The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, was the first great offensive of WWI and one of the bloodiest battles in history. It was fought July 1 – November 18, 1916, along a 25-mile front near the Somme River in France. The first two weeks of the Battle of the Somme are known as the Battle of Albert. On the first day of the Battle of Albert, British forces sustained 57,000 casualties with more than 19,000 deaths. It was the deadliest one-day loss in British military history. The losses of the first day were a precursor of what was to come in the following months.
During 1914-1915, with Allied forces bogged down in a stalemate of trench warfare, plans were made for a big push on the Western Front. The British and French agreed to launch a joint offensive, but the Germans struck first with an attack on Verdun requiring all available French reserves for defenses. The British would need to lead the joint offensive and relieve pressure on French troops. The area along the Somme River was chosen because it was the meeting place of British and French troops.
The Battle of Albert was the first major battle of Britain’s new and inexperienced volunteer army. A wave of patriotism had spurred thousands to enlist in Pals battalions in 1914-1915. Pals battalions were made up of family, friends, and co-workers from the same community. After training, many of those battalions would see their first combat experience at Somme.
For a week leading up to the offensive, British forces carpeted Germany’s strong defensive lines with 1.6 million shells. They also planted explosive mines under enemy strongpoints. The bombardment was less than effective, and the depth of German trenches meant that German soldiers were more or less protected from the onslaught. That combined with inexperienced troops, faulty shells, and a shortage of guns left British troops vulnerable. German forces had constructed formidable trenches protected by machine gun positions and bands of barbed wire to protect the line from attack.
On the morning of July 1st, British forces began the attack north of the river. At the same time, the French attacked from the south. German defenses had not been sufficiently neutralized and as densely packed British troops entered no-man’s land many were mowed down by machine gun fire. French troops faced lighter opposition and made deeper advances, but overall the day was a failure. Allies gained just three square miles of territory and the intense offensive would go on another four months.
The Battle of the Somme relied on methods of modern warfare including aircraft, heavy artillery, machine guns, mortars, spray chemical weapons, and flamethrowers. The very first tanks were used in the Battle of the Somme on September 15, 1916.
When the Battle of the Somme finally ended on November 18, 1916, more than a million soldiers from the British, German, and French armies were wounded or killed. The casualty rate for Pals battalions meant that individual communities experienced significant losses. Would you like to learn more about the Battle of the Somme and other World War I battles? Search Fold3 today!