On this day in 1916, British Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig calls a halt to his army’s offensive near the Somme River in northwestern France, ending the epic Battle of the Somme after more than four months of bloody conflict.
With the French under heavy siege at Verdun since February, the Somme offensive was Haig’s long-planned attempt to make an Allied breakthrough on the Western Front. After a full week of artillery bombardment, the offensive began in earnest on the morning of July 1, 1916, when soldiers from 11 British divisions emerged from their trenches near the Somme River in northwestern France and advanced toward the German front lines.
The initial advance was a disaster, as the six German divisions facing the advancing British mowed them down with their machine guns, killing or wounding some 60,000 men on the first day alone: the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history to that point. The failure of the advance was credited variously to the complete lack of surprise in the timing of the attack, incompetence on the part of Haig and the British command–namely, their failure to conceive that the Germans could build their trenches deep enough to protect their heavy weapons or bring them up so quickly once the artillery barrage had ended–and the inferior preparation of the British artillery, for which the infantry paid a heavy price.
Over the course of the next four-and-a-half months and no fewer than 90 attacks, the Allies were able to advance a total of only six miles in the Somme region, at the cost of 146,000 soldiers killed and over 200,000 more injured. On November 18, 1916, Haig finally called off the offensive, insisting in his official dispatch from the front that December that the Somme operation had achieved its objectives. “Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western front; and the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down. Any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle.”
Despite its commander’s positive assessment, the Battle of the Somme would remain one of the most controversial operations of World War I. In the war’s aftermath, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a nemesis of Haig’s, roundly condemned Haig’s offensive: “Over 400,000 of our men fell in this bullheaded fight and the slaughter amongst our young officers was appalling…Had it not been for the inexplicable stupidity of the Germans in provoking a quarrel with America and bringing that mighty people into the war against them just as they had succeeded in eliminating another powerful foe—Russia–the Somme would not have saved us from the inextricable stalemate.”