947,289
German c. 719,000
Grand total c. 1,666,289

Doughty wrote that French losses on the Somme were "surprisingly high" at 202,567 men, 54 per cent of the 377,231 casualties at Verdun. [4] Prior and Wilson used Churchill's research and wrote that the British suffered 420,000 casualties from 1 July to mid-November (c. 3,600 per day) in inflicting c. 280,000 German casualties and offer no figures for French casualties or the losses they inflicted on the Germans. [62] Sheldon wrote that the British lost "over 400,000" casualties. [1] Harris wrote that British losses were c. 420,000, French casualties were over 200,000 men and German losses were c. 500,000, according to the "best" German sources. [5] Sheffield wrote that the losses were "appalling", with 419,000 British casualties, c. 204,000 French and perhaps 600,000 German casualties. [2]

In a commentary on the debate about Somme casualties, Philpott used Miles's figures of 419,654 British casualties and the French official figures of 154,446 Sixth Army losses and 48,131 Tenth Army casualties. Philpott described German losses as "disputed", with estimates ranging from 400,000 to 680,000. The high Allied casualties of July 1916 are not representative of the way attrition turned in the Allies' favour in September, although this was not sustained as the weather deteriorated. [a] Philpott quoted Robin Prior (in Churchill's World Crisis As History [1983]) that the "blood test" is a crude measure compared to manpower reserves, industrial capacity, farm productivity and financial resources and that intangible factors were more influential on the course of the war, which the Allies won despite "losing" the purely quantitative test. [3]

In the United Kingdom and Newfoundland, the Battle of the Somme became the central memory of World War I. [75] [76] [77] The Royal British Legion with the British Embassy in Paris and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, commemorate the battle on 1 July each year, at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. For their efforts on the first day of the battle, The 1st Newfoundland Regiment was given the name "The Royal Newfoundland Regiment" by George V on 28 November 1917. [78] The first day of the Battle of the Somme is commemorated in Newfoundland, remembering the "Best of the Best" at 11 am on the Sunday nearest to 1 July. [79] The Somme is remembered in Northern Ireland due to the participation of the 36th (Ulster) Division and commemorated by veterans' groups and by unionist/Protestant groups such as the Orange Order. The British Legion and others commemorate the battle on 1 July. [80]

On 1 July 2016, at 7:28 am British Summer Time, the UK observed a two minute silence to mark the start of the battle which began 100 years earlier. A special ceremony was broadcast on BBC1 and all BBC radio stations participated in the silence. At the start of the silence, the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery fired a gun every four seconds for one hundred seconds and a whistle was blown to end it. Just like a Remembrance Sunday silence, a bugler played The Last Post after the silence. The silence was announced during a speech by the Prime Minister David Cameron who said, "There will be a national two-minute silence on Friday morning. I will be attending a service at the Thiepval Memorial near the battlefield, and it's right that the whole country pauses to remember the sacrifices of all those who fought and lost their lives in that conflict." [81] On 1 July 2016, a ceremony was held in Heaton Park in north Manchester in England. Heaton Park was the site of a large army training camp during the war. [ citation needed ]

Across Britain on 1 July 2016, 1400 actors dressed in replica World War I-period British Army uniforms walked about in streets and public open areas, from 7 am to 7 pm. Each took on temporarily the identity of a British soldier who died on the first day of the Somme, and handed out information cards about that soldier. They did not talk, except for occasionally singing "We're here because we're here" to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. [82] This event was called "Ghost Soldiers". [ citation needed ]

The Battle of the Somme has been called the beginning of modern all-arms warfare, during which Kitchener's Army learned to fight the mass-industrial war in which the continental armies had been engaged for two years. This view sees the British contribution to the battle as part of a coalition war and part of a process, which took the strategic initiative from the German Army and caused it irreparable damage, leading to its collapse in late 1918. [83] [84] [85]

Haig and General Rawlinson have been criticised ever since 1916 for the human cost of the battle and for failing to achieve their territorial objectives. On 1 August 1916, Winston Churchill, then out of office, criticised the British Army's conduct of the offensive to the British Cabinet, claiming that though the battle had forced the Germans to end their offensive at Verdun, attrition was damaging the British armies more than the German armies. Though Churchill was unable to suggest an alternative, a critical view of the British on the Somme has been influential in English-language writing ever since. In 2016, historian Peter Barton argued in a series of three television programmes that the Battle of the Somme should be regarded as a German defensive victory. [86]

