Principal offensive of the British Army on the Western Front in 1916, the Battle of the Somme was the first major deployment of the New Army of volunteers created by Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, coming just three weeks after his death at sea when the ship taking him to Russia was sunk.
The attack was to be concentrated on a wide front of about twenty kilometres long between Serre in the territory of Pas-de-Calais and Maricourt to the south, on the right bank of the river Somme. A diversionary attack was also scheduled for the first day of the offensive on German lines at Gommecourt, four kilometres to the north of Serre. Launched to coincide with a French operation to the south of the Somme, it was hoped the offensive would overwhelm the German positions in the hills and lead to a major breakthrough.
The synchronized infantry attack was preceded by a week of preliminary shelling which culminated in the explosion of several gigantic land mines. At 7.30 a.m. on 1 July 1916 the British infantry flowed out of the trenches and, in orderly lines, set out to cross no man’s land at a slow but regular pace. They soon came under heavy machine gun and rifle fire from the Germans who had survived the bombardment. The latter also shelled the assembly trenches where thousands of soldiers were waiting for their turn to go over the top. The losses were enormous.
On the first day of the offensive the British troops succeeded in taking the enemy’s lines in several places but this exposed them to the artillery fire of German reinforcements. Subsequent counter-attacks forced the British to withdraw from certain sectors they had captured over the previous days. The offensive was initially more successful in the southern part of the British front, undoubtedly aided by the French attack south of the Somme, but it soon got bogged down there too.
By the evening of 1 July 1916 it had become clear that the attack was a complete disaster for the British Army with 19,240 men (including nearly 1,000 officers) killed in a mere twelve hours: it would turn out to be one of the most tragic episodes in the history of the nation. British society back home was particularly affected by the outcome because the volunteers to the New Army were organized into units according to where they came from, which meant that communities lost whole swathes of their younger generations.
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France