The Dark Fortress

100 years ago today — the battle of the Somme

1 July 2016 | 7th Edition

British infantry, going over the top at the Somme.
Going over the top at the Somme. Probably not where you'd want to be.

At 7:28 a.m. on July 1st 1916, the Lochnagar mine was blown under the German lines south of the village of La Boisselle in the Somme d├ępartement of France. It heralded 141 days of slaughter on a scale never seen before.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest and most well-known battles of World War I. Despite the slow but progressive British advance, poor weather — snow — eventually brought a halt to the Somme offensive on 18 November when it was finally called off.

It was also one of the bloodiest battles of the war, or of any war before or since. The first day of the Somme offensive resulted in 57,470 British casualties, greater than the total combined British casualties in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean wars. In contrast, the French, with fewer divisions, suffered only around 2,000 casualties. By the time the offensive ended in November, the British had suffered around 420,000 casualties, and the French about 200,000. German casualty numbers are controversial, but may be about 465,000.

The Battle of the Somme was planned as a joint French and British operation intended to use mainly French troops. But the huge German Verdun offensive (launched against French-held Verdun on 21 February 1916) transformed the intent of the Somme attack. The French demanded that the planned date of the attack be brought forward one month to 1 July, with the aim of diverting vital German resources away from Verdun to the defence of the Somme, thus relieving pressure on the French lines.

The intent of the British was to attack and take control of a 24km stretch of the River Somme. Planning the offensive, Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson (GOC Fourth Army), differed in their views about the depth of the offensive and the length of the preceding bombardment. The resulting plan was an awkward compromise.

The battle was preceded by an eight-day preliminary bombardment expending over 1,700,000 shells. This barrage was supposed to be the key to the success of the offensive. But it did not have the ability to cut all the wire, destroy deep German trenches or knock out concrete machine gun bunkers. And at zero hour, the artillery shifted away from the German front trenches too quickly leaving the advancing infantry exposed. But the French, with their tactical experience gained at Verdun, had much heavier artillery and attacked in rushes, capturing more ground while suffering fewer casualties.

After the first day's advances, a long bloody stalemate ensued, with the Germans digging defences faster than allied attacks could overrun them. The Somme became a grim battle of attrition — and an expensive lesson in how not to mount frontal attacks against a dug in and well armed defence.

The result of the Somme: during the attack the British and French advanced about 6 miles (9.7 km), on a front of 16 miles (26km). But the longer term result was a severe depletion in German manpower that became increasingly acute during the last two years of the war. In and in February 1917 the Germans retreated to new, and shorter, defensive lines.

So here's to all the nations of Europe whose armies and citizens fought that day 100 years ago. It is a day that will live forever.