John Terraine, Gary Sheffield, Christopher Duffy, Roger Chickering, Holger Herwig, William Philpott et al. wrote that there was no strategic alternative for the British in 1916 and that an understandable horror at British losses is insular, given the millions of casualties borne by the French and Russian armies since 1914. This school of thought sets the battle in a context of a general Allied offensive in 1916 and notes that German and French writing on the battle puts it in a continental perspective. Little German and French writing on this topic has been translated, leaving much of their historical perspective and detail of German and French military operations inaccessible to the English-speaking world. [87] [88] [89] [90] [91] [92]

In some British history syllabuses, variations of the question "Does Haig deserve to be called 'The Butcher of the Somme'?" (Year 9) or "To what extent can Sir Douglas Haig be considered either a butcher or a hero of the First World War?" (GCSE) are used to teach pupils historical empathy, evaluation and argumentative writing. [93]

Battles - The Battle of the Somme, 1916

Comprising the main Allied attack on the Western Front during 1916, the Battle of the Somme is famous chiefly on account of the loss of 58,000 British troops (one third of them killed) on the first day of the battle, 1 July 1916, which to this day remains a one-day record. The attack was launched upon a 30 kilometre front, from north of the Somme river between Arras and Albert, and ran from 1 July until 18 November, at which point it was called off.

The offensive was planned late in 1915 and was intended as a joint French-British attack. The French Commander in Chief, Joffre, conceived the idea as a battle of attrition, the aim being to drain the German forces of reserves, although territorial gain was a secondary aim.

The plan was agreed upon by the new British Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, although Haig would have preferred an offensive among the open ground of Flanders. Haig, who took up his appointment as Commander in Chief of the BEF on 19 December 1915, had been granted authorisation by the British government, led by Asquith, to conduct a major offensive in 1916.

Although in actuality British forces comprised by far the bulk of the offensive forces, Joffre and Haig originally intended for the attack to be a predominantly French offensive. However the German onslaught at Verdun at the start of 1916, where the German Army Chief of Staff, von Falkenhayn promised to 'bleed France white', resulted in the diversion of virtually all French manpower and efforts.

The German Verdun offensive transformed the intent of the Somme attack the French demanded that the planned date of the attack, 1 August 1916, be brought forward to 1 July, the aim chiefly being to divert German resources from Verdun in the defence of the Somme.

Haig took over responsibility from Joffre for the planning and execution of the attack. Haig meticulous preparations progressed slowly, much to Joffre's irritation. Haig intended to fashion the attack using the ideas of both himself and General Rawlinson, whose Fourth army was to spearhead the assault.

The attack was preceded by an eight-day preliminary bombardment of the German lines, beginning on Saturday 24 June.

The expectation was that the ferocity of the bombardment would entirely destroy all forward German defences, enabling the attacking British troops to practically walk across No Man's Land and take possession of the German front lines from the battered and dazed German troops. 1,500 British guns, together with a similar number of French guns, were employed in the bombardment.

Following the artillery bombardment, it was determined that a creeping barrage would precede the advancing infantry to the German front line, and onwards to the second and third trench lines. The Royal Artillery had prepared an underground network of telephone cables so as to enable forward observation officers to monitor and correct the barrage as the battle progressed.

With the conclusion of the advance bombardment Rawlinson's southern wing, at the centre of the attack line, was instructed by Haig to consolidate after a limited advance. Rawlinson's troops went into battle heavily-laden with supplies for that purpose. Meanwhile to the north the rest of Fourth Army, in addition to 1 Corps of General Allenby's Third Army, attempted a complete breakthrough, with cavalry standing by to fully exploit the resultant gap in the German lines.

Haig's background in cavalry - he served in the 7 th (Queen's Own) Hussars - convinced him that the coup de grace of the attack would best be carried out by cavalry troops. Following the taking of the German lines, the plan was for the British to break through to Cambrai and Douai, thus breaking the German line in two.

Further south a subsidiary advance by the French Sixth Army was scheduled to start operations at the same time as 1 Corps.

27 divisions of men went into the attack - 750,000 men - of which over 80% were comprised from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Ranged against them in the German trenches were 16 divisions of the German Second Army. The odds were apparently stacked heavily in the attacking force's favour.

