‘Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more gruesome word.’ This is how one German officer described the Battle of the Somme in 1916. It was here that, in attack after attack, lines of advancing soldiers were cut down by machine-gun fire; here that the shriek and thud of hundreds of thousands of artillery shells shattered the air. For men cringing in hastily dug trenches or shell holes, wet through and covered in mud, it was a truly hellish experience.
- 24 June: beginning of the five-day (later extended to seven-day) preparatory bombardment of German positions
- 1 July: British and French forces assault German lines
- 14 July: second major Allied push begins
- 12 September: New Zealand artillery fires poison-gas shells for the first time
- 15 September: third Allied push begins; first use of tanks, by the British; NZ Division helps secure the village of Flers
- 25 and 27 September: NZ Division involved in further attacks towards the German fourth line
- 5 October: NZ infantry withdrawn from front line
- 25 October: NZ artillery withdrawn from the line
- 18 November: Haig ends the offensive
- 24 February: Germans pull back towards the ‘Hindenburg Line’
The battle’s origins lay in agreement among the Allies in December 1915 that they should launch a coordinated onslaught on three fronts in 1916. The attack on the Western Front would be made at the junction of the British and French sectors in the Somme region of France. These plans had to be reconsidered, however, when the Germans launched their own offensive at Verdun in February 1916. Designed to bleed the French Army white, this great attritional struggle would continue for 10 months — the longest battle of the war — and prove a disaster for Germany as well.
The Verdun maelstrom was the backdrop to the Somme offensive. It not only reduced the size of the French contribution but also imposed the need to relieve the pressure on the French. Even so, expectations were high that this time a breakthrough could be achieved. With earlier shell shortages now overcome, unprecedented artillery support would open the way for the attacking infantry. Developments elsewhere, especially the successful Brusilov Offensive by the Russians on the Eastern Front, augured well for the plan to exert pressure on the Germans in the west.
Sir Douglas Haig, the British Expeditionary Force’s commander-in-chief, oversaw preparations for the offensive. The opening stanza would be a five-day preparatory bombardment of the enemy line (bad weather would extend this to seven days). This was expected to leave the defenders incapable of resisting the waves of infantry that would eventually advance towards them. Once the line was breached, waiting cavalry divisions would erupt into the German rear areas. The trench warfare stalemate would be irrevocably broken.
The plan failed on several counts. On a general level, a breakthrough was never going to be achieved in the conditions existing in 1916. The preparatory bombardment alerted the Germans to the impending attack, giving them the opportunity to move reserves to the threatened area. These were in position to fill any gaps and prevent a decisive advance even if the forward lines were breached.
As more than 1½ million shells rained down on their positions, the defenders of the German front line had had a hellish experience. But, contrary to British and French expectation, the preparatory bombardment had failed to incapacitate them. They had cowered in their deep dugouts, virtually impervious to the shelling. Despite its ferocity, much of the bombardment had consisted of shrapnel shells, which were ineffective against men in shelter. When the shelling finally stopped, the Germans had ample time to emerge from their bunkers and man their machine guns as the waves of Allied infantry came across no-man’s-land towards them.
This failure was compounded by the Allies’ inability to suppress the enemy’s artillery. Locating enemy batteries would become an essential requirement in attacks later in the war, but in 1916 the means to do so were still being developed. For the time being, aerial spotting was the prime but not an entirely adequate method. So on 1 July many enemy batteries were still in a position to assail the infantry advancing in the open.
The result was a tragedy of unparalleled proportions. When the whistles blew for the British and French infantry to ‘hop the bags’ on 1 July, the heavily laden men of 11 British and six French divisions headed towards the German lines. Shrapnel shells were soon bursting above them. Machine guns added to the carnage, cutting swathes in the long lines of infantry. Mere flesh never stood a chance. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 British men were wounded, dying or dead.
Despite the heavy toll, the attack did make progress in the southern sector. Both the French and the rightmost British corps managed to secure part of the German first line. Haig decided that this ‘success’ should be exploited by pushing forward to the next line in this sector (the German defences consisted of three lines, with a fourth being constructed behind them as further insurance against a breakthrough). On 14 July a major push managed to secure part of the German second line. This effort was notable for an important tactical development — the creeping barrage, which provided a curtain of fire in front of the infantry as they crossed no-man’s-land. Several divisions had used this technique to advantage on 1 July, and it was now applied more generally.
Another big push
With part of the German second line breached, it now seemed to Haig that a final breakthrough had become feasible. Capturing the third line and breaching the much weaker fourth line would open the way for the Allies. This would be the objective of a third major push on 15 September. Hopes were raised by the advent of a new weapon — the tank — that would support the infantry as they crossed no-man’s-land.
This renewed assault, which involved 11 divisions, made further inroads into the German defence system. Part of the third line was breached, and in further attacks in ensuing weeks troops managed to grab parts of the fourth line. But the Germans always had sufficient reserves to plug gaps and prevent the hoped-for breakthrough. Despite proving useful at times, especially in crushing enemy barbed wire, the tanks failed to have a decisive impact. They were, at this stage, too few, too ponderous and too vulnerable to artillery.
For the troops involved, the new push rapidly became a nightmare. Rain from the second day quickly turned the shell-torn battlefield into a quagmire. Soldiers huddled in their trenches, sometimes knee-deep in mud and often without proper cover.
The estimated human cost
- Australia: 23,000 casualties
- United Kingdom: 360,000 casualties
- Canada: 24,000 casualties
- France: 204,000 casualties, including 50,000 killed
- Germany: 450,000–600,000 casualties, including 164,000 killed
- New Zealand: 8000 casualties, including more than 2100 killed
During October and November the Allies continued to nibble away at the German defence system. Small gains were made in places, but nothing that offered hope of a breakthrough. After a final push, which secured Beaumont Hamel, Haig shut down the offensive on 18 November.
At huge cost, the 4½-month British and French effort had pushed the line forward about 10 km. In one sense the offensive was an abject failure. The objective had not been achieved. No breakthrough had been secured. The high expectations that this battle would bring the war to a rapid end had been dashed.
But in another sense the battle did in fact play a key role in the ultimate Allied victory. Industrialised warfare ensured that no victory was possible while either side maintained sufficient reserves to prevent breakthroughs. Only by attrition could these reserves be reduced, and the Somme battle had been hugely attritional. While the Allies had suffered more than 600,000 casualties, their adversary’s losses were equally serious, estimated at between 450,000 and 600,000.
Losses on this scale, coming on top of the Verdun blood-letting, left the Germans unwilling to face a resumption of the Allied offensive in the spring of 1917. Early that year they abandoned the Somme battlefield, pulling back some 40 km to a formidable defence line prepared over the winter, the Hindenburg Line. The losses suffered by the Germans on the Somme became more significant shortly after this withdrawal with the entry of the United States into the war. While the Allies could look forward to an eventual huge boost in their numbers on the Western Front, the Germans struggled to refill the ranks of their depleted battalions. Little wonder that the Somme was described as ‘the muddy grave of the German field army’.