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World War I: Battle of the Somme

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Battle of the Somme - Conflict:

The Battle of the Somme was fought during World War I (1914-1918).

Armies & Commanders at the Somme:

Allies

Germany

  • General Max von Gallwitz
  • General Fritz von Below
  • 10 divisions (rising to 50)

Battle of the Somme - Date:

The offensive at the Somme lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916.

Battle of the Somme - Overview:

In planning for operations in 1916, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, General Sir Douglas Haig, called for an offensive in Flanders. Approved by French General Joseph Joffre, the plan was amended in February 1916, to include French troops with a focus on attacking around the Somme River in Picardy. As plans for the offensive were developed, they were again changed in response to the Germans opening the Battle of Verdun. Rather than delivering the crippling blow to the Germans, the Somme offensive's principal goal would be to relief pressure on Verdun.

For the British, the main push would come north of the Somme and would be led by General Sir Henry Rawlinson's Fourth Army. Like most parts of the BEF, the Fourth Army was largely composed of inexperienced Territorial or New Army troops. To the south, French forces from General Marie Fayolle's Sixth Army would attack on both banks of the Somme. Preceded by a seven-day bombardment and the detonation of 17 mines under German strong points, the offensive began at 7:30 AM on July 1. Attacking with 13 divisions, the British attempted advance up an old Roman road that ran 12 miles from Albert, northeast to Bapaume.

Advancing behind a creeping barrage, British troops encountered heavy German resistance as the preliminary bombardment had been largely ineffective. In all areas the British attack achieved little success or was repulsed outright. On July 1, the BEF suffered over 57,470 casualties (19,240 killed) making it the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Dubbed the Battle of Albert, Haig persisted in pushing forward over the next several days. To the south, the French, utilizing different tactics and a surprise bombardment, achieved more success and reached many of their initial objectives.

As the British attempted to re-start their attack, the French continued to advance along the Somme. On July 3/4, the French XX Corps nearly achieved a breakthrough but was forced to halt to allow the British on their left flank to catch up. By July 10, French forces had advanced six miles and had captured the Flaucourt Plateau and 12,000 prisoners. On July 11, Rawlinson's men finally secured the first line of German trenches, but were unable to breakthrough. Later that day, the Germans began shifting troops from Verdun to reinforce General Fritz von Below's Second Army north of the Somme.

As a result, the German offensive at Verdun was ended and the French achieved the upper hand in that sector. On July 19, German forces were reorganized with von Below shifting to First Army in the north and General Max von Gallwitz taking over Second Army in the south. In addition, von Gallwitz was made an army group commander with responsibility for the entire Somme front. On July 14, Rawlinson's Fourth Army launched an attack Bazentin Ridge, but as with other earlier assaults its success was limited and little ground was gained.

In an effort to break the German defenses in the north, Haig committed elements of Lieutenant General Hubert Gough's Reserve Army. Striking at Pozières, Australian troops carried the village largely due to the careful planning of their commander, Major General Harold Walker, and held it against repeated counterattacks. Success there and at Mouquet Farm allowed Gough to threaten the German fortress at Thiepval. Over the next six weeks, the fighting continued along the front, with both sides feeding a grinding battle of attrition.

On September 15, the British mounted their final attempt to force a breakthrough when they opened the Battle of Flers-Courcelette with an attack by 11 divisions. The debut of the tank, the new weapon proved effective, but was plagued by reliability issues. As in the past, British forces were able to advance into the German defenses, but could not fully penetrate them and failed to reach their objectives. Subsequent small assaults at Thiepval, Gueudecourt, and Lesbœufs achieved similar results.

Entering the battle on a large scale, Gough's Reserve Army began a major offensive on September 26 and succeeded in taking Thiepval. Elsewhere on the front, Haig, believing a breakthrough was near, pushed forces towards Le Transloy and Le Sars with little effect. With winter approaching, Haig initiated the final phase of the Somme Offensive on November 13, with an attack along the Ancre River to the north of Thiepval. While assaults near Serre failed completely, attacks to the south succeeded in taking Beaumont Hamel and achieving their objectives. A final attack was made on the German defenses on November 18 which effectively ended the campaign.

Aftermath

The fighting at the Somme cost the British approximately 420,000 casualties, while the French incurred 200,000. German losses numbered around 500,000. During the campaign British and French forces advanced around 7 miles along the Somme front, with each inch costing around 1.4 casualties. While the campaign achieved its goal of relieving pressure on Verdun, it was not a victory in the classic sense. As the conflict increasingly became a war of attrition, the losses incurred at the Somme were more easily replaced by the British and French, than by the Germans. Also, the large-scale British commitment during the campaign aided in increasing their influence within the alliance. While the Battle of Verdun became the iconic moment of the conflict for the French, the Somme, particularly the first day, achieved a similar status in Britain and became a symbol of the futility of war.

Selected Sources

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  3. Military History
  4. Conflicts & Battles
  5. Battles & Wars: 1900s
  6. World War I
  7. World War I Battles - Western Front
  8. Battle of the Somme - World War I - The Battle of the Somme

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