Visit The Somme is one of a series of articles which may interest you if you are considering visiting the great battlefields of Northern Europe. We will outline the importance of the battle in the context of the First World War, and describe some places to visit which will give you a real feel for what happened in that dreadful conflict.
First of all, have you ever watched or taken part in the London Marathon? Each year about 20,000 runners compete in this great event. As you watch the sea of faces passing across your screen bear a thought for the British soldiers on the 1st July 1916. That morning alone 19,240 were killed on The Somme and another 38,230 were injured. The worst casualties ever suffered by the British army in a single day.
Visit the Somme is not intended to be a detailed military history briefing – there are many far better qualified experts on the history of The Somme. But this short explanation will help you to understand why the battle took place and what happened on 1st July 1916.
When the First World War started in 1914 the British army expected it would be fought on the same principles which had governed war for centuries – fire and movement. One group fires at the enemy to keep their heads down, whilst another group moves to a new position.
Whilst the infantry and artillery fired at the enemy, the cavalry charged through gaps between enemy positions, and would then encircle them from behind. The infantry would then move forward to hold the ground. But two things happened to change all this.
The trenches the infantry dug and occupied to form local defensive positions were quickly joined up, so the front line became a continuous series of trenches from the English Channel to Switzerland. That made battlefield movement by mounted cavalry impossible.
The other major change was the ruthless killing efficiency of modern weapons; the artillery was capable of firing massive amounts of ammunition in very concentrated patterns, aided by the appalling efficiency of machine guns.
So once the initial lines of trenches became established, commanders had little option but full frontal attacks. Poor communications between the front line units and rear headquarters meant that senior commanders had little idea of the progress being made, and the level of casualties being suffered.
In December 1915 the four allies, Britain, France, Russia and Italy, agreed that a big attack would be made by the British and French in 1916 on the Western Front, whilst Russia would attack on the Eastern Front and Italy on the Italian Front. But when the Germans attacked Verdun in February 1916 many of the French Divisions intended for The Somme were diverted to Verdun.
Preparations for the attack on The Somme started. Huge numbers of British and Commonwealth soldiers marched up to holding positions just behind the front line. Many of the battalions were so-called Pals Battalions, because they were recruited from local areas or specific trades or professions. So when large numbers became casualties the effects were disastrous on local communities or trades.
Millions of artillery shells were fired at the German front line, and British soldiers were confidently told that the German defenders would either be killed or rendered useless by the bombardment. They wouldn’t need to run towards the German defences – a gentle stroll was all that would be needed. Captain Wilfred "Billie" Nevill, a company commander in the East Surrey Regiment, wanted to give his men something to take their minds off the battle so had the platoons kick footballs as they walked towards the German lines … and certain death.
At 7.30 am in 1st July 1916 all along the British front line thousands of British soldiers waited for the whistle to blow to tell them the time had come to ‘go over the top’. Carrying heavy packs and lots of ammunition, they started their steady advance towards the German lines.
Very quickly many of them became casualties. The preliminary bombardment had not killed or demotivated the German defenders, who now climbed out of their deep dugouts, and used their machine guns with devastating effect on the long lines of slowly advancing British infantry.
In some areas the British battalions were able to overcome the German defenders and achieve their objectives for the day. But they were the exceptions – most battalions suffered awful casualties and their attacks failed.
The battle of The Somme continued until 18th November 1916, by which time British and French forces had penetrated 6 miles into German-occupied territory, taking more ground than any offensive since the Battle of the Marne in 1914.
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