Battle Of The Somme; World War I

Learn about the Battle of the Somme, in which there were over a million casualties, making it the worst battle in the First World War.

The Battle of the Somme is a famous conflict of the First World War, in which the British Expeditionary Force and the French army attempted to take the strong defensive position held by the Germans in the Somme valley. The French commander had persuaded his British counterpart, Douglas Haig to go ahead with the plan, believing that if successful it would relieve pressure on the French army at Verdun. In addition he believed that they would be able to inflict heavy losses on the German army, weakening them sufficiently to win the war.

Haig knew that the Germans had a very thorough defence, but he believed that it would be possible to weaken it considerably. So, in the last week of June 1916, the British Expeditionary Force began bombarding the German positions with shells. To get an idea of how heavy an attack it was, consider that more than one and a half million shells rained down on the Germans in eight days. This attack was designed to smash the German concrete bunkers, and obliterate the lines of razor wire set up for protection.

On the morning of July 1, the shelling stopped and the British troops confidently set out into no man's land, expecting to meet little resistance from the supposedly battered opponents. They walked in orderly lines as instructed and made their way to the enemy positions with a confidence instilled by the positive propaganda of their own commanders.

However, Haig's theory was way off mark. The German bunkers were dug especially deep and were unaffected by the bombardment. Also, the razor wire that was to be blown to smithereens had merely been thrown in the air, returning to land in an even more tangled, menacing state. In their preparations the Germans had added more razor wire to the mass, making it nigh on impossible to find a way through.

When the shelling stopped, the Germans scrambled to their posts. Machine guns and rifles were all positioned in an arc, covering the entirety of no man's land. As the British advanced, their enemy let rip with all its might, mowing them down like grass. The Brits didn't stand a chance. Most of those not killed in that first wave of bullets became stuck in the vicious razor wire, sitting ducks for the subsequent barrage. Of the few that managed to breach the defence, they were forced to fight desperate battles, in the fading hope that reinforcements would soon arrive.

In that morning alone, the British suffered sixty thousand casualties, twenty thousand of which died. Of the survivors, many had arms, legs or even parts of their face blown off and the field hospitals had to perform many amputations.

Haig though, as seemed typical of the high command during the Great War, was unconcerned with this huge loss of life. He ordered that the attack continued. Over the next four months, the combined efforts of the British and French could only muster small gains, positions which were never held for very long due to a lack of reinforcements, and the huge depth of the German defences, stretching back twenty kilometres. The most notable "╦ťvictories' for them in this battle came thirteen days after the initial push, when they momentarily breached the line of defence, and on the 13th November when they captured the fortress at Beaumont Hamel.

This last victory was short lived though. Heavy snow forced the Allied Forces to retreat, and soon afterwards, because of the terrible weather, Haig called an end to the Battle of the Somme. The biggest distance gained in the battle was one of a mere twelve kilometres. All in all, it is estimated that the British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 200,000, and the Germans 500,000. It could be argued that the battle was successful from a British point of view, because one of their objectives was to inflict heavy losses on the German army. But the way in which it was achieved, with the colossal sacrifice of human lives has made the Battle of the Somme a terrible tragedy in Britain's history.

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