The Battle of the Somme, 1916
The Battle of the Somme encompassed a series of battles for the British Army in the sector of the Western Front south of Arras and north of the Somme River. The battle was launched on 1st July 1916 following a seven day artillery preparatory bombardment, the scale of which had never yet been seen in modern warfare. The battles to win ground from the German Second Army continued over four and a half months and the battle officially drew to a close on 19th November. The Allies won approximately 7 miles (12 kilometres) of ground in that time at a cost of thousands of casualties killed and wounded. The German defence was stubborn and the German Second Army also suffered heavy casualties of many thousands by the end of the battle.
On the first day of the offensive on 1st July the infantry assault against the German Front Line was carried out:
- As a diversionary attack at Gommecourt on the northern, left wing of the attack front by two divisions of the British Third Army.
- The centre thrust of the British Somme offensive was between Serre and Maricourt villages. It was carried out by 12 divisions in five corps of the British Fourth Army, totalling over 100,000 men.
- Two corps of the French Sixth Army went into the attack astride the Somme river on the British right wing.
Within the first hour of the attack the German defence inflicted unforeseen heavy casualties to the British attacking force, resulting in the British being unable to reach their objectives for the first day in most parts of the battlefront. The German defences at ground level had been smashed by the preparatory bombardment, although the successful effect of the British artillery shells on the barbed wire defences in front of the German Front Line was varied. Crucially, a key defensive feature of this part of the Western Front that, for the most part, advantageously withstood the hail of shells was the series of mined bunkers and tunnel complexes dug deep under the chalky Somme landscape. Long months of intensive construction on this relatively quiet battlefront during 1915, with carefully sited strongpoints and machine-gun positions on deliberately chosen points of high ground, strategically positioned and fortified Intermediate, Second and Third Lines of defence, provided the German Second Army with a very strong defence in depth. The British bombardment caused disruption to the German supply routes and disturbed the mental strength of German troops subjected to its incessant noise and fear of death. Casualties in the German forward positions were serious enough in parts of the line for senior commanders to be concerned, but for the most part the protection afforded by the numerous large underground complexes in the forward and support lines helped to limit German casualties.
As the British began their advance, the German troops who had survived caved-in bunkers and had withstood the mentally strenuous time of the bombardment carried out their well-rehearsed drill of climbing out from the protection of their deep bunkers to man the smashed-in trenches and, most crucially, their strategically-placed machine gun positions. This had devastating consequences for most of the men in the British battalions advancing towards them.
On the right wing of the attack two British divisions, 18th and 30th, did achieve success in passing through the German Front Line and reached their objectives. The German defence was disorganized here, low in morale and successfully pushed out of its forward positions.
The situation for almost all the divisions attacking north of Mametz village turned into a desperate day of disappointment and loss. Small parties did indeed reach some of their objectives beyond the German Front Line in places, but the overwhelming loss of thousands of British troops to injury and death within the first hour of the attack limited the possibility of supporting and reinforcing these gains by the end of 1st July.
The British offensive against the German defensive line on the Somme battlefront was continued in phases from 2nd July. This time the task was carried out with limited objectives in a “bite and hold” type of operation. The fighting continued into the following weeks. Weeks became months and the battle officially finally came to a close on 18th November 1916. The ground gained by the British Fourth Army by the end of the fighting of almost five months moved the British Front Line to just a few miles further north-east of its original position. Casualties of injured and dead on both sides amounted to many thousands. The dreadful irony of the situation would be that within 14 months the ground won at such great cost to the British Army in 1916 would be swept back under control of the German Army in the Spring Offensive of March and April 1918.
Prelude to the Battle
January 1916 to 30th June 1916
The preparations for the attack were begun in the early weeks of 1916. Training and large scale rehearsals were carried out over a period of weeks before the attack. Huge mines were laid by engineers to blow strategic gaps in the substantial German defences and knock out known key German strongpoints. Tons of supplies and equipment, hundreds of guns, thousands of men and hundreds of horses arrived in the rear areas ready for deployment to the forward lines to attack or support the attack. Air reconnaissance, aerial bombardment from aeroplanes and trench raids were carried out over and in they enemy's lines to keep the enemy on his toes, to capture prisoners and gather intelligence about the German units they were up against.
Artillery Bombardment: “U” Day to “Y” Day
Saturday 24th June was designated “U” Day, from which time the British artillery began a programme of artillery fire onto the German forward and rear areas. Originally plnned to last for five days, the bombardment was extended to a full seven days until the close of “Y” Day on 30th June. The day of the infantry attack was set for “Z” Day and 07.30 hours on Saturday 1st July.
“Z” Day: 1st July 1916
Saturday 1st July 1916
The battle on “Z” Day, Saturday 1st July 1916, began with the British infantry attack at Zero Hour 07.30 hours along a front of about 18 miles from the diversionary attack on Gommecourt village on the left wing to the attack on Montauban on the right wing. Over 100,000 British infantrymen started out from their assembled positions in the British forward lines at that time. Heavy casualties suffered in so many sectors of the British attack, with large numbers of men wounded or killed by German bullets before they could even cross No Man's Land, resulted in only a few small successful gains of ground north of the Albert-Bapaume road.
South of that road and on the far right wing of the attack the British achieved significant success on the front between Mametz and Maricourt, with troops of the 18th and 30th Divisions successfully reaching their objectives by the end of the day.
July - November 1916
2nd July to 18th November 1916
Following the tragedy of the first day of the battle on 1st July, with its heavy losses and limited gains in captured ground, the attempt to push the Germans back from their well-defended Somme Front was continued. From this time, however, a large-scale attack with many divisions and thousands of men was not an option following the severe loss of strength in casualties to the Fourth Army. The British commanders were now only in a position to regroup the units still available to them and narrow their objectives to take strategic locations in the German defences one by one.
The Battle of the Somme finally drew to a close as the winter weather worsened. It officially ended on 18th November 1916.
Cemeteries on the Somme Battlefields
There are over 250 military cemeteries on the Somme battlefields for the many thousands of casualties who have identified graves. The cemeteries range in size from a few battlefield burials to cemeteries containing several thousand individuals.
There are also graves in these cemeteries marked as unidentified for those whose remains were discovered, but not identifiable. In the case of the French military cemeteries and burial sites there are graves and ossuaries for the remains of French soldiers. The German military cemeteries are on land granted by the French nation for the burial of German dead, but in most cases the soldiers are buried with up to four individuals in each plot and in mass graves marked as “Kameradengraben” (Comrades Grave).
Memorials and Monuments on the Somme Battlefields
Monuments and memorials on the Somme battlefields range from monuments dedicated to the memory of thousands of troops whose identified remains are missing, to monuments commemorating a specific military unit or an individual.
Visiting the Somme Battlefields
See our page about places to visit and where to stay on or near the battlefields of the Somme:
Reference works used to research this battle are included in the bibliography for this website. Specific sources are acknowledged at the foot of a page as appropriate and links are given to full titles or archive references listed in the bibliography.
The text, maps and images for this section on the Battle of the Somme 1916 have been compiled by Joanna Legg. The format and all content of the pages on this website are copyrighted to greatwar.co.uk. Material not owned by the authors of this site has been acknowledged and permission sought as appropriate.