largest battles of the First World War. Fought between July 1 and November 1,
1916 near the Somme River in France, it was also one of the bloodiest
military battles in history. On the first day alone, the British suffered
more than 57,000 casualties, and by the end of the campaign the Allies and
Central Powers would lose more than 1.5 million men.
The Somme campaign in 1916 was the first great offensive of World War I for
the British, and it produced a more critical British attitude toward the war.
During and after the Somme, the British army started a real improvement in
tactics. Also, the French attacked at the Somme and achieved greater advances
on July 1 than the British did, with far fewer casualties.
But it is the losses that are most remembered. The first day of the Somme
offensive, July 1, 1916, resulted in 57,470 British casualties, greater than
the total combined British casualties in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean wars.
In contrast, the French, with fewer divisions, suffered only around 2,000
casualties. By the time the offensive ended in November, the British had
suffered around 420,000 casualties, and the French about 200,000. German
casualty numbers are controversial, but may be about 465,000.
How did this happen? In early 1916, the French proposed a joint Franco-
British offensive astride the river Somme. Because of Verdun, the British
army assumed the major role of the Somme offensive. Hence, on July 1, 1916,
the British army attacked north of the Somme with fourteen infantry
divisions, while the French attacked astride and south of the Somme with five
divisions. In defense, the German army deployed seven divisions. The British
attack was planned by Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson, GOC Fourth Army. The
two differed about the depth of the offensive and the length of the
bombardment, so the adopted plan was an awkward mixture.
The artillery was the key to the offensive, but it did not have the ability
to cut all the wire, destroy deep German trenches, knock out all enemy guns,
or provide a useful barrage for the infantry attack. And at zero hour on July
1, the artillery shifted away from the German front trenches too quickly and
left the infantry exposed. But the French, with Verdun experience, had much
more heavy artillery and attacked in rushes, capturing more ground and
After July 1, a long stalemate settled in, with the German army digging
defenses faster than Allied attacks could take place. Despite small advances,
the Somme became a bloody battle of attrition, and Haig has been criticized
for prolonging the campaign into winter, especially for the last six weeks.
The Somme was an expensive lesson in how not to mount effective attacks, but
the German army was also weakened and in February retreated to new, and
shorter, defensive lines.
Wounded British soldiers return from the front lines.
In the week leading up to the battle, over 1.5 million shells were fired.
French troops prepare to move on German positions.
A 45,000-pound mine (2 ton) under the German front line positions at
Hawthorn Redoubt is fired 10 minutes before the assault at Beaumont Hamel on
the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The mine left a crater 130 feet (40
m) across and 58 feet (18 m) deep. July 1, 1916.
Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle
of the Somme. July 1, 1916.
British troops go “over the top” in a scene staged for a newsreel film on
the battle. 1916.
British 34th Division troops advance on the first day of the battle.
The British trenches, manned by the 11th battalion, The Cheshire
Regiment, near La Boisselle.
An artillery depot behind German lines. 1916.
Artillery barrages light up the sky during the attack on Beaumont Hamel.
July 2, 1916.
Indian cavalry of the British army. 1916.
Mametz Wood was the objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division at the Battle
of the Somme. The division took 4,000 casualties capturing the wood.
German troops carry Lewis gun equipment.
Gas-masked men of the British Machine Gun Corps with a Vickers machine
An aerial view of a French offensive.
A German soldier at the Battle of the Somme, 1916
The last Allied push began on 15 September, with the British engaged in
the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which also saw the tank make its debut.
German defenders were forced to abandon their positions but there was still
A British soldier dresses the wounds of a German prisoner near Bernafay
Wood. July 19, 1916.
A French soldier peers over the edge of a trench.
Bad weather was turning much of the battlefield into a quagmire. The
vermin-ridden trenches were havens for dirt and disease and battle was
finally brought to a halt on 18 November.
Canadian troops fix bayonets before going over the top to assault German
A German field telephonist relays artillery requests from the front
A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th
Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916.
Soldiers cross the river Ancre during the Allied attack on Thiepval
Ridge. September, 1916.
German prisoners carry British wounded during the assault on Trones
British soldiers advancing under cover of gas and smoke while making a
break in the German lines through to Serre and Thiepval. September, 1916.
Men of the 1st Anzac Division, some wearing German helmets, pose for the
camera after fighting near Pozieres Ridge. July 23, 1916.
Men of the Border Regiment rest in shallow dugouts near Thiepval Wood.
A 6-inch howitzer is hauled through the mud near Pozieres. September,
The 39th Siege Battery artillery in action in the Fricourt-Mametz
Valley. August, 1916.
A man builds barbed wire obstacles on the Somme. September, 1916.
Reinforcements cross the old German front line during the advance
towards Flers. September 15, 1916.
A Mark I tank lies ditched north of Bouleaux Wood on the day tanks first
went into action.
Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers. September 17, 1916.
British soldiers eat hot rations in the Ancre Valley. October, 1916.
Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road
outside Flers. November, 1916.
A German cannon lies buried under uprooted trees in Louage Wood during
an Allied offensive. October 10, 1916.
A German soldier walks through the ruined streets of Peronne. November,
By mid-September the British were ready to assault the German third line
of defences with a new weapon, the tank.
Soldiers sit in the trenches of the wood called Des Fermes in the Somme.