In June 2006, as thousands of British tourists headed southwards down the French A1 Autoroute en route to their holiday destinations they passed the road signs which read the Province of Picardie, The Somme River and ‘The Battlefields of the First World War’.
If they had left the autoroute and headed for towns like Albert or Bray-sur-Somme, they would have driven over the self-same roads along which their fathers, grandfathers and great-grand fathers had jauntily marched in June 1916, just 90 years ago, singing and whistling their favourite music-hall songs. These soldiers were part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by General Sir Doulas Haig, and were on their way to the marshalling points for the British Front Line at villages such as Hébuterne, Hamel, Authille, Fricourt, Becourt, Carnoy and Maricourt. Some of the soldiers would have encountered the Rivers Somme and Ancre - as did their famous forebears before the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415. (The Somme and Ancre are two small and winding rivers that join downstream and debouch into the English Channel at St. Valery-sur-Somme). These rivers would play an important role in the ensuing battle.
The soldiers belonged to the British Expeditionary Force’s Fourth Army, and a part of Third Army, all commanded General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Almost all were volunteers who had answered the initial call of the British Minister of War, Field Marshal Herbert Horatio Kitchener, in August 1914, for a New Army of 100,000 volunteers. They had been sent to the Western Front to boost the decimated ranks of the Regular British Army who had formed the BEF at the outbreak of war in August 1914. Heavily out-numbered and under-armed, this small BEF force of 100,000 largely Regular Army men had been largely ground away in the ferocious open and mobile battles of the early days of the war. The survivors of the horrendous rifle and shellfire of this open warfare had no choice but to seek protection from ground works that swiftly developed into the extensive trench system of the Western Front.
The First Battle of the Somme
The new volunteer BEF soldiers had come from every walk of British life – from farm-labourer to City banker. Now after almost two years of training, and waiting, they were to be thrown into a joint Anglo-French offensive along a 35-km front. This offensive – or ‘Big Push’ - had the double objective of simultaneously diverting away some of the German troops engaged in an onslaught on the French in the Battle of Verdun and forcing a ‘breakthrough’ of the German lines to allow the cavalry to outflank the German Army.
The French Sixth Army, commanded by General Marie-Emile, supported the British on a front of 10-km across the Somme River on the right of the British line.
After an unprecedented seven-day preliminary bombardment by 1,600 artillery guns, that fired 1,700,000 shells, and the explosion of mines laid in tunnels beneath the German Front Line, the moment of destiny had arrived. At 0730 hours on the 1st July 1916, the first wave of 66,000 British Tommies responded to their officer's whistles and, rifles held ‘at the port’ across their chests, left their trenches en masse, or rose to their feet where they had lain hidden in No Man’s Land. They ‘Went over the Top’ at a slow walk towards the German barbed wire entanglements and trenches. Another 40,000 Tommies followed in subsequent waves of infantrymen.
At 0930 hours, in the South, the French poilus, backed by even heavier and better directed artillery fire, made their advance using their more appropriate ‘small groups in rushes’ technique of attack.
The initial cost and the gains
The British guns had not done their job as well as had been hoped. After the bombardment ceased – 30% of the shells fired were duds - and the mines had exploded, the surviving German troops raced from their deep unpenetrated dugouts to their machine guns, and field artillery, ready to repel the British advance in a storm of fire.
By nightfall almost 40,000 British troops had been wounded and another 20,000 killed.
It was the most costly day in the history of the British Army, ever. But despite the heavy losses the British had achieved limited gains, mainly in their Southern Sector. The French did well everywhere in their Sector across the Somme, and reached or exceeded all their objectives; clearly the combat experience of their infantry, gunners and commanders had made a crucial difference.
The offensive continues
The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, General Haig, and the Commander of Fourth Army, General Rawlinson can only be described as ‘gob-smacked and stunned’ by the reverses of the 1st July. Accordingly, in consultation with their French allies, they took time to consider their next move.
Meanwhile, the combattants of both sides sought to recover their wounded and dead from the battlefield, whilst the respective army medical services wrestled with the enormous task of processing the wounded and repatriating the more serious cases.
Fighting raged on at the lower command level, but for some time the higher echelons were ominously silent.
Finally, the senior Allied commanders got their act together and looked to new horizons. The obvious move was to attack the high ground around the two Bazentin villages (le Grand and le Petit) where several large deciduous woods offered the Germans protection and tactical advantage.
On the 14th July 1916, after a short, but sharp, preliminary barrage, 20,000 fresh British troops launched a surprise attack on the Woods. For five miles the German Front Line yielded, putting the Bezantin-Le-Petit Wood in British hands. But High Wood and Delville Wood slipped out of their grasp despite valiant efforts by the rather disorganised British and Indian cavalry. This initiative proved to be a costly failure, and there was little more progress during sporadic fighting over the next two months.
Then, on 14th September 1916, 36 of the new, but battle-untried, British tanks were secretly marshalled near the British Lines at Trones Wood.
At 0620 hours on the 15th July 1916, 18 of the tanks were launched upon the German lines with dramatic effect: the German infantry were astounded and the British infantry accompanied the tanks to penetrate several miles into German territory. But they could not achieve the elusive breakthrough. The tanks were too few in number, and so mechanically unreliable, as to make that giant step unfeasible. It was the 26th September 1916 before the vital fortress of Thiepval fell into allied hands and along with it the crucially important high ground of the Bazentin Ridge.
However, soon the weather began to change and, on the 13th November 1916, the final phase of the First Battle of the Somme began, heralded by a series of huge explosions from mines planted beneath the German Lines. The explosions that were heard in southern England must have stirred the Prime Minister – David Lloyd George – in his bed in Downing Street.
The northern sector strongpoints of Beaumont Hamel and Belcourt that had resisted the 1st July 1916 attack fell to the British but the fortifications at Selle successfully resisted all efforts. Then the snow started to fall and the First Battle of the Somme came to an end on 18th November 1918.
Today, the date, 1st July 1916, remains imprinted on the British psyche as the example of the huge sacrifice made by the young men of that generation in the Great War. But, in reality, on average of the same number of men (20,000) were killed on every four days of the War; 4,600 per day.
By the end of the First Battle of Somme, in the first winter snows of November 1914, and after four-and-a-half months of almost non-stop fighting, the Allies had gained around 100 sq. miles of formerly German occupied territory at a cost of 420,000 British and 200,000 French casualties. The Germans had also suffered an estimated 500,000 casualties – even more than at Verdun. It was a serious blow from which the German officer and senior non-commission officer cadres of the German Army never entirely recovered.
The First Battle of the Somme has become representative to the British of the many costly battles that were to follow until November 1918, when the German Army collapsed and the German Military, Government and People gave up all hope of victory and sought an Armistice.
Recently, some commentators on the Great War have suggested that the First Battle of the Somme was, in effect, the training ground that forged the nucleus of the war-wise and efficient British and Commonwealth army. It was this battle hardened army, with French and American support, that was to so decisively and triumphantly crush the German Army in the last 100 days of the war on the Western Front.