The Battle of the Somme: 100 Years
Part One: The Origins
By Pete Wright – FirstAndMonday.com
In the early morning hours of the 1st of July 1916, thousands men from Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Australia stood in their trenches, staring at the ladders they would climb to “go over the top” and advance on the German trenches in the Somme region of France. Some of the men smoked cigarettes, some wrote quick notes home, others just stared off wondering what would happen to them. Their leaders told them that the massive artillery attacks had weakened the enemy trenches and had gotten rid of the barbed wire barriers. However, what they would find would be the exact opposite. In this four-part series for FirstAndMonday, the Battle of the Somme will be examined through its origins, the original assault, the men who fought and their stories, and finally the results and effects they had on the eventual outcome of the war.
By June of 1916, the First World War had been raging for nearly two years. On the western front, forces from Germany and her allies fought the French and English to a bloody stalemate. Ground wasn’t exchanged in miles or towns, it was exchanged by meters and trenches. In February of 1916, the German high command decided to launch a major offensive directed at the fortress town of Verdun in France. Verdun wasn’t a hugely significant tactical location, but held major symbolic status in the minds of the French people, thus the French command directed much of their focus on defending the fortress to the last man if they had to. By late spring, the French forces were tired and weary. The Germans continued to hammer them with relentless attacks. They decided it was time to pressure the British to step up their efforts. It was at that point where the decision was made to attack the Germans north of Verdun in the Somme River region, thus forcing the Germans to divert resources from Verdun to other regions on the front.
Imperial Chief of Staff William Robertson wrote after the war:
“Remembering the dissatisfaction by ministers at the end of 1915, because the operations had not come up to their expectations, the General Staff took the precaution to make quite clear beforehand the nature of success which the Somme campaign might yield. The necessity of relieving pressure on the French Army at Verdun remains, and is more urgent than ever. This is, therefore, the first objective to be obtained by the combined British and French offensive. The second objective is to inflict as heavy losses as possible upon the German armies.”
The man placed in charge of the British Armies, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, planned for a massive artillery barrage, followed by a widespread frontal assault by British troops aimed at forcing the Germans back to the east and force them to move resources from Verdun and ease the pressure on the French. General Haig wanted to pummel the German lines with as much artillery as possible and weaken the defenses for the upcoming assault saying:
“The enemy’s position to be attacked was of a very considerable character, situated on high, undulating tract of ground. (They had) deep trenches…bomb proof shelters……wire entanglements forty yards broad often as thick as a man’s finger. Defenses of this nature could only be attacked with the prospect of success after careful artillery preparation.”
In Late-June, the Allied artillery began their onslaught. Over the course of a week, 1,738,000 fell on the German positions. The guns could be heard from as far away as London. It went on day and night for a week straight. However, due to their primitive nature and the haste of which the British went to war, many of these shells were duds or failed to produce the results intended. Another issue with the shells was that the majority of the shells fired were shrapnel shells designed to explode above the lines and rain lead balls down on the enemy. Unfortunately, shrapnel shells did little damage to the barbed wire barriers or to the heavily fortified trenches of the Germans. The German soldiers simply hunkered down underground and waited.
On July 1st, the guns suddenly fell silent. The German Army knew what was coming next. The Allied soldiers gathered at the ladders to climb into “No-Man’s land”. They stood, some trembling with fear, and others with a fierce desire to give the “Hun” what they deserved. They waited for the whistles to blow that would signal their time to advance. An advance that many of them knew, they would never return from…
Stay Tuned for Part 2…The First Day of the Somme