Discover more about the Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme, 1916
On 24 June 1916, British and French artillery began a seven-day bombardment which marked the start of what became known as the Battle of the Somme. It had been in preparation since an Allied conference in December 1915. On 14 February, French and British generals agreed that 1 July would be the opening day of the offensive, which would strike north and south of the river Somme. Barely a week later, however, the German army launched its own major campaign against the fortified town of Verdun on the River Meuse which would continue for most of the year, killing more than 250,000 French and German soldiers. For France, Verdun became synonymous with national resistance and pride, but also with the devastation of the war.
With the French now committed at Verdun, Commonwealth forces assumed the main role at the Somme. General Douglas Haig aimed to wear-out the German army and was optimistic that his troops could achieve a breakthrough, with intelligence reports suggesting German forces had been depleted by Verdun and distracted by Russian victories on the Eastern Front against Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. On 1 July, the infantry assault began. Eighteen Allied divisions attacked along a 20-kilometre front from Gommecourt to Foucaucourt, including five French divisions to the south. The Allies achieved some success south of Mametz, but in the north they struggled to overcome the formidable German defences, many of which had survived the artillery barrage.
A heavy howitzer of the Royal Garrison Artillery in action, Somme offensive, August 1916. IWM Q3925.
By the day's end, some 57,000 Commonwealth and 2,000 French soldiers had become casualties, of whom more than 19,000 had been killed. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment of the British 29th Division was destroyed, suffering 85% casualties. Overall, most of the Commonwealth dead were British volunteers of the 'New Armies', and many belonged to 'Pals' battalions: men from the same towns, social clubs or places of work who had volunteered, trained and fought together. This had a profound impact on their communities in Britain, shaping the collective memory of the conflict.
Over the following months, the offensive was continued by men from every part of Britain and across the Commonwealth. Both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and materiel to the struggle, and the Allies made use of new technology such as aircraft and tanks. Every village, copse, farmhouse and rise was fiercely contested. On 14 July, a surprise dawn attack - including a charge by the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division - captured the Bazentin-Longueval Ridge, but German forces proved harder to dislodge from High Wood and Delville Wood, where the South African brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division suffered heavy casualties. In early August, Australians played a key role in the capture of Pozières. As the offensive moved into the autumn, the line was slowly pushed beyond Courcelette, in which the Canadian Corps and tanks played a decisive role, Martinpuch and Flers, where the New Zealand Division saw action. Despite deteriorating weather, the push continued through October and November, with men of the Royal Naval Division heavily involved in the final battles around the Ancre before the offensive was halted in mid-November.
An exhausted soldier sleeps in a front line trench, Thiepval, September 1916. IWM Q1071.
By the end of the offensive, the Allies had advanced around 10 km in some places, though far less in others, but had also exacted a high toll on the German armies. In the spring of 1917, the Germans withdrew eastwards to new defensive positions known as the 'Hindenburg Line.' Some 420,000 Commonwealth casualties were suffered during the battle, of whom around 125,000 are thought to have been killed. French casualties were more than 200,000. The German army fought to regain every yard of territory lost and suffered casualties roughly equal to the British, and by some estimates even greater losses of around 600,000. In total, more than 1,000,000 men were wounded, captured, or killed on the Somme in 1916. The effects of the battle were profound for both sides.
In popular memory, the battle has become synonymous with futility, yet it was the first major British-led offensive of a war which was fought with new technology, weapons and tactics on a previously unimaginable scale. Many historians now argue that the hard lessons of the Somme helped commanders and their men to learn how to fight this new kind of war, ultimately creating the conditions for victory in 1918.
French and British soldiers sharing rations outside a dug-out in Chimpanzee Valley, between Montauban and Maricourt, September 1916. IWM Q4203.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its greatest commitment in France, and in the area of the Somme some 150,000 Commonwealth soldiers, of whom 50,000 remain unidentified, lie in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries. Six memorials to the missing commemorate by name more than 100,000 whose graves are not known. Heavy fighting again took place here during the German spring offensives of 1918 and the Allies' Hundred Days offensive, but almost half of the identified burials and 80% of the missing commemorated on the Somme died during the twenty weeks of the 1916 battles.
The cemeteries and memorials of the Somme stand as permanent monuments to the men who fought and died there, but they also tell us much about the way the battle was fought, and the enormous task of finding and commemorating the dead long after the war was over. They show us who fought where and when, where the front-line was and how it moved, and what happened behind the lines. Each cemetery, each memorial to the missing, has its own history. Each tells its own story.