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A battle of attrition

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. For five months the British and French armies fought the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front.

The aims of the battle were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides.

1 July 1916

The first and bloodiest day

British Field Gun white

The British used a field gun which fired an 18.5lb shell.

The Allies bombarded German trenches for seven days and then sent 100,000 men over the top to attack the German lines.

The day was a disaster for the British. The Germans weathered the artillery fire in deep trenches and came up fighting. As the British soldiers advanced, they were mown down by machine gun and rifle fire. In total, 19,240 British soldiers lost their lives. It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army. However, the French had more success and inflicted big losses on German troops. In spite of heavy British losses, Douglas Haig, the British general, agreed to continue the attack.

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2 July 1916

British push forward

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The Welsh at Mametz Wood. By Christopher Williams.

After the first day, where they captured three square miles of territory, the British attempted to press their advance.

Over a two week period, the British made a series of small attacks on the German line, in preparation for another large-scale assault. On 4 July, British soldiers engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat to take Mametz wood and nearby forests. Progress was slow and the British suffered another 25,000 casualties (dead and wounded). The Germans were under increasing pressure and were forced to redeploy guns and men from Verdun to reinforce their lines.

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Then the order came down, dump everything and fix bayonets, you have got to fight for it lads.

Private Walter Hutchinson

7 July 1916

Pals battalions mourned at home

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Melvyn Bragg talks about the Pals battalions. Reel History Of Britain (BBC Two, 2011).

Transcript (PDF 209k)

Although the British press put a positive spin on the start of the "Big Push", the casualty lists told a different story.

In the second week of July, lists of the dead and wounded began to appear in the papers. The home towns which provided the volunteers for General Kitchener’s “Pal’s battalions” were hit hardest. The 11th East Lancashire battalion was known as the Accrington Pals. Of the 720 men who went into action on 1 July, 584 became casualties. Although they were still behind the war effort, people at home wore black arm bands to commemorate those who had lost their lives.

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The nation must be taught to bear losses.

General Douglas Haig, May 1916

14 July 1916

Night assault on Bazentin Ridge

Cavalry

Horses played a vital role moving supplies and men in WW1.

Under the cover of darkness, British soldiers gathered in no-man’s land, getting ready for a massive dawn assault in the northern part of the Somme.

At 3.20am the British guns pounded the enemy lines with five times the intensity of the first day of the Somme. As the sun rose, 22,000 British troops attacked. The Germans were taken by surprise. The British achieved an early victory advancing 6,000 yards into enemy territory and occupying Longueval village. Two regiments of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division were sent into action. However they failed to take High Wood, which remained in German hands.

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15 July 1916

South Africans take “Devil's Wood”

German Machine gun white

The British Vickers machine gun was of a very similar design.

Delville wood would come to be known as “Devil’s wood” by the soldiers who fought there.

Situated at the southern end of the British line, the dense woodland was a key Allied military objective. On 15 July, 3,000 soldiers of the 1st South African brigade occupied the wood. The Germans unleashed fierce machine gun and artillery fire and launched a brutal series of counter-attacks. Terrible weather turned the wood into a muddy grave. Undaunted, the South Africans held on. When they were relieved five days later, 143 men were left standing.

South African Museum and Memorial of Longueval

23 July 1916

The Anzacs capture Pozières

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Warning: this video contains strong language. British soldier, Frank Brent, describes the Battle of Pozieres. The Great War (BBC Four, 2015).

Transcript (PDF 150k)

In July, the British were reinforced by the First Anzac Corps, with three Australian divisions composed largely of inexperienced volunteers.

After a short intense artillery bombardment, they stormed the village of Pozières which stood high on the crest of Thiepval Ridge. The Germans unleashed an intense barrage and counter-attacked on the ground. Over six weeks the British and Australian forces tried and failed to take the nearby Mouquet Farm. The battle claimed over 12,000 Australian casualties – more than at Gallipoli. It has gone down in popular history as further testament to the indomitable Anzac spirit.

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Shells were screaming around us and machine guns kept flicking, but I had to halt the whole column several times on account of the fatigue of the men.

Anzac officer, Aubrey Wiltshire, describes the Battle of Pozieres

10 August 1916

Twenty million watch the Battle of the Somme film

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Francine Stock examines the attraction of the Battle of the Somme film to British audiences in 1916.

Transcript (PDF 224k)

Made by the War Office as a public information film for the home front, "The Battle of the Somme" featured real footage from the war.

The film broke box office records and in autumn 1916 nearly half the population of the UK watched it at the cinema. The most powerful scene, depicting British soldiers going over the top to face the Germans, was reconstructed behind the lines. The film had a huge impact on British audiences. Seeing the horror of industrial warfare for the first time imbued the British public with a determination to see the conflict through to the end.

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29 August 1916

German general resigns

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German army suffers shortages. The Great War (BBC Four, 2015).

Transcript (PDF 150k)

By August, the Germans had suffered nearly 250,000 casualties. Morale was low and many German leaders believed the battle was lost.

