June 30, 2016, by Liz Cass
We will remember them – 100 years since the Battle of the Somme
As the world remembers the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme Professor John Beckett, Department of History at The University of Nottingham explains how it became one of the bloodiest battles in human history…
Just before 7.30 a.m. on 1 July 1916 the Allied guns along the River Somme in north-west France fell silent. The bombardment had lasted for eight days, and involved 3,000 guns firing 1,600,000 shells. Then, as the smoke cleared, the officers blew their whistles and led their men ‘over the top’ into No Man’s Land and on towards the German front line.
The Battle of the Somme was known in Britain as ‘the Big Push’, a serious attempt by the allies to breach the German lines and bring to an end the stalemate on the Western Front.
The Allied officers knew there were bound to be casualties, but they believed that the bombardment had prepared the way to ensure success. There was even talk of the troops simply walking across the open land and peacefully occupying the (empty) German trenches.
The reality was utterly different.
During the course of 1 July 1916, 19,240 men were killed and 35,494 wounded. Many others were captured, and the small amount of territory gained, was largely ceded back to the Germans when they counter-attacked later in the day.
‘The First Day on the Somme’, as 1 July 1916 is often known, has become a byword for the illogicality and pity of war, and the incompetence of the Allied high command – whether true or not.
What had gone wrong?
Both the Allies and the Germans had been engaged in trench warfare along the Western Front for nearly two years prior to the Battle of the Somme. The frontline had hardly moved during this time. The British and the French agreed on a major offensive with the aim of breaking the stalemate and forcing the Germans out of France.
The plan was to destroy the German front line trenches and the protective barbed wire they had put up in front of them. But the artillery fire was not accurate; contemporary battlefield communications meant that the artillery and infantry could not coordinate their action, the wire was not cut, and the barrage was lifted when the infantry was still making their way across no man’s land. In addition, many of the shells they had fired had been poorly made and up to one-third were thought to have been ‘duds’ which failed to explode.
The Germans, alerted by the silence following the end of the bombardment, came out of their heavily fortified trenches, manned their machine gun posts, and simply mowed down the (slowly) advancing allied forces. A combination of the exceptionally wet weather, the German barbed wire, and the Germans’ deep, reinforced concrete bunkers defeated the Allies.
On that single day, 700-800 men of the 1/7th Sherwood Foresters (the ‘Robin Hoods’) went over the top in three successive waves. By the end of the day they had lost 424 officers and other ranks. This was not untypical of the scale of the disaster. Hardly any of those who died were recovered from the battlefield, which is why most are recorded only on the Thiepval memorial.
The battle of the Somme lasted 141 days and ended only on 18 November. By then the Allies had gained seven miles, but they had suffered 623,000 casualties including 423,000 British and 200,000 French. The Germans had suffered around half a million casualties. With over 1m casualties the Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest battles in human history, and it solved nothing.
Professor Beckett is PI on the AHRC Engagement Centre for Hidden Histories of the First World War. He will speak at Beyond the Western Front – the Global First World War, a free conference and community showcase, held on Friday 1 July and Saturday 2 July at Albert Hall, Nottingham.
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My great uncle Jack was killed on the first day of the Somme. Something I was told as a child and which to some extent shaped my life. He is buried in northern France along with so many of his comrades.