For the French it’s Verdun, the Australians and New Zealanders it’s Gallipoli. For the British, however, the single battle that defines the bloody attritional nature of the First World War is the Somme.
Friday 1 July will mark 100 years since the battle began in north west France.
1. PLANNING AND PREPARATION
The Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916) was a joint operation between British and French forces intended to achieve a decisive victory over the Germans on the Western Front after 18 months of trench deadlock.
In December 1915, Allied commanders had met to discuss strategies for the following year and agreed to launch a joint French and British attack in the region of the River Somme in the summer of 1916.
2. THE ARTILLERY BOMBARDMENT
A seven-day preliminary bombardment began on 24 June 1916 in an attempt to cut the barbed wire in front of the German lines and destroy trench defences and artillery. In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.
3. THE FIRST DAY
The offensive began at 07.30am on 1 July 1916. In most places the artillery bombardment had failed to cut the German barbed wire or damage the defenders’ dugouts. Some senior commanders, not convinced that the inexperienced soldiers of Kitchener’s New Armies could cope with sophisticated tactics, ordered the infantry to advance in long, close-formed lines. German machine-gunners emerged from their intact shelters and mowed down the oncoming British infantry.
4. ATTRITIONAL FIGHTING
The lack of a decisive breakthrough on the opening day resulted in attritional or ‘wearing out’ fighting during the following two months. The remainder of the battle was characterised by relentless British attacks and equally determined German counterattacks.
After the initial attack by Fourth Army, Sir Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army took over the northern half of the battlefield. From 2 to 13 July Rawlinson’s Fourth Army fought to capture Trones Wood, Mametz Wood and Contalmaison to cover the flanks of an assault on the German second main defensive position.
5.DEBUT OF THE TANK
By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line of defences with a new weapon, the tank. Objectives for 15 September included the Fourth Army’s capture of the German defences at Flers and the seizure of Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs and Morval. The Canadian Corps of Gough’s Reserve Army was to take Courcelette.
Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points, though these caused alarm among the German defenders. Flers and Courcelette fell but the advance on 15 September was limited to about 2,500 yards (2,286m) on a three-mile (4.8km) front.
6.MAINTAINING THE PRESSURE
Haig believed that if pressure was maintained the German forces would ultimately collapse. On 26 September Gough’s Reserve Army began an attack on the Thiepval Ridge from the Schwaben Redoubt to north of Courcelette.
Mouquet Farm and Thiepval fell to the British infantry, but it was 14 October before fighting in the Schwaben Redoubt finally ended.
7.OPERATIONS ON THE RIVER ANCRE
The last act of the Somme offensive took place in the Ancre sector from 13 to 19 November. The operation went ahead, despite repeated postponements, largely because it was hoped that a late British success might create a favourable impression at the inter-Allied conference at Chantilly on 15 November.
In dreadful conditions, the Fifth Army, as Gough’s Reserve Army was now called, attacked astride the River Ancre, north of Thiepval, to reduce the German salient between Serre and the Albert-Bapaume road.
The 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont-Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division entered Beaucourt, but the village of Serre stayed in German hands.
Since 1 July, the British had seized a strip of territory 6 miles (10km) deep by 20 miles long (32km) yet were still 3 miles (5km) from Bapaume and the French, further south, had stopped short of Péronne.