However the advance artillery bombardment failed to destroy either the German front line barbed wire or the heavily-built concrete bunkers the Germans had carefully and robustly constructed. Much of the munitions used by the British proved to be 'duds' - badly constructed and ineffective. Many charges did not go off even today farmers of the Western Front unearth many tons of unexploded 'iron harvest' each year.

During the bombardment the German troops sought effective shelter in such bunkers, emerging only with the ceasing of the British artillery bombardment, when the German machine guns were manned to great effect.

The attack itself began at 07:30 on 1 July with the detonation of a series of 17 mines. The first, which was actually exploded ten minutes early, went off at 07:20.

The detonation of this mine, the Hawthorn Crater - which remains visible today - was captured on moving film by official war photographer Geoffrey Malins.

Click here for footage taken by Malins on 1 July 1916.

The first attacking wave of the offensive went over the top from Gommecourt to the French left flank just south of Montauban. The attack was by no means a surprise to the German forces. Quite aside from being freely discussed in French coffee shops and in letters home from the front, the chief effect of the eight-day preliminary bombardment served merely to alert the German army to imminent attack.

As a consequence of the lack of surprise generated by the advance bombardment, and the lack of success in cutting the German barbed wire and in damaging their underground bunkers, the BEF made strikingly little progress on 1 July or in the days and weeks that followed.

More success was achieved by the French forces at the southern tail of the line, possibly because their advance bombardment was sprung only hours before the attack, thus ensuring a degree of surprise. In addition, von Falkenhayn believed that the French would not attack at all on account of their heavy losses at Verdun. By advancing in small groups, as they had at Verdun, the French troops achieved most of their objectives. Even so, the gains made here were consolidated upon rather than exploited.

The British troops were for the most part forced back into their trenches by the effectiveness of the German machine gun response.

Many troops were killed or wounded the moment they stepped out of the front lines into No Man's Land. Many men walked slowly towards the German lines, laden down with supplies, expecting little or no opposition. They made for incredulously easy targets for the German machine-gunners.

Despite heavy losses during the first day - 58,000 British troops alone - Haig persisted with the offensive in the following days. Advances were made, but these were limited and often ultimately repulsed. Rawlinson's forces secured the first line of German trenches on 11 July. On that day German troops were transferred from Verdun to contribute to the German defence, doubling the number of men available for the defence.

On 19 July the German defence was re-organised, with the southern wing forming a new army, First Army, under von Gallwitz. Gallwitz took overall responsibility for the conduct of the defence of the line.

Haig was convinced - as were the Germans - that the enemy was on the point of exhaustion and that a breakthrough was imminent. Thus the offensive was maintained throughout the summer and into November. The British saw few victories however: such as Pozieres, captured by two Australian divisions on 23 July and those that were secured were not followed up.

In early September the French Tenth Army under Micheler joined the attack on a 20 kilometre front to the south. Meanwhile the British attack was renewed in north-east, the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, by the Fourth Army on 15 September. This latter attack made use of tanks for the first time and deployed 15 divisions of men even so, it gained under a kilometre of ground.

These first tanks, which totalled 50, were sourced from the Machine Gun Corps, 'C and 'D' Companies, and reached the Somme in September. Mechanical and other failures reduced the original number of participating tanks from 50 to 24. Whilst they achieved a large measure of shocked surprise when sprung upon the German opposition, these early tanks proved unwieldy and highly unreliable.

The tanks were rolled out at 06:20 on the morning of 15 September. General Gough's forces moved to force the enemy off the northern end of the main ridge and away from Fourth Army.

Rawlinson's troops were to break through the remaining enemy trench system while the French Sixth Army would attempt to clear the enemy from the British right flank. Meanwhile the Canadians were northwest of the Albert-Bapaume road and outpaced their seven tanks to capture Courcelette. Immediately south of them, the 15th Scottish Division, helped by a single tank, captured Martinpuich.

To the southeast, however, German forces in High Wood swept the ground with fire from each end, halting a number of tanks. Others found themselves lost, while yet others fired on their own infantry.

To the east progress to Flers was helped by the arrival of four tanks at a critical moment, the ruined village falling to a single tank assisted by mixed platoons of Hampshires and Royal West Kents.

Haig renewed attacks in this area again between 25-27 September, in the Battle of Morval and the Battle of Thiepval Ridge). British advances were small but were consolidated upon. Other attacks were launched by the British at the Battles of Transloy Ridges (1-20 October) and the Battle of the Ancre Heights (1-11 October). Similarly French attacks were continued in the south around Chaulnes, and in the centre east of Morval.

