The Battle of the Somme

France, 1st July - 18th November 1916


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The Battle Of The Somme - Attack Of The Ulster Division - By J. P. Beadle (Cranston Fine Arts)

The first Battle of the Somme was the bloodiest and most costly unsuccessful Allied offensive on the Western Front during World War I.

The Germans were securely entrenched and strategically located when the British and French launched their frontal attack on a 21-mile front north of the Somme River. A weeklong artillery bombardment preceded the British infantry's ‘going over the top’, but the latter were nevertheless cut down by concentrated machine-gun fire as they assaulted the virtually impregnable German positions. The British sustained 57,450 casualties (20,000 dead) on July 1st, the first day of the attack.  This is the heaviest British loss in one day of warfare ever.

The British, under Field Marshal Haig, were aiming for Bapaume. The French, under General Foch, were aiming for Peronne and made some good early gains. At the start of the attack the German commanders were Falkenhayn, north of the Somme and Gallwitz south of the Somme. The British continued to make small but very costly gains and the Germans brought in Field Marshal Hindenburg to command the German Army in this sector. Ludendorff accompanied him as his Chief-of-Staff.

On 15th September the British introduced their new weapon, the tank, into the war for the first time (at Flers-Courcelette), but with little effect on the battle. Only eighteen of the thirty-six tanks could be used in the attack. . However they did have a profound effect on the front-line German troops. An example of this was when two British tanks attempted to cross the German trenches to deal with a strongpoint. One ground to a halt after crossing the German front-line, whilst the other stuck fast in front of the German trench. The tank commander of the lead tank decided to open up with his six-pounder gun and was peering out of the tank looking for a target. The ground seemed to be a shimmer of white; “on opening the front flap of the tank and obtaining a better view, it was seen that all the German garrison, some four hundred in number, appeared to have found something white to wave in token of surrender; those who could not produce anything better were waving lumps of white chalk about or bits of board or rifle stocks which they had rapidly chalked white. The situation was rather an embarrassing one for so small a number as the crew of two tanks to deal with; fortunately, however, it was possible by signs and with the assistance of the infantry, to mop up these four hundred prisoners before they realized that both the tanks were stuck and out of action”.

The Somme offensive gradually deteriorated into a battle of attrition. In October torrential rains turned the battlefield into an impassable sea of mud, and by mid-November the Allies had advanced only 5 miles. On the 18th November, Haig called off the attack. Although the figures have been much disputed, the casualties from the First Battle of the Somme perhaps amounted to roughly 650,000 German, 195,000 French, and 420,000 British. The Battle of the Somme became a metaphor for futile and indiscriminate slaughter. By taking the offensive in the Somme, the Allies did manage to relieve the German pressure on Verdun, however.

Black & White Photos courtesy of 'Photos of the Great War'

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Front Line, British Position, Beaumont-Hamel

"It was a magnificent display of training and disciplined valour, and the assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further".

Said of the Newfoundland Regiment after their attack on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

The following is an extract from Martin Middlebrook's excellent book, 'The First Day of the Somme' (Penguin) available from History

The Newfoundlanders had heard the pre-attack bombardment, the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine and then the German machine-guns when the leading brigades made their attacks. An anxious wait followed while wounded and rumour brought the news that the attack had not been successful. In his H.Q. dug-out, Lieutenant-Colonel Hadow, the English officer commanding the battalion, received his orders by phone from the brigade commander. These were simple. The Newfoundlanders were to leave their present position as soon as possible and advance to the German front line. The 1st Essex, on their right, would also attack. Hadow asked questions: Were the German trenches held by British of Germans? He was told the situation was uncertain. Was he to move independently of the Essex? Yes. Colonel Hadow must have been unhappy, but he had been given a direct order. He gave out his own orders and in a few minutes the battalion was ready.

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No Man's Land, Beaumont-Hamel

The Newfoundlanders had to go 300 yards before reaching the British front line and then a similar distance across No Man's Land. In view of the urgency of their orders they went straight over the top from a reserve trench, instead of going to the front line by way of congested communication trenches. As soon as they appeared in the open, the German machine-gunners spotted them and opened fire. No artillery bombardment kept the German's heads down; no other targets distracted them, for the Essex had not appeared. They concentrated their fire on the 752 Newfoundlanders advancing over the open ground less than half a mile away. Before the men could even get into No Man's Land they had to pass through several belts of British barbed wire. As the Newfoundlanders bunched together to get through the narrow gaps in this wire, the German machine-gunners found their best killing ground. Dead and wounded men soon blocked every gap, but those not hit still struggled on, having to walk over their comrade's bodies.

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The Danger Tree, No Man's Land, Beaumont-Hamel

More experienced or less resolute men might have given up and sought shelter in such impossible conditions, but not the Newfoundlanders. Those who survived to reach No Man's Land continued towards the German trenches, but they had no chance. A few dozen men could not cross No Man's Land without any support in broad daylight and, inevitably, the German fire cut these down.

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Front Line, German Position, Beaumont-Hamel

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Y Ravine, German Position, Beaumont-Hamel

The attack was watched by a survivor of an earlier attack from a nearby shell hole: "On came the Newfoundlanders, a great body of men, but the fire intensified and they were wiped out in front of my eyes. I cursed the Generals for their useless slaughter, they seemed to have no idea what was going on." (Private F. H. Cameron, 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers). Only a handful of Newfoundlanders reached the German wire. There they were shot.

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Shell Holes, Beaumont-Hamel

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Newfoundland Regiment Memorial

The attack had lasted forty minutes. Rarely can a battalion have been so completely smashed in such a short time. Of those who had attacked, ninety-one per cent had become casualties - twenty-six officers and 658 men. Every officer who had left the trenches had been killed or wounded, even some who had no right to be there at all: the quartermaster, a captain, whose normal duties kept him behind the lines was one of the wounded.

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Ulster Division Memorial

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British Memorial, Thiepval

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51st Highland Division Memorial, Beaumont Hamel

The experiences of the Newfoundlanders as described above by Martin Middlebrook, typifies the resistance that the attacking British troops met on their 21 mile front. By midday it was clear that two thirds of the attacks had failed. Nearly 100,000 men in 129 battalions had been committed to the attack. The notable successes were the 30th Division (Liverpool and Manchester) who took the fortified village of Montauban, the Ulster Division at Thiepval and the London Division at Gommecourt (intended only as a diversion). By midday the British casualties totaled nearly 50,000 men. By the end of that first day of the battle the casualty figures were nearly 58,000 and by nightfall, thousands of these were still lying out in No Man's Land.


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