The Allies’ original plan was an attack on three European fronts, to end years of sapping trench warfare.
French and British commanders began talks, in late 1915, for a joint attack along a 25-mile front, straddling the once-picturesque River Somme, in Picardy, north France. But a German attack on French forces at Verdun, in February 1916, meant the Allies had to alter their plan and bring more British troops into the attack.
Nigel Steel, historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: “The fighting [at Verdun] quickly drew in more and more French troops, and it gradually became clear that the French army would be unable to sustain the defence of Verdun and lead an attack on the Somme. The proposed frontage of France’s attack on the Somme was reduced from 25 to eight miles.”
General Douglas Haig, the British commander, ordered a week-long artillery bombardment of 1m shells, from the village of Serre to Maricourt, which would allow troops to punch a huge hole in the German lines. Cavalry units would pour through and go east to Bapaume and north towards Arras, breaking the trench deadlock.
Mr Steel said: “Haig’s conception was one of breakout and return to open warfare. Yet, his vision differed greatly from that of the man he selected to carry it out. From his experiences in 1915, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army was to launch the attack, believed that attempts to advance by limited objectives were more likely to succeed than ambitious hopes for a breakout.
“He favoured the method of ‘bite and hold’, in which a modest section of line was bitten out by an initial attack and then held against counter-attacks with the support of artillery. But he was overruled and ordered to prepare for the larger battle.”
The week-long artillery barrage had failed to do anywhere near as much damage to the well-made German defences as had been hoped. And many of the attacking forces were ‘pals battalions’, volunteer units of friends and co-workers, created the previous year in Lord Kitchener’s New Army, and relatively unblooded.
Many were told to walk slowly across no-man’s land in a line, because of their inexperience. They were slaughtered by machine-gun fire. The attacking divisions lost 19,240 men, with 57,470 casualties overall the first day. Mr Steel said: “It is hard, when discussing the battle as a whole, not to be brought up short by this enormously traumatic event and to award it a disproportionate amount of attention. The scale of the losses destroyed any patriotic enthusiasm that still lingered from 1914. There was now clearly going to be no triumphal march on Berlin. Instead, the war would be a long, slow grind, paid out at great cost.”
The battle dragged on for four months. After the opening assault, the next major set-piece attack was at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, in September. It was the debut of the tank in modern warfare. The last major battle was at the Ancre, in October. The Battle of the Somme officially ended on November 18. The net gain was a strip of land 20 miles wide and six miles deep.
Not necessarily. Even on the first day, the New Army units in the south of the Somme showed that they could fight, taking objectives from Fricourt to Montauban.
A German officer described the battle as the “muddy grave of the German field army” and they left the trenches of the Somme in early 1917.
Mr Steel said: “The pressure of the Somme, exercised through attack and counter-attack, was keenly felt by the Germans. Under new command from the end of August, they began to plan and prepare for a local withdrawal to new, scientifically constructed, inter-connecting lines of defence some distance back and known to the British as the Hindenburg Line.
“When the Germans pulled back to these new positions, in February and March, 1917, the ground occupied by the BEF (British Expeditionary Force), and its French allies to the south, represented as much a gain of the Battle of the Somme as that occupied over the 141 days of the battle itself.”