In October Joffre urged Haig to continue the offensive. By this time the French forces in Verdun were on the offensive and were gaining ground. Joffre was concerned that Haig should keep up the pressure on the Germans so as to prevent a diversion of German manpower back to Verdun to assist with the German defence there.

On 13 November the BEF made a final effort on the far east of the salient in the Battle of the Ancre, in which they captured the field fortress of Beaumont Hamel.

Despite the slow but progressive British advance, poor weather - snow - brought a halt to the Somme offensive on 18 November. During the attack the British and French had gained 12 kilometres of ground, the taking of which resulted in 420,000 estimated British casualties, including many of the volunteer 'pal's' battalions, plus a further 200,000 French casualties. German casualties were estimated to run at around 500,000.

Sir Douglas Haig's conduct of the battle caused - and still causes - great controversy. Critics argued that his inflexible approach merely repeated flawed tactics others argue that Haig's hand was forced in that the Somme offensive was necessary in order to relieve the French at Verdun.

Click here to view a map detailing the progress of the battle.

Click here to read Sir Douglas Haig's Somme despatch. Click here to read an account of the offensive by official British reporter Philip Gibbs. Click here to read a report written by local German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht. Click here to read the official Germany account of the offensive written by General von Steinacker.

Click here to read Alfred Dambitsch's Somme memoirs click here to read Alfred Ball's memoirs.

Battle of The Somme Bloodshed Begins

When ground fighting began on July the First, the German 2nd Army suffered a crushing defeat against the French and the British, yet the victory came with egregious losses to Allied personnel. The British alone would suffer 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 killed-in-action, making it the single most disastrous day in British military history.

The battle was further notable for the importance of airpower, as well as the first appearance of the armored tank in 20th century mechanized warfare. The battle would rage on for nearly five long months, yet by October, bad weather stymied all hopes of an Allied victory, with Allied soldiers struggling to cross muddy terrain under fearsome attacks by German artillery and fighter planes.

The Allies made their final advance in mid-November, attacking German positions in the Ancre River valley, until the arrival of true winter shut down the Allies’ offensive on November 18th, ending a fearsome battle of attrition along the banks of the Somme, at least until the following spring.

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Outcome : A victory for Allied Forces [British, Dominion & French] over German 2nd Army

Type of battle : Land


After the initial 7 day [start 24 June] bombardment of the German lines the battle consisted in the main of a series of attacks, almost on a daily basis, by British, Commonwealth and French forces on established German positions to the north of the river Somme. German counter-attacks often took back all or most of the gains made. The final British gain was a strip of land of an average depth of six miles along twenty miles of the front. Manpower losses on both sides were significant and about even. On the 15th September this battle saw the first use/misuse of tanks.


The battlefield centred about 90 miles north of Paris on the Franco-Belgian border between the towns of Albert and Baupaume. The front ran roughly northwest to southeast for a distance of approximately twenty miles. (France)

