1 July to 13 November 1916
It seemed to me eventually that I was just one man left; I couldn’t see anybody at all. All I could see was men lying dead, men screaming, men on the barbed wire with their bowels hanging down, shrieking. I thought, ‘What can I do?’ I was just alone in a hell of fire and smoke and stink. And so I began to creep back towards the line, through shell holes, through the mud and down into the trench. And still there was nobody there.
Donald Murray, 8th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
The Battle of the Somme is a much discussed and debated battle that dominates conversation about the First World War. The British and French forces planned a combined attack north of the river Somme in Picardy, Northern France, with a week long artillery bombardment as a precursor. This bombardment attempted to destroy the barbed wire protecting the German front lines, allowing the infantry to take the German lines. However, the German forces had a strong system of heavily fortified trenches. They moved underground to these in relative safety and waited for the end of the bombardment. On July 1st, the whistles blew to mark the beginning of the attack and the slow advance over no-man’s-land to the German lines. The German army left their bunkers and set up their machine gun positions. At the end of the first day Britain had suffered 60,000 casualties, 20,000 of them dead.
“On Saturday July 1st we set off for the trenches about 10 o’clock. As soon as we got on the road we saw an awful sight for there was wounded men by hundreds coming from the line. When we was going across the marsh, German shells was dropping all round but none of us was hit. We then landed to a communication trench. But before we had time to get in it Fritz sent us a tear shell. That was our first taste of gas.”
Private Walter Hutchinson
The bombardment had not been successful in destroying the defences of the German lines and relatively few of the objectives were taken by the British forces. Although the first day is spoken about frequently, the campaign actually continued until mid November 1916. During this time, tanks made their battlefield debut at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. They were not reliable and being prone to mechanical failure, did not provide the breakthrough wanted.
Overall, this attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western front had failed. However, the German army also suffered heavy losses during this battle, with one German staff officer describing the Somme as the ‘muddy grave of the German field army.’ Casualties from both sides were over one million men and the war continued for another two years.
For the British, The Somme was a difficult lesson that would send them on a steep learning curve of technological and tactical development, cooperation and training.