‘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, day after day, 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. In the desolation of no-man’s-land between the British and German lines, men floundered and drowned in the mud or lay in agony, awaiting rescue.
The British and French offensive on the German-held territory around the river Somme in northern France in mid-1916 was intended to be a key breakthrough on the Western Front. Five months earlier, French and German forces had clashed around the medieval French fortress town of Verdun, 250 km south-east of the Somme. It became a war of attrition in which the Germans aimed to bleed the French dry. Much blood was certainly being spilt, but neither side showed any sign of cracking. With French losses at Verdun mounting, the British took charge of the plan to attack on the Somme to relieve the pressure.
Meticulous planning – much of it the brainchild of British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig – lay behind the Somme campaign. An intense week of shelling the German lines would destroy all forward German defences. Allied troops would then move across no-man’s-land and overrun the Germans. It was expected that the surprised Germans, exhausted by the week-long bombardment of their trenches and bunkers, would put up little fight. The Allies would then advance on the next line of trenches, with troops moving forward safely behind a curtain of artillery fire. With the German defenders extended, a cavalry charge would eventually rupture the entire line.
The German soldiers retreated to heavily fortified bunkers while the Allies lobbed 1.6 million shells at their positions. Some of the shells were duds and failed to explode – even today, French farmers unearth unexploded shells. When the shelling stopped, the Germans simply emerged from their bunkers and took up position again behind their machine guns. That is where they were as the whistle sounded for the British to ‘go over the top’ at 7.30 on the morning of 1 July 1916.
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 2000 killed
Eleven divisions of men – heavily laden and ordered to walk slowly – headed towards the German lines. Mere flesh never stood a chance. By the end of the day, nearly 60,000 British men were wounded, dying or dead.
The same tactics were repeated in the following days, but no decisive breakthrough was achieved. The Allies’ gains over two months – achieved at massive cost – could be measured in metres. The Germans held onto most of their positions, but they too suffered huge losses.
Another big push
On 15 September, the British made another major attack on the German lines, this time using a new weapon of war – the tank. These lumbering machines made little real impact. They were lightly armed, unwieldy and unreliable, although their appearance at a key moment helped the British to capture the village of Flers. Other key positions fell to the Allies, including Courcelette and the region around High Wood.
Rain came the following day. The downpour turned the battlefield into a quagmire and halted any further British advance. Soldiers huddled in their trenches, sometimes knee-deep in mud and often without proper cover. From the end of September – and with a short break in the weather – the Allies managed to take other areas: Morval, Thiepval Ridge and Beaumont Hamel.
The slow, painful progress of the Allies finally halted on 18 November. The rain had given way to snow that made the conditions even more intolerable for the exhausted men. The British and French line had advanced, at most, 12 km since July. In February/March 1917 the Germans withdrew a similar distance to the ‘Hindenburg Line’ which they had constructed over the winter.
The Battle of the Somme had ended. The human cost for both sides was staggering. The German army was severely damaged; the Somme was ‘the muddy grave of the German field army’. And while the British refined their tactics over the course of the battle, almost a century later, opinion remains divided about the strategy that ‘won’ the Battle of the Somme for the Allies.
- 24 June: beginning of a week-long shelling of German positions
- 1 July: British and French forces assault German lines
- 14 July: second phase of Allied offensive begins
- 12 September: New Zealand artillery fires poison-gas shells for the first time
- 15 September: third phase of Allied offensive begins; first use of tanks, by the British; NZ Division helps capture village of Flers
- 25 and 27 September: NZ Division involved in attacks at Morval and Thiepval Ridge
- 4 October: NZ infantry withdraw from front line
- 25 October: NZ artillery withdraws from the line
- 18 November: British abandon offensive
- 24 February: Germans pull back towards ‘Hindenburg Line’