The start of this battle was on 1 July 1916, it lasted until November 1916. For many people, the Battle of
the Somme was the battle that symbolised the horrors of warfare. This one battle had a marked effect
on overall casualty figures and seemed to epitomise the futility of trench warfare.
For many years afterwards those who led the British campaign received a lot of criticism for the way
the Battle of the Somme was fought. This criticism was based on the appalling casualty figures
suffered by the British and the French. By the end of the battle, the British Army had suffered
420,000 casualties including nearly 60,000 on the first day alone. The French lost 200,000 men and
the Germans nearly 500,000.
Intended to be a decisive breakthrough, the Battle of the Somme instead became a byword for
futile and indiscriminate slaughter, with Field Marshall Haig's tactics remaining controversial even
The British planned to attack a 24km (15 miles) front between Serre, north of the Ancre, and Curlu,
north of the Somme. Five French divisions would attack a 13km (eight miles) front south of the
Somme, between Curlu and Peronne. To ensure a rapid advance, Allied artillery pounded German
lines for a week before the attack, firing 1.6 