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20 October 2014
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Interpretation: Battle of the Somme
What happened at the Battle of the Somme?

Soldiers often went singing into battle, © IWM

The Battle of the Somme claimed the biggest loss of soldiers in a single day of fighting ever recorded by the British army. Different people have interpreted the method in which the Battle was carried out in different ways. This affected how the Battle was portrayed at the time and since. This article will investigate these interpretations in an attempt to understand why it is often seen as a turning point in people’s attitudes to the War.

Thinking Point: Do you think the Battle of the Somme was a success or a failure?

The Battle of the Somme was intended to be a joint Anglo-French attack on 1st August 1916. However, heavy French losses at Verdun brought the date of the Somme offensive forward by a month, to 1st July, on the insistence of General Joffre. The aim was to divert German attention from Verdun in defence of the Somme. General Sir Douglas Haig would have preferred to attack later on, on the open plains of Flanders where there was more to be gained strategically, and when the volunteer army raised by Kitchener had been trained more fully.

However, as Britain was the 'junior partner in a coalition with France... the French tended to call the shots'. So with the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Haig organised the attack on the Somme. The plan was simple. After an initial weeklong bombardment of the German front line their defences would be destroyed, Haig claimed, 'not even a rat would be alive' at the end of it. The Infantry would then advance to take hold of the German positions and a charge of Cavalry would sweep through Cambrai to Douai, breaking the enemy line in two.

Unfortunately, this approach did not go according to plan:

  • The preliminary artillery bombardment had the unfortunate affect of warning the enemy that an attack was imminent giving them plenty of time to prepare for it.
  • The German dugouts were well constructed and heavily fortified. They were able to shelter in their underground bunkers in relative safety until the infantry attack started.
  • The bombardment had churned up the ground badly making the advance more difficult.
  • Many British shells failed to explode leaving the German defences virtually untouched in parts.

Therefore, when the men went over-the-top at 7:30 am on 1st July, wave after wave were simply mown down by enemy fire. Approximately 60,000 men were killed or wounded by the end of the first day. The French, attacking where the defences were weaker, had been more successful yet without back up from the British they were unable to hold on to their advance.

Convinced of eventual success Haig allowed the bloodshed to continue despite the growing losses. By the time he called off his 'Great Push' on 28th November 1916 more than 450,000 British, 200,000 French and 650,000 German soldiers had been slaughtered. After four months of fighting the Allies had advanced a distance of no more than five miles.

Why do you think Haig and the Generals did not call off the offensive after the huge losses of the first day?

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A - They wanted to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun and would have failed in this aim if they had called off the offensive so soon.

B - Some people believed the Generals were inflexible and cared very little for their troops.

C - They wanted to force the enemy to withdraw by wearing them down to the point of exhaustion and they believed the offensive was close to achieving this.

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