The Battle of the Somme, which took place from July to November 1916, began as an Allied offensive against German forces on the Western Front and turned into one of the most bitter and costly battles of World War I.
British forces suffered more than 57,000 casualties—including more than 19,000 soldiers killed—on the first day of the battle alone, making it the single most disastrous day in that nation’s military history. By the time the Battle of the Somme (sometimes called the First Battle of the Somme) ended nearly five months later, more than 3 million soldiers on both sides had fought in the battle, and more than 1 million had been killed or wounded.
READ MORE: Why Was the Battle of the Somme So Deadly?
Battle Begins - July 1, 1916
Prior to the attack, the Allies launched a week-long heavy artillery bombardment, using some 1.75 million shells, which aimed to cut the barbed wire guarding German defenses and destroy the enemy’s positions. On the morning of July 1, 11 divisions of the British 4th Army (many of them volunteer soldiers going into battle for the first time) began advancing on a 15-mile front north of the Somme. At the same time, five French divisions advanced on an eight-mile front to the south, where the German defenses were weaker.
Allied leaders had been confident the bombardment would damage German defenses enough so that their troops could easily advance. But the barbed wire remained intact in many places, and the German positions, many of which were deep underground, were stronger than anticipated. Along the line, German machine gun and rifle fire cut down thousands of the attacking British troops, many of them caught in no man’s land.
Some 19,240 British soldiers were killed and more than 38,000 wounded by the end of that first day—almost as many casualties as British forces suffered when the Allies lost the battle for France during World War II (May-June 1940), including prisoners.
Trench Warfare & War of Attrition
Other British and French forces had more success to the south, these gains were limited compared to the devastating losses sustained on that first day of battle. But Haig was determined to press on with the offensive, and over the next two weeks the British launched a series of smaller attacks on the German line, putting increasing pressure on the Germans and forcing them to divert some weapons and soldiers from Verdun.
Early on the morning of July 15, British troops launched another artillery barrage followed by a massive attack, this time on Bazentin Ridge, in the northern part of the Somme. The assault took the Germans by surprise, and the British were able to advance some 6,000 yards into enemy territory, occupying the village of Longueval. But any small advance continued to come at the expense of heavy casualties, with the Germans losing 160,000 soldiers and the British and French more than 200,000 by the end of July.
Near the end of August, with German morale running low due to lost ground both on the Somme and at Verdun, Germany’s General Erich von Falkenhayn was replaced by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. The command change marked a change in German strategy: They would build a new defensive line behind the Somme front, conceding territory but allowing them to inflict even more casualties on the advancing Allied troops.
Tanks Join the Battle
On September 15, during an attack at Flers Courcelette, the British artillery barrage was followed by an advance of 12 divisions of soldiers accompanied by 48 Mark I tanks, making their first-ever appearance on the battlefield. But the tanks were still early in their development stages, and many of them broke down before making it to the front line. Though the British were able to advance some 1.5 miles, they sustained some 29,000 casualties and fell short of a true breakthrough.
As October began, bad weather stymied another Allied attack, with soldiers struggling to cross muddy terrain under fierce fire from German artillery and fighter planes. The Allies made their final advance of the battle in mid-November, attacking the German positions in the Ancre River valley. With the arrival of true winter weather, Haig finally called the offensive to a halt on November 18, ending the battle of attrition on the Somme, at least until the following year. Over 141 days, the British had advanced just seven miles, and had failed to break the German line.
Legacy of the Battle of the Somme
More than anything else, the Battle of the Somme—and especially its devastating first day—would be remembered as the epitome of the brutal and seemingly senseless carnage that characterized trench warfare during World War I. British officers, especially Haig, would be criticized for continuing the offensive in spite of such devastating losses.
Many of the British soldiers who fought at the Somme had volunteered for army service in 1914 and 1915 and saw combat for the first time in the battle. Many were members of so-called Pals battalions, or units that were made up of friends, relatives and neighbors in the same community. In one poignant example of a community’s loss, some 720 men from the 11th East Lancashire battalion (known as the Accrington Pals) fought on July 1 at the Somme; 584 were killed or wounded.
Despite its failure, the Allied offensive at the Somme did inflict serious damage on German positions in France, spurring the Germans to strategically retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917 rather than continue battling over the same land that spring.
Though the exact number is disputed, German losses by the end of the Battle of the Somme probably exceeded Britain’s, with some 450,000 soldiers lost compared with 420,000 on the British side. The surviving British forces had also gained valuable experience, which would later help them achieve victory on the Western Front.
The Battle of the Somme: 141 Days of Horror, BBC
Matt Brosnan, “5 Things You Need to Know About the Battle of the Somme.” Imperial War Museums, January 11, 2018
David Frum, “The Lessons of the Somme.” The Atlantic, July 1, 2016.
John Keegan, The First World War. (Penguin Random House, 2000)