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The Battle Of The Somme - Facts and Figures
The Somme Offensive.
The Battle of the Somme took place on both sides of the River Somme in France between July 1st and November 10th 1916. The battle would prove to be the most costly in terms of lives lost, the largest battle of World War One would end with over 1 million soldiers killed or badly injured and would prove to be one of mankind's bloodiest ever battles.
After discussions between Allied commanders at Chantilly in December of 1915 it was agreed that an attack on the Central Powers ( an alliance of Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and The Turkish Ottoman Empire ) would be made at the Somme with a combined force of French Army troops and the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force.
From the beginning things did not go to plan as the German Army attacked Verdun in February 1916, with the French divisions suffering massive losses at Verdun, French troops then had to be diverted to counter the German attack, leaving the British forces , initially only there as support for the French troops, left as the principal focus of the Allied efforts at the Somme with 20 British Divisions taking part allied with 13 French Divisions.
The Battle And Losses
Although the first day of battle would end in defeat for the German Army it proved extremely costly to the British in terms of casualties as the British lost nearly 20,000 men and had another near 40,000 injured, the worst day for losses the British Army has ever had to face. The British Army at the Somme was made up of Pre - War Army regulars, Territorials ( part time conscripts ) and Pals Battalions ( conscripts who came from the same location so that brothers, friends etc could fight alongside each other ).
The battle was to last for over 4 months with massive casualties on both sides, the British lost 420,000 men, the French 200,000 and the Germans 500,000 all to gain a 30 mile long, 7 mile wide strip. The naivety of the British High Command was stunning, a division of the cavalry was put on standby hoping the cavalry could attack any weak spots left after an infantry attack. The folly of this can be seen when you realize that military aircraft were now beginning to come into regular use and Tanks were being used in battle for the first time, it is difficult to see what use men on horse back would be against an airplane or a Tank. Many of the top military leaders including General Froch head of the French Army and General Henry Rawlinson thought that a campaign at the Somme would achieve little however they would be over ruled by their political masters in Paris and London.
The battle started with a heavy artillery bombardment from the Allies, the Germans in anticipation of this moved their troops into deeply dug trenches and bomb proof shelters, these were reinforced by barbwire entanglements that were up to forty feet long. After the initial artillery bombardment the Germans then expecting an infantry attack moved their troops once again to man machine guns ready to mow down the advancing British and French. The Allied soldiers then advanced over a 25 mile front. Four months later the Allies had forced the German Army to retreat, but the costs both in terms of lives lost and socially were huge.
The battle had dire political and social consequences for Great Britain, Lord Kitchener a firm believer in attrition, grinding your enemy down until they eventually had to surrender,saw the success of the military campaign as all important. The people of Britain looked at the battle with different eyes though and could not comprehend how 88,000 Allied lives could be lost for each mile of land gained in the battle. Even today people talk about a lost generation of 420,000 British young men who lost their lives to gain a 30 mile strip of land. During the early days of the battle the British newspapers were printing reports of how the Allies were winning the battle easily with the Germans surrendering in their droves, it was all nonsense and propaganda of course as the soldiers who were there could testify, the battles survivors had horrific tales of the carnage they had witnessed first hand. A German officer Friedrich Steinbrecher wrote Somme: "The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word ".
- Estimated casualties Allies = circa 600 thousand, Germans = circa 500 thousand
- First use of Tanks in battle.
- Allies gained a 30 mile strip of land that was 7 miles wide only 5 miles by some estimates..
- 88,000 Allied lives lost for every width mile of land gained.
- 51 Victoria Crosses were awarded to British Soldiers including 17 posthumously.
- The Somme epitomized the futility of trench warfare.
- 60,000 British casualties on day one including 20,000 dead.
- Commander of the British troops was General Haig.
The futility of trench warfare.
The video attached although comedic shows the futility of trench warfare and is rather poignant.
The Soldier By Rupert Brooke
Although this poem was written before the Battle of the Somme had taken place, it is a poem that encapsulates a soldiers feelings when fighting a war on a foreign soil and would seem apt for any war or battle.
IF I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blessed by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.