Also includes the following

  • Battle of Albert 1, Somme day 1 01 July 1916
  • Bernafay Wood, Somme day 3 03 July 1916
  • La Boiselle, Somme day 4 04 July 1916
  • Quadrangle, Somme day 5 05 July 1916
  • Triangle Trench, Somme day 6 06 July 1916
  • Mametz Wood 1, Somme day 7 07 July 1916
  • Trones Wood 1, Somme day 8 08 July 1916
  • Trones Wood 2, Somme day 9 09 July 1916
  • Mametz Wood 2, Somme day 10 10 July 1916
  • Mametz Wood 3, Somme day 11 11 July 1916
  • Mametz Wood 4, Somme day 12 12 July 1916
  • Bazentin Ridge 1, Somme day 14 14 July 1916
  • Delville Wood 1, Somme day 15 15 July 1916
  • Ovillers, Somme day 16 16 July 1916
  • Delville Wood 2, Somme day 18 18 July 1916
  • Delville Wood 3, Somme day 19 19 July 1916
  • High Wood 1, Somme day 20 20 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge, Somme day 23 23 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 2, Somme day 24 24 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 3, Somme day 25 25 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 4, Somme day 26 26 July 1916
  • Delville Wood, Somme day 27 27 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 6, Somme day 28 28 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 8, Somme day 29 29 July 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 9, Somme day 30 30 July 1916
  • Pozierers Ridge 10 Somme day 32 01 August 1916
  • Pozierers Ridge 11, Somme day 33 02 August 1916
  • Pozierers Ridge 12, Somme day 34 03 August 1916
  • Pozierers Ridge 13, Somme day 35 04 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 14, Somme day 36 05 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 15, Somme day 37 06 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 16, Somme day 38 07 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 17, Somme day 39 08 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 18, Somme day 40 09 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 19, Somme day 42 11 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 20, Somme day 43 12 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 21, Somme day 44 13 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 22, Somme day 45 14 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 23, Somme day 46 15 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 24, Somme day 47 16 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 25, Somme day48 17 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 26, Somme day 49 18 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 27, Somme day 50 19 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 28, Somme day 51 20 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 29, Somme day 52 21 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 30, Somme day 53 22 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 31, Somme day 54 23 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 32, Somme day 55 24 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 33, Somme day 56 25 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 34, Somme day 57 26 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 35, Somme day 58 27 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 36, Somme day 59 28 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 37, Somme day 60 29 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 38, Somme day 61 30 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 39, Somme day 62 31 August 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 40, Somme day 63 01 September 1916
  • Pozieres Ridge 41, Somme day 64 02 September 1916
  • Guillemont 1, Somme day 65 03 September 1916
  • Guillemont 2, Somme day 66 04 September 1916
  • Guillemont 3, Somme day 67 05 September 1916
  • Guillemont 4, Somme day 68 06 September 1916
  • Somme day 69 07 September 1916
  • Somme day 70 08 September 1916
  • Ginchy, Somme day 71 09 September 1916
  • Somme day 72 10 September 1916
  • Somme day 74 12 September 1916
  • Somme Day 75 13 September 1916
  • Somme day 76 14 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 1, Somme day 77 15 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 2, Somme day 78 16 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 3, Somme day 79 17 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 4, Somme day 80 18 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 5, Somme day 81 19 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 6, Somme day 82 20 September 1916
  • Flers-Coucelette 7, Somme day 83 21 September 1916
  • Flers-Courcelette 8, Somme day 84 22 September 1916
  • Somme day 85 23 September 1916
  • Somme day 86 24 September 1916
  • Morval 1, Somme day 87 25 September 1916
  • Morval 2/Thiepval 1, Somme day 88 26 September 1916
  • Morval 3/Thiepval 2, Somme day 89 27 September 1916
  • Morval 4/Thiepval 3, Somme day 90 28 September 1916
  • Thiepval 4, Somme day 91 29 September 1916
  • Thiepval 5, Somme day 92 30 September 1916
  • Ancre Heights 1, Somme day 93 01 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 2, Somme day 94 02 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 3, Somme day 95 03 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 4, Somme day 96 04 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 5, Somme day 97 05 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 6, Somme day 98 06 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 7, Somme day 99 07 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 8, Somme day 100 08 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 9, Somme day 101 09 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 11, Somme day 103 11 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights12, Somme day 104 12 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 14, Somme day 106 14 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 15, Somme day 107 15 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 18, Somme day 110 18 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 19, Somme day 111 19 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 20, Somme day 112 20 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 21, Somme day 113 21 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 22, Somme day 114 22 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 23, Somme day 115 23 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 25, Somme day 117 25 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 26, Somme day 118 26 October 1916
  • Ancre heights 28, Somme day 120 28 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 29, Somme day 121 29 October 1916
  • Ancre Heights 32, Somme day124 01 November 1916
  • Ancre heights 33, Somme day 125 02 November 1916
  • Ancre Heights 34, Somme day 126 03 November 1916
  • Ancre Heights 36, Somme day 128 05 November 1916
  • Ancre Heights 42, Somme day 134 11 November 1916
  • The Ancre 1, Somme day 136 13 November 1916
  • The Ancre 2, Somme day 137 14 November 1916
  • The Ancre 3, Somme day 138 15 November 1916
  • The Ancre 4, Somme day 139 16 November 1916
  • The Somme Final Attack, Somme day 141 18 November 1916
  • Last day, Somme day 142 19 November 1916

