The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st 1916. The original proposal called for a combined French and British operation with the intention of breaching the German defensive trench line and creating opportunities for a more mobile war thereby breaking the stalemate that the conflict had become. The idea was the brainchild of French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre. Despite having reservations General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), accepted the plan.
The French plan called for the main attack to be made by the French army but the German offensive against Verdun in February 1916 required the diversion of French troops and the Somme offensive became the responsibility of the BEF. General Sir Douglas Haig and General Sir Henry Rawlinson, planned the attack: an eight-day initial bombardment intended to destroy the German morale and defences to be followed up by advancing infantry to take control of the German lines.
The main attack towards Bapaume was to be by the British Fourth Army led by General Sir Henry Rawlinson. The British third Army, commanded by General Edmund Allenby, was positioned to the north of Rawlinson with orders to exploit any breakthrough in the German line with cavalry. South of Rawlinson the French Sixth Army, commanded by General Fayolle, was to advance in support of the British Fourth Army towards Combles. Haig had 750,000 men in 27 divisions available against 16 German front line divisions. The British bombardment failed to destroy the German defensive bunkers or barbed wire, the German defenders emerging from their protective shelters after the bombardment had ended. When the British and French troops attacked at 7.30 on the morning of the July 1st they engaged a well prepared enemy in strong defensive positions. The BEF alone suffered 58,000 casualties, one third of them killed. It was the worse day in the history of the British Army. Despite heavy losses the attacks continued. Haig, believing that the German army was near exhaustion, ordered further attacks. On September 15th the Tenth Army, commanded by General Alfred Micheler, was committed to the offensive. Tanks were used for the first time but Tenth Army still only managed to advance just a few kilometres. Eventually, on November 13th the British captured the fortress at Beaumont Hamel. By this time the weather had turned and heavy snow forced Haig to conclude his offensive.
From the opening of the offensive on July 1st, the British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French nearly 200,000 and the Germans around 500,000. The deepest penetration by British troops was only 12km and this gain was more or less lost to German counter attacks as the British attack ended.
The First World War began in the West during August 1914 when the Germans initiated the Schlieffen Plan and invaded Belgium in an attempt to reach Paris to force the French out of the war before the Russian army could mobilise. The British Government declared war on Germany under the terms of a treaty with Belgium that guaranteed them aid in the event of a German invasion. The British Expeditionary Force was committed to the war on the continent and arrived far more quickly than the Germans had anticipated. The German advance was slowed and, after the battle of the Marne, was halted. Germany had to release troops to defend the Eastern front against Russian advance and so their Western armies dug in and created a defensive trench system that ran from Switzerland to the North Sea. The British and French allies created a parallel system of trenches and the land between became known as No-Man's Land, strewn with belts of barbed wire and covered by lethal machine guns; it was virtually suicidal to attempt a frontal assault against these prepared positions
After the establishment of the trench system the BEF was re-enforced and expanded with extra divisions from Britain. By the Spring of 1915 the BEF was capable of offensive action. The battle of Neuve-Chapelle in mid March and the Battle of Loos during September and October both established the doctrine for future attacks: the use of the heavy preliminary artillery barrage, of smoke and gas, telephone communication networks and of reconnaissance and spotter aircraft amongst other innovations; all of which failed to break the German defences. The outcome of these failures was the removal of the BEF commander Field Marshall Sir John French, who was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig on December 19th 1915. Haig had at his disposal around 54 divisions of infantry and cavalry and started to take responsibility for a larger part of the front line; the French started to call upon the British to co-operate in joint attacks, mainly focussed around the Somme river. The overwhelming reason for selecting this place was that it was the boundary between the British and French armies and allowed the two to operate together; there was no strategic advantage to be gained by attacking the Germans here.
On February 21st 1916 the Germans launched an offensive against the French fortress of Verdun. The intention was to suck in the French armies and bleed them dry. The struggle for Verdun became a symbol for French resistance and it was to be held at all cost. More and more French troops were committed to the defence of the area, making them unavailable for any future offensive on the Somme. The objective for the Somme offensive became more and more a British responsibility primarily intended to relieve the pressure off the French at Verdun
The battle at the Somme began with an artillery bombardment that fired nearly 1.75 million shells over the space of a week at the the German lines. The reasoning was simple: destroy the German network of barbed wire and defensive positions to soften up or eliminate any opposition that the following infantry might encounter.
The Germans were prepared for this. They had constructed deep dugouts where their men could shelter from any bombardment. Once the bombardment had finished the German defenders emerged from these dugouts and manned their machine guns ready to receive the advancing infantry.
July 1st - The advance
At 7:30 am, when the bombardment had finished, the British troops left their own trenches and started to advance towards the German lines over a 40 km front. The British troops were volunteers raised by Lord Kitchener; though British senior officers believed that they were only capable of limited tactics and wanted them to advance in long close order formations reminiscent of Napoleonic infantry lines. They advanced at a walking pace not expecting any significant resistance. The Germans had a commanding view of the battle field. The barbed wire was still intact. The British suffered horrendous casualties as machine guns poured bullets relentlessly into the advancing lines of infantry. The attack resulted in nearly 58,000 casualties. The attack was obviously stalled but Haig was committed to the offensive in order to draw German troops from their attack on Verdun.
The battle devolved into a series of indomitable British attacks met by resolute German counter-attacks. To the north Gough's reserve army took over the British line releasing Rawlinson's Fourth Army for more attacks. On July 14th a dawn attack by the British captured over 5km of the German line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-Petit. Generally the limited attacks succeeded but at a very high cost in casualties.
By mid September the British were prepared to employ a new weapon to break the deadlock of trench war. Since the formation of the Landship Committee in February 1915 the British had been formulating plans and designs for an armoured vehicle that could survive the transit of no-mans land and assault the German trenches. By January 1916 the endeavours of this committee were rewarded with the production of the first tank. From this 'Mother' tank were derived two types of tank: the 'Male' series, armed with cannon and the 'Female' series, armed with machine guns.
A small number of Mark I's were deployed during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916. They were used for cutting barbed wire and for assaulting machine gun nests. A lot broke down and some didn't even make it to the start line but the ten or so that actually engaged the enemy made a big impression on them, though there were too few tanks available to have a major impact on the Somme offensive..
By mid - November the weather had turned no-man's land into a quagmire, practically impossible to cross in any numbers. Since July 1st, the British had advanced 10km (6 miles) over a 32kn (20 miles) front. The total casualties on all sides amounted to over 1.0 million men, on average about 7,000 per day. The Somme delivered some success in that it relieved the French at Verdun but otherwise it did nothing to effect the hoped for breakthrough and a return to mobile warfare.