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Somme Centenary – a commentary on the battle

Today is the centenary of the first infantry attacks in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Zero Hour was 07:30, and at that point the whistles blew and the infantry began their advance across no-man’s land towards the German trenches.

The infantry attack was preceded by over a week’s artillery bombardment of one and a half million shells. A couple of minutes before H-hour several mines were detonated under the main German positions.

Public Perceptions of the Battle of the Somme

The Badly Shelled Road to Bapaume (20 Sept 1916) By Lt Ernest Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons

The Badly Shelled Road to Bapaume (21 Sept 1916) By Lt Ernest Brooks, via Wikimedia Commons

This image gives the general public perception of WW1 in general, and the Battle of the Somme in particular. It is from the Battle of the Somme, but from 20th September 1916 rather than 1st July. The Somme battle was what churned the ground up, before it had been more green than mud. Patrols in front of the trenches had been needed to cut the grass so that sentries could see.

To most people the Battle of the Somme is the British Army’s darkest day. Twenty thousand dead out of 60,000 casualties on 1st July. The whole thing a ghastly incompetent mess where British soldiers walked slowly into German machine gun fire and are mown down.

This is complemented by chateau generals riding horse in immaculate uniforms and drinking wine of an evening while they repeat the same tired plan again and again until it works. Marvellous as it is, Blackadder Goes Forth has a lot to answer for.

Overview of the Battle of the Somme

Most of the popular knowledge is flawed. Some of this is down to 1960s and 70s revisionism and some of it is that we don’t teach this period in schools. At least until recently.

There is no argument about the scale of slaughter. However we need to be careful of applying hindsight to the difficult decisions made at the time. Part of the context is that the Somme operations were intended to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. There was never really an intention to break through, although it was hoped for.

The other point that gets missed, was that the 1st July wasn’t a total disaster. The more experienced divisions tended to take their objectives. In the south, the British and French did well achieving most of their objectives. Possibly a different plan might have resulted in fewer casualties, or taken account of the training levels of the troops involved. One of the controversial aspects of the plan was the attempt to take both the first and second German lines. Most troops made the first line with few casualties. Unfortunately the green troops passed through without properly clearing the German dugouts. As the moved onto the second line the Germans came out of the dugouts behind them and cut them off from reinforcements.

One of the striking features of the Battle of the Somme is that there were very few prisoners taken on either side.

Complexity of Operations

British Plan for the Battle of the Somme 1916 (credit: wikipedia)

British Plan for the Battle of the Somme 1916 (credit: wikipedia)

The Battle of the Somme was the biggest operation the British Army had ever attempted. It was an order of magnitude larger than any of the 1915 battles. With 13 Divisions in two Armies in contact with the enemy across a 20 mile front on the first day it had more soldiers involved than the Normandy Landings 28 years later. The numbers deployed on the first day were more than twice the size of the 1914 regular army. For most of them this was their first set piece attack, although they would almost all have spent some time in the front line beforehand.

The logistics to support this effort was immense too. The British Army built a rail network behind their lines for months beforehand. They needed to do this to be able to get food, water, ammunition and troops as far forward as possible. Everything from the railhead to the very front had to be carried there. Motor transport and horse drawn carriages existed, but they weren’t much use when close to the enemy.

Vast stockpiles of ammunition were built up over months. Millions of artillery shells, hundreds of millions of bullets, rations, water, spare equipment, shovels, sandbags, telephone cables. Everything needed to be brought up before the battle started. Once battle was joined the roads had priority for reinforcements going forward and wounded coming back.

Duration

The Battle of the Somme lasted four anda half months, ending on 18 November 1916. It stopped because the weather finally turned. The British rear areas, which had been extensively fought over, were too muddy to sustain logistics over.

Modern armies use a lot of supplies in fighting battles. You simply cannot attack without artillery support or sufficient ammo for the infantry. Once you run out the advance stops.

Casualties

Sector Allied Casualties German Casualties
Somme

British 419,654
French 204,253
Allied 623,907

465,000 – 600,000
Verdun French 315,000–542,000 281,000–434,000
Total 939,000 – 1,166,000 746,000 – 1,034,000

progress in the battle of the somme 1916Casualties on both sides were broadly similar, according to Farrar-Hockley’s the Somme. British Army casualties were reported daily by name, rank and number. Anyone injured or not with the unit in the evening was reported as a casualty. If they returned then the British took them back on strength, but the casualty figure wasn’t updated. The German army reported casualties three times a month, and only those lost from the strength of the unit. Men who had been injured and returned, or were with a Divisional casualty unit were excluded from the casualty return. So there were fewer reported German casualties. Exact numbers of German casualties are unknown because the records were all destroyed during the second world war.

Along with the Battle at Verdun, 1916 broke both the French and German armies. The British Army on the other hand learnt how to fight on a massive scale. The Germans were saved in 1917 by the collapse of the Russians in the East and their ability to transfer units. The French Army mutinied.

The First of July 1916 was definitely the bloodiest day for the British Army.  The Normandy battles in 1944 had worse casualty rates with some infantry battalions taking 400% casualties, and Kohima was similarly awful. Some other battles might come in worse in percentage terms. Note that in the case of Normandy below the number of troops is those landed. Not all of these would have been committed to battle. There were significant numbers of logistics troops, HQs and ground crews etc.

Here’s a comparison with some other famous battles the British Army has been involved in.

Battle (date) Size Casualties (%) Enemy Casualties
Somme (1916)

142 days

British (51 Divs) ~1,200,000
French (48 Divs) ~730,000German (50 Div) ~1,250,000

British 419,654 (~35%)
French 204,253 (~28%)
Allied 623,907 (~31%)

465,000 – 600,000

(37 – 48%)

Passchendaele (1917)

British 1,200,000 (50 Divs)

German 1,900,00 (77 Divs)

245,000

(20%)

400,000

(21%)

Normandy (1944)

(69 days)

American 812,000

Brit/Can 640,000

German  1,000,000+

American 132,894 (16%)

British 72,601 (14%)

Canadian 18,444 (14%)

total 225,606 to 226,386

400,000 to 530,000

(of which 200,000 captured)

Kohima (1944)

79 days

Garrison (1,500)

Relief ~15,000 (1 div)

Japanese 15,000 (1 Div)

4,064 (24%) 5,764 (38%)
Waterloo (1815)

1 day

British 25,000

Allies 43,000

French 73,000

17,000 (25%)

41,000 (56%)
Verdun (1916)

~300 days

French 1,140,000 (75 Divs)
German 1,250,000 (50 Div)
 French 377,231 (33%)  German 337,000 (27%)
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7 Comments
  1. An excellent summary, James Kemp

  2. Yes great article, thank you.

  3. Just heard a radio newsreader refer to the ‘million men killed’ in the Battle of the Somme.

  4. Pingback: Golden Chestnut 2016 - Did You Win? - Military Muddling

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