More details

1-13 The Battle of Albert
1 Capture of Montauban
1 Capture of mametz
2 Capture of Fricourt
2-4 Capture of La Boiselle
3 Capture of Bernafay Wood
7-11 Mametz Wood
10 Capture of Contalmaison
7-13 Fight for Trones Wood
14-29 Capture of Longueval
15-3 Sept. Battle of Delville Wood
17 Capture of Ovillers
20-30 Attacks on High Wood
23-13 Sept Battle of Pozieres Ridge
27-28 Capture of Delville Wood

6-3 Sept Fighting for Mouquet Farm
8-9 Fighting for Waterlot Farm, Guillemont

3-6 Battle of Guillemont
9 Battle of Ginchy
14 Capture of the Wonder Work
15-22 Battle of Flers-Courcelette [First use of Tanks]
15 Capture of Flers
15 Capture of High Wood
15 Capture of Martinpuch
25-28 Battle of Morval
25 Capture of Lesboeufs
26 Battle of Thiepval Ridge
26 Capture of Combles
26 Capture of Grid Trench and Gueudecourt
26 Capture of Mouquet Farm

1-18 Battle of Transloy Ridge
1- 11 Nov. Battle of the Ancre Heights
1-3 Capture of Eaucourt l'Abbaye
7 Capture of Le Sars
7-5 Nov. Attack on the Butte de Warlencourt
9 Capture of Stuff Redoubt
14 Capture of Schwaben Redoubt
21 Capture of Regina Trench and Redoubt
21 Capture of Stuff Trench

3-11 Battle of the Ancre
13 Capture of Beaumont Hamel
14 Capture of Beaucourt
13-18 Battle of the Ancre.

This campaign ended in mud, cold and exhaustion for both sides. Overall an Allied gain of about 120 square miles for over 600,000 casulties, which is about 5,200 for each square mile. A German staff officer described the Somme as 'the muddy grave of the German field army.'

The Battle of the Somme in pictures, 1916

The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. It was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German Empire and it took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. More than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the following year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916. The location was mainly chosen as it was where French and British forces on the Western Front met. But the German attack on the French at Verdun in February 1916 forced Britain to take the lead in the Somme offensive.

A seven-day preliminary bombardment began on 24 June 1916 in an attempt to cut the barbed wire in front of the German lines and destroy trench defences and artillery. In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.

The British believed that the Germans would be so shattered by this massive bombardment that British troops would be able to cross no man’s land and occupy the German trenches. Haig instructed General Rawlinson to prepare for ‘a rapid advance’. However, the British guns were too thinly spread to achieve this goal and around two thirds of the shells were shrapnel, which were largely ineffective against the concrete dugouts. To make matters worse, it has been been estimated that as many as 30% of the shells failed to explode. The British artillery was also unable to neutralise the German artillery, which would prove critical on the first day of the battle.

In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.

On July 1, 1916, the first shots were fired in what would become one of the bloodiest engagements in human history, the 141-day Battle of the Somme. In most places the artillery bombardment had failed to cut the German barbed wire or damage the defenders’ dugouts. Some senior commanders, not convinced that the inexperienced soldiers of New Armies (newly recruited) could cope with sophisticated tactics, ordered the infantry to advance in long, close-formed lines. German machine-gunners emerged from their intact shelters and mowed down the oncoming British infantry.

The only substantial British success was in the south where, using more imaginative tactics and helped by the French artillery on their immediate right, the 18th and 30th Divisions took all their objectives and the 7th Division captured Mametz. At Thiepval, the 36th (Ulster) Division seized the Schwaben Redoubt but was forced to withdraw because of lack of progress to its left and right. Elsewhere some British infantry made it into German positions but were forced to withdraw in the face of determined resistance and a huge volume of German artillery fire.

A 45,000-pound mine (2 ton) under the German front line positions at Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The mine left a crater 130 feet (40 m) across and 58 feet (18 m) deep. July 1, 1916.

These limited gains cost 57,470 British casualties – of which 19,240 were killed – making the first day of the Somme the bloodiest in British military history. The French Sixth Army had 1,590 casualties and the German 2nd Army had 10,000–12,000 losses. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. The British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition.

The lack of a decisive breakthrough on the opening day resulted in attritional or ‘wearing out’ fighting during the following two months. The remainder of the battle was characterised by relentless British attacks and equally determined German counterattacks.

British troops go “over the top” in a scene staged for a newsreel film on the battle. 1916.

By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank. Objectives for 15 September included the Fourth Army’s capture of the German defences at Flers and the seizure of Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs and Morval. The Canadian Corps of Gough’s Reserve Army was to take Courcelette.

Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points, though these caused alarm among the German defenders. Flers and Courcelette fell but the advance on 15 September was limited to about 2,500 yards (2,286m) on a three-mile (4.8km) front. The Germans retained Morval and Lesboeufs for a further ten days and the offensive stalled.

The last act of the Somme offensive took place in the Ancre sector from 13 to 19 November. The operation went ahead, despite repeated postponements, largely because it was hoped that a late British success might create a favourable impression at the inter-Allied conference at Chantilly on 15 November. Although the Germans were weakened, the Allies failed to achieve all of their objectives and the war was to continue for another two years.

Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme. July 1, 1916.

British survivors of the battle had gained experience and the BEF learned how to conduct the mass industrial warfare, which the continental armies had been fighting since 1914. The continental powers had begun the war with trained armies of regulars and reservists, which were wasting assets. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria wrote, “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield”. A war of attrition was a logical strategy for Britain against Germany, which was also at war with France and Russia. A school of thought holds that the Battle of the Somme placed unprecedented strain on the German army and that after the battle it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like, which reduced it to a militia.

The British and French had advanced about 6 mi (9.7 km) on the Somme, on a front of 16 mi (26 km) at a cost of 419,654 to 432,000 British and about 200,000 French casualties, against 465,181 to 500,000 or perhaps even 600,000 German casualties. Until the 1930s the dominant view of the battle in English-language writing was that the battle was a hard-fought victory against a brave, experienced and well-led opponent. Winston Churchill had objected to the way the battle was being fought in August 1916, Lloyd George when Prime Minister criticized attrition warfare frequently and condemned the battle in his post-war memoirs. In the 1930s a new orthodoxy of “mud, blood and futility” emerged and gained more emphasis in the 1960s when the 50th anniversaries of the Great War battles were commemorated.

British 34th Division troops advance on the first day of the battle.

The British trenches, manned by the 11th battalion, The Cheshire Regiment, near La Boisselle.

An artillery depot behind German lines. 1916.

Artillery barrages light up the sky during the attack on Beaumont Hamel. July 2, 1916.

Wounded British soldiers return from the front lines.

Indian cavalry of the British army. 1916.

Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division at the Battle of the Somme. The division took 4,000 casualties capturing the wood.

Soldiers sit in the trenches of the wood called Des Fermes in the Somme.

German troops carry Lewis gun equipment.

Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine gun.

An aerial view of a French offensive.

A British soldier dresses the wounds of a German prisoner near Bernafay Wood. July 19, 1916.

A French soldier peers over the edge of a trench.

Canadian troops fix bayonets before going over the top to assault German positions.

A German field telephonist relays artillery requests from the front lines.

A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916.

Soldiers cross the river Ancre during the Allied attack on Thiepval Ridge. September, 1916.

German prisoners carry British wounded during the assault on Trones Wood.

British soldiers advancing under cover of gas and smoke while making a break in the German lines through to Serre and Thiepval. September, 1916.

Men of the 1st Anzac Division, some wearing German helmets, pose for the camera after fighting near Pozieres Ridge. July 23, 1916.

Men of the Border Regiment rest in shallow dugouts near Thiepval Wood. August, 1916.

A 6-inch howitzer is hauled through the mud near Pozieres. September, 1916.

The 39th Siege Battery artillery in action in the Fricourt-Mametz Valley. August, 1916.

A man builds barbed wire obstacles on the Somme. September, 1916.

Reinforcements cross the old German front line during the advance towards Flers. September 15, 1916.

A Mark I tank lies ditched north of Bouleaux Wood on the day tanks first went into action.

Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers. September 17, 1916.

By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank.

British soldiers eat hot rations in the Ancre Valley. October, 1916.

Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road outside Flers. November, 1916.

A German cannon lies buried under uprooted trees in Louage Wood during an Allied offensive. October 10, 1916.

A German soldier walks through the ruined streets of Peronne. November, 1916.

Battles of the Somme

Mines Exploded under German Positions

Photograph of the explosion of the mine at Hawthorn Ridge at 07.20 hours on 1 July 1916. GWPDA(5)

In order to knock out a number of key defensive positions in the German Front Line the British exploded eight large mines just before Zero Hour of 07.30 hours.

