The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916, in the midst of World War I. In the largest battle of war, the British assault along the Somme lasted until November and saw massive casualties while virtually no advantage to either side was gained.
In February 1916 the bulk of the German army on the Western Front attacked the French fortress town of Verdun. The German strategy had been simply to throw numbers at the French army in the belief that the French army would bleed to death before the German army did. It was a brutal, apocalyptic strategy that nearly succeeded.
By summer, the British had devised a plan to take pressure off of the French. The British army would attack the Germans along the Somme River to the north of Verdun in the hopes that the German army would draw away its strength and relieve the beleaguered French.
It was also hoped that the attack would open up a gap in the German lines and allow for a drive all the way to Berlin. Sir Douglas Haig, the enigmatic field marshal in command of the British Expeditionary Force on the continent, planned the attack.
To this day, Haig remains a controversial figure, largely for his failure on the Somme. In his book “The First World War,” historian John Keegan writes, “Haig, in whose public manner and private diaries no concern for human suffering was or is discernible, compensated for his aloofness with nothing whatsoever of the common touch. He seemed to move through the horrors of the First World War as if guided by some inner voice, speaking of a higher purpose and a personal destiny.”
Nevertheless, Haig was a first-rate organizer and planned the assault meticulously. Haig's plan called for a weeklong bombardment of the German position prior to the attack. Theoretically this bombardment, in which roughly one million shells were fired, would flatten the German defenses and poison gas would kill all German front-line soldiers.
In reality, the explosive shells had little effect upon the miles of barbed wire while the German soldiers, hunkered down in their trenches and shelters, simply waited out the gas through the strong filters of their gas masks.
Ernst Jünger, a German solider who survived the war, later wrote of this bombardment in his memoir “Storm of Steel": “I leaped over the ramparts of the reserve line, raced forward, and soon found myself enveloped in the gas cloud. A penetrating smell of chlorine confirmed for me that this was indeed fighting gas, and not, as I had briefly thought, artificial fog. I therefore donned my mask, only to tear it off again right away because I'd been running so fast that the mask didn't give me enough air to breath... Since I felt pain in my chest, I tried to put the cloud behind me as fast as I could.”
Additionally, such a strong bombardment telegraphed to the German high command the exact point at which the attack would come. German generals were able to move reinforcements to the reserve line in plenty of time to meet the British assault.
Finally, in the early morning hours of July 1, the signal was given. British soldiers climbed out of their trenches and proceeded to move quickly across No Man's Land, the stretch between the lines in which no man could live for long. The Germans, tipped off by the bombardment, opened up their machine guns and rifles, covering the ground before them in a deadly fire. In a few sectors the British were able to take the German position, but more often the German defenders stopped the advance cold.
Historian Martin Gilbert wrote in his book “The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War," “Despite British hopes of a breakthrough, between the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 and and the last day, November 21, the deepest Anglo-French penetration of the German lines was less than six miles.”
Martin writes that when the battle concluded in November, roughly 300,000 combatants of various nationalities lay dead. With perhaps double that number wounded, the Somme produced well over 1 million casualties. On that first day of the battle, however, nearly 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives, most within the first few hours, while another 36,000 were wounded.
To put that day into perspective, the entire American death count from eight years in the Vietnam War was 58,000 soldiers.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the codeveloper of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]