Can there ever have been a greater military disaster than the Battle of the Somme? It seems unlikely. One side’s disaster is often the other side’s triumph, but this fearful encounter on the Western Front was a catastrophe for Allied and German troops alike. It was World War I’s most infamous battle – a prolonged engagement lasting for nearly five months that claimed over 1,100,000 lives with over 60,000 falling on the first day, July 1 1916.
The battle ostensibly took place to relieve German pressure on Verdun, where French defenders had been taking heavy casualties. But in reality both British and French governments were under intense pressure to deliver military achievements. Despite serious reservations expressed by the head of the French army, General Foch – backed by senior British commanders – political pressure ensured that the view of Britain’s commander-in-chief prevailed. Field Marshal Douglas Haig believed grinding attrition – whatever the cost – was the way to weaken and beat the Germans.
He also wrongly believed that artillery would destroy enemy defenses. Over 1,700,000 shells were fired on the eve of battle, but the Germans retreated to deep dugouts and popped up when the barrage stopped, ready and able to repel the Allied advance. This came on a 40 km (25 mi) front and marked the start of a bloody stalemate. When the Battle of the Somme finally ended in November, the Allies were able to claim Pyrrhic victory. They had gained a strip of ground 48 km (30mi) wide and 11 km (7 mi) across at its deepest point.
If ever a single event epitomized the tragic futility of the trench warfare for which the Western Front became notorious, it was the Battle of the Somme. This one inconclusive encounter made a major contribution to the war’s overall casualty figure of 15,000,000 dead.
When: July to November 1916
Where: On both banks of the River Somme, Northern France
Death toll: Around 1,120,000 casualties were recorded during the battle (500,000 German, 420,000 British and 200,000 French), in addition, countless combatants were seriously wounded.
You should know: As an indication of how outmoded British military thinking was in 1916, a key element of the General Staff’s plan for the Battle of the Somme involved unleashing a regiment of cavalry to charge through the hole that was supposed to be punched in the German lines by advancing infantry, it never happened. The tactic had worked well in the English Civil war over 250 years before but was ludicrously inappropriate for 20th-century trench warfare.