British Infantry Advance

In some parts of the British line troops had crawled out in front of the Front Line trench before Zero Hour. At Zero Hour 07.30 whistles blew all along the British Front Line north of the Somme river. Thousands of British troops clambered over the trench parapet into No Man's Land, making for the German Front Line.

Second wave of British infantry leaving the British Front Line on 1 July 1916. GWPDA(6)

The British Official History records the moment:

“Under a cloudless blue sky which gave full promise of the hot mid-summer day which was ahead, wave after wave of British infantry rose and, with bayontets glistening, moved forward into a blanket of smoke and mist as the barrage lifted from the enemy's front trench. Almost simultaneously the German gunners ceased their counter-battery work and concentrated their fire upon the assault.” (7)

The tragedy of the day unfolded as thousands of British troops were cut down and wounded or killed by German machine gun and rifle fire. Many never even reached the German wire on the other side of No Man's Land.

At the end of the first day of the battle the Germans had successfully defended their positions more or less in tact north and south of the Albert—Bapaume road from between the villages of Gommecourt and Fricourt. However, to the east of Mametz village the British 18th and 30th Divisions of XIII Corps did make a successful breakthrough beyond the German Front Line, reaching their objective by the end of the day.

Heavy British Casualties

Roll call in the British trenches on the afternoon of 1 July 1916. GWPDA(8)

1 July was a tragic day for the British Army. There were some 60,000 casualties by the end of that day, 20,000 of whom were fatalities. Although the German regiments record relatively few casualties defending their line in the northern part of the battlefield two of their regiments in the south sector, where the British had successfully made a breakthrough, were decimated, each of them losing several hundred men as wounded, killed and taken prisoner.

Tactical Incidents in the Battle of Albert

In the days from 1 July until 13 July the following ground was captured by British forces:

  • Capture of Montauban on 1 July by 30th Division
  • Capture of Mametz by 7th Division
  • Capture of Fricourt by 17th Division
  • Capture of Contalmaison by 23rd Division
  • Capture of La Boisselle by 19th Division

Battles continued in this sector into the following weeks as the British tried to break the German defence. The names of villages and woods on the Somme battlefields have become synonymous with the desperate fighting and tragic loss of both the British and German Armies during the four and a half months of these battles: Gommecourt, Serre, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, La Boisselle, Courcelette, Fricourt, Contalmaison, Mametz, Montauban, Bazentin, Longueval, Delville Wood, Martinpuich, High Wood, Flers.

    Subsidiary action: Attack at Fromelles (on Aubers Ridge, Artois)

Battle of the Ancre, 13-19 November 1916 - History

Three 8 inch howitzers of 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), firing from the Fricourt-Mametz Valley during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916 during World War I

The Battle of the Somme which is also called the Somme Campaign was a major offensive campaign by the British and French against the German near the Somme River. The Allies had all agreed that there would be a combined offensive on the both the Eastern and Western Fronts. This was going to be the British and French contribution to that offensive. The German offensive at Verdun had forced the French to divert some of the troops that had been planned for the Somme's offensive to Verdun. The offensive began on July 1st. For the French it was one of the best days of the war. The French Sixth Army forced the German Second army from all their first positions. The German were forced to retreat. The British troops suffered divesting casualties 57,470 of which 19,240 were killed in that one day.

The first phase of the attacks continues until July 13th and was known as the Battle of Albert. The battle was the first time that the allies used tanks. The second part of the battle was Battle of Bazentin Ridge and it last from July 14- 17 and was an attempt to capture strategic ridges. The attack largely succeeded.

The second phase of the battles began on July 14th and lasted until mid September. The second phase was made up of a number of battles :Battle o Delville Rd, Battle of Pozieres, Battle of Guillemont and the Battle of Ginchy. The Allies won almost all of these battles but at a very heavy cost in most cases.

The third phase of the battle lasted from September to November 1916 and included the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, Battle of Morval, Battle of Thiepval Ridge,Battle of Transloy Ridges, Battle of Ancre Heights and the Battle of Ancre. The battle ended with the allies pushed the German back a total of 6 miles. The cost of the battle was horrendous for both sides. The British lost 419,654 men of which the 95,675 were killed. The French lost 204,253 of which 50,756 were killed and the German lost between 465,000 and 600,00 of which 164,555 were killed and another 38,000 became prisoners of war. A German officer wrote Somme: “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word”.

Watch the video: WWI The Battle of Ancre Heights - Real War Combat Footage