1916. Europe is in the grips of the most destructive conflict yet known: World War One. Much of the fiercest fighting take place on the Western Front, where British, French and German armies are locked in a bloody stalemate along 450 miles of trenches. There have been millions of casualties, but neither side can break the deadlock – the combination of barbed wire, machine-guns and heavy artillery means troops trying to cross No Man's Land, the open ground between the trenches, are slaughtered en masse. The advantage is always with the defender. 

But the Allies are committed to more attacks. They're determined to liberate the parts of France and Belgium that were occupied by Germany in the first months of the war. 

The British and French have agreed to launch a joint offensive in the summer of 1916. But the Germans strike first. In February, they launch a massive assault on the French fortress-city of Verdun. Its defence requires all available French reserves. So the summer offensive will be led by the British, their biggest attack of the war so far – its chief aim now, to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.

The attack will take place along a 25 mile front near the River Somme, in July. The new British commander, General Sir Douglas Haig, would prefer to attack near Ypres, where there are clearer strategic objectives, but the Somme is where the British and French armies meet, so where a joint offensive must take place. He would also prefer to wait until his inexperienced divisions have received more training... but the French need his help now.

General Sir Douglas Haig, who replaced Sir John French as commander of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. 

General Sir Douglas Haig, who replaced Sir John French as commander of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915. 

The Somme has so far been a quiet sector, allowing the Germans to build up strong defensive positions. The Germans have two formidable, defensive lines... with a third under construction. Each consists of three lines of trenches: fire; support; and reserve; connected by communication trenches. They bristle with machine-gun positions; and are anchored on fortified villages and strongpoints. In front of the trenches, there are thick belts of barbed wire. Below, are dugouts, some 10 metres deep, to shelter German troops from artillery fire. Telephone lines, buried six feet deep, allow troops at the front to communicate with artillery batteries during an attack. The German troops that hold the line are well-trained, and most are combat veterans.

The offensive will be led by the British Fourth Army, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson. With Haig, he draws up the plan of attack. To overcome the Germans' formidable defences, the British will carry out a massive, week-long artillery bombardment with fourteen hundred guns. This is expected to destroy German barbed wire, flatten trenches, and kill their occupants. 19 mines are also dug under key German strongpoints, and filled with explosive, ready to detonate just before the attack begins. To the north, British Third Army will make a diversionary attack at Gommecourt. The 16 British and French infantry divisions are then expected to take their objectives with minimal opposition. The attack will begin at 7.30am, in broad daylight, so the artillery can observe its fire.

Map of the Somme sector in the summer of 1916, showing the three German defensive lines in red (with the third still under construction).

Map of the Somme sector in the summer of 1916, showing the three German defensive lines in red (with the third still under construction).

British morale is high, and the men are confident of victory. Many of the units taking part are Pals Battalions, the eager recruits of 1914, now about to face combat for the first time. But on the eve of the assault, there are worrying reports that the British bombardment has been only partially successful. 1.6 million shells are fired, but due to inexperienced gun crews, a shortage of heavy guns, and faulty shells, much of the German barbed wire remains intact. German defenders, too, are largely unscathed in their deep dugouts. And from captured prisoners, and listening in on uncoded telephone calls, the Germans know exactly when and where the British are coming.

1 JULY 1916

The Allied artillery bombardment reaches its peak at 7am. At 7.20, the British detonate an enormous mine under a German strongpoint, the Hawthorn Redoubt, and British troops rush forward to occupy the crater. At 7.28, further mines are detonated under German strongpoints along the front. At 7.30, the Allied bombardment moves on to the German second line, as British and French infantry begin their advance across No Man's Land. German troops, meanwhile, race up from their dugouts to set up machineguns.

It's an enduring myth that all the British infantry climb out of their trenches, and walk steadily towards the German line. A few units do, but most send men out into No Man's Land before the bombardment lifts, so the final dash toward the enemy line is as short as possible.

In the northern sector, whichever tactics are used, the British are easy targets for German machine-gunners, especially where they bunch up to get through the few gaps in the barbed wire. The British infantry advance bravely, but are mown down in their hundreds.

Some units do break into the German line – near Thiepval, the 36th Ulster Division captures the Schwaben Redoubt, but without support on either flank, it's isolated, and the survivors are forced to retreat that night. On their right, the 32nd Division takes the Leipzig Redoubt. While near La Boiselle, the 34th Division captures the Lochnagar mine-crater. But these are just small toeholds in the German line, far short of their objectives.


German troops with homing pigeons, Western Front. 

German troops with homing pigeons, Western Front. 

In World War One, one of the greatest challenges faced by commanders is getting accurate information about the course of the battle. Reliable field radios haven't been invented yet. Telephone lines are regularly cut by shellfire. So officers must turn to messengers; flag-signals; light-signals; even homing pigeons - none of which is completely reliable.

To get around this problem, during an attack, supporting artillery works to a fixed timetable, moving their fire onto the next line of enemy defences at a set time. So when the infantry start their attack, gunners adjust their fire onto the second line of enemy defences. But if the infantry get held up, the supporting fire keeps moving on according to the timetable: the infantry get left behind, and are at the mercy of enemy machineguns.

Aerial observation, by balloons and aircraft, can provide valuable information, but rely on good weather, and control of the skies. This is why on 1st July, it takes British commanders hours, even days, to find out which attacks have been successful, and which have failed. This makes it extremely difficult for them to react to the situation with any speed.


German prisoners being escorted to the rear by French cavalry. 

German prisoners being escorted to the rear by French cavalry. 

Further south, there is much greater success. Despite heavy losses, the 21st and 7th Divisions take Mametz, and cut-off the heavily-defended village of Fricourt, which the Germans abandon overnight. On their right, the 18th and 30th Divisions take their objectives, including the village of Montauban, which is secure by 11am. Alongside them, the veteran French Twentieth Corps also takes its first day objectives, as well as two-and-a-half thousand German prisoners. The Germans didn't expect the offensive to extend so far south, and are less well-prepared. And crucially, the Allied bombardment is boosted by French heavy guns, which are much more effective at destroying barbed wire and German strongpoints. At 09.30am, French colonial troops lead the attack south of the Somme river. The French seize all their objectives, and take 3,000 more prisoners.

Despite success in the south, the first day of the Battle of the Somme is a costly failure for the British. Germans losses for the day are estimated at 12,000 men; the French lose 7,000. But the British suffer a staggering 57,000 casualties - one third of them killed. 1st July 1916 becomes the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.

British infantry resting near Theipval Wood during the Battle of the Somme. 

British infantry resting near Theipval Wood during the Battle of the Somme. 

And it's just the first day in a battle that rages for another four months, finally ending in November, amid freezing rain and mud. By then the Allies have advanced 10 miles, at a cost of 430,000 British casualties; 200,000 French casualties; and 450,000 German. It makes the Battle of the Somme one of the bloodiest in history.

In British popular memory, the Somme is remembered as an unmitigated disaster, and tragedy: evidence of the incompetence of British generals, and the pointless sacrifice of the gallant soldiers under their command. But to those who fought it, and those at home, the Battle of the Somme was seen as a success: casualties were enormous, and hard to bear; but across Europe, every warring nation was suffering terrible losses, as all commanders struggled to find an answer to trench warfare. And at the Somme, the British had not only helped save their French ally, who went on to defeat the Germans at Verdun, but learned vital lessons about how to fight on the Western Front. Most of all, the Battle of the Somme had been a costly, but necessary, wearing down of the German army – an immensely painful, but vital step on the long road to victory. 


©Toby Groom 2016