The Franco-British offensive of the Somme
The Somme is to Britain what Verdun is to France. One of the most remembered events of the Great War, and one of the most brutal and catastrophic battles in human history.
On the 1st of July 1916, after six months of planning and preparations, The United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and France launched one of the biggest offensive ever seen. Some 623,000 thousands allied soldiers against 437,000 German soldiers. The objective is to break the German front and relieve the French troops fighting in Verdun.
Less than a month earlier, June the 4th, the Russian Empire had also launched a major offensive with the purpose to help its Western Allies by pressuring the Easter Front.
The British* and the French started bombarding the German positions near the River Somme in the Picardie region ( now Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardie region or Hauts-de-France ) for a week. From the 24th of June to the 1st of July, the Allies dropped almost 2,000,000 shells on the German soldiers.
The objective was to completely destroy the fortifications and then simply go through it. The trenches were mostly crushed indeed but not the underground or some bunkers made by Germany. At dawn on the 1st of July, an intense bombardment was made before the troops were sent over the top.
The greatest bombardment ever made at the time.
At 7:30 a.m the British troops were ordered to go to the enemy walking. The commandment feared running would tire the men and they were certain that most German defences had been destroyed.
The greatest catastrophe
It is often said that what followed remains the greatest catastrophe in British history.
It is estimated by historians and statisticians that 30,000 British soldiers fell in the first six minutes of the battle, killed or wounded. At the end of the first day; Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commanding the British troops, had lost 19,000 men killed. Added the number of wounded, missing and captured, 57,000 soldiers had been lost.
Too few men managed to reach the German trenches and the British objectives were not made. On their side, the French had more success and completed their objectives but the failure of the British made it null.
The battle lasted five months. If some 20 kilometers of territory were gained and 40,000 Germans captured as well as thousands of equipment taken, the Somme is a failure. Haig and Foch, the commanding officers cancelled the assaults of the 18th of November, putting an end to the butchery. The main objectives had not been captured. With 206,000 dead and missing plus 213,000 wounded, around a thousand British soldiers only made it safely through the Somme. On the 203,000 French soldiers involved, less than a thousand made it. 170,000 German also lost their lives.
The Somme remains a titanic battle. It was the first major British offensive, tanks were used and the battle was filmed live ( The Battle of the Somme ). Horatio Kitchener’s volunteers suffered a heavy blow for ( as it was for many of them ) their baptism of fire in a great battle. John Ronald Reuer Tolkien served as a liaison officer during the battle.
A century later, July the 1st 2016, commemorations will take place in the Somme.
The Thiepval Memorial will welcome a major ceremony for the 100th anniversary of the battle. Special guests will be present to honour the fallen French and Empire soldiers, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry of Wales.
A 92 kilometers long road of the souvenir of the Somme exists, making it worthy to visit the major battlefields and memorial places in Picardie.
Note: By British, the author means both British and Commonwealth soldiers since thousands of ANZACs, Newfoundlanders, South Africans and Canadians also took part in the battle.
Likewise, by French, the author also includes Colonial troops such as Algerians or Senegalese.