The Germans were losing ground at the Somme and at Verdun the French were attacking in earnest. The Allied naval blockades of the North Sea and the Adriatic Sea, caused food shortages in Germany. Bread, meat, sugar, eggs and milk were rationed. Germany's general, Falkenhayn, resigned and was replaced by General Hindenburg and his chief of staff Ludendorff. They employed new tactics - German soldiers were to concede ground in order to inflict the maximum number of casualties on the Allies.

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[The Somme] was the muddy grave of the German Field Army.

Captain von Hentig of the Guards Reserve Division

15 September 1916

Tanks attack!

tank

Later in the war the Germans developed several light tanks, but they were no match for the British heavy tanks.

At the Battle of Flers Courcelette the British deployed a new piece of technology – the tank.

By early September, the French had made significant gains and this put General Haig under pressure to launch a major attack. On 15 September the British artillery unleashed 828,000 shells and 12 divisions of men advanced, aided by their secret weapon, 48 Mark I tanks. Yet many broke down – only 21 made it to the front line. The British advanced about 1.5 miles, finally taking High Wood. However, the exhausted British soldiers could not progress any further – they sustained 29,000 casualties.

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17 September 1916

The Germans fight back on land and in the air

Albatros DII

Outclassed by Germany’s Albatros DII in the air, the British responded by building the Sopwith Pup and, in 1917, the legendary Sopwith Camel.

From the beginning of the battle, the Allies had dominated the skies. However, in September the Germans deployed new planes and new tactics.

The Fokker DII, the Halberstadt and the Albatros DI and DII outclassed their British counterparts. The British could no longer compete with the Germans in the air and this hampered observation and artillery targeting. Having gained air superiority, the Germans launched a massive infantry attack, sending thousands of soldiers over the top. However, their advance was thwarted by French artillery and machine guns, which stopped them in their tracks.

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During my whole life I have not found a happier hunting ground than in the course of the Somme Battle.

The Red Baron - Manfred von Richthofen

25-28 September 1916

Allied victory in sight?

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British soldiers take Thiepval Ridge.

In late September, the British made two substantial gains – Morval and Thiepval Ridge.

At Morval, the British mastered an important tactic – the "creeping barrage", in which artillery was fired just in front of its advancing infantry to ease their progress. On 27 September, the British 18th Division captured a key German defensive position – Thiepval fortress village. However, the next day, German planes strafed the British trenches and their artillery let loose a powerful bombardment. The British troops had to dig-in at the nearby network of German trenches – Schwaben Redoubt.

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Every German soldier from the highest general to the most lowly private had the feeling that now Germany had lost the great battle.

Oberstleutnant Alfred Bischler

1 October 1916

British halted by atrocious weather

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British soldier bogged down in mud.

In early October, the weather began to deteriorate and British soldiers were bogged down in yet another muddy battlefield.

At the Battle of Le Transloy Ridge on 1 October, the British struggled in a futile, uphill battle of attrition. Though exhausted, the men fought on for three weeks, trying and failing to capture the German trenches. The British soldiers came under heavy artillery fire and German planes bombed their trenches. The worsening weather hindered the British air observation – rendering their artillery ineffective. The British suffered 57,000 casualties and gained little ground.

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Early November 1916

War shrines appear on British streets

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Miss Lowellwyn describes looking through the casualties lists for friends and loved ones. The Great War (BBC Four, 2015).

Transcript (PDF 149k)

In November, citizens banded together to build war shrines to honour the fallen soldiers. They appeared on street corners up and down the country.

The shrines consisted of simple, handmade, wooden tablets inscribed with the names of the fallen and decorated with crosses. The following year, Queen Mary paid a visit to some shrines in the East End of London. As the British people mourned, the growing casualty lists tested their resolve to see the war through. This saw the beginning of the collective commemoration which swept the nation in the aftermath of World War One.

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13 November 1916

The last battle on the Somme

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British soldiers crossing the river Ancre.

In mid-November, the British carried out their final battle on the Somme on the River Ancre.

The “creeping barrage” was deployed again with great success and the British troops stormed the German defences. The 51st Highland Division took Beaumont Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division took Beaucourt, capturing 7,000 German prisoners. Further south, the French gave up trying to capture St.Pierre Vast Wood as winter weather set in and a battle against the elements replaced that against the enemy.

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Soldier and war poet - Edmund Blunden

19 November 1916

Offensives cease and troops dig in

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The end of the battle. The Great War (BBC Four, 2015).

Transcript (PDF 149k)

With winter closing in, the fight was now suspended. Haig deemed the soldiers had done enough and resolved to resume the offensive in February.

In 141 days the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to break the German defence. Some historians believe that with a few more weeks of favourable weather the Allies could have broken through German lines. Others argue the Allies never stood a chance. In any case, the British army inflicted heavy losses on the German Army. In March 1917, the Germans made a strategic retreat to the Hindenburg line rather than face the resumption of the Battle of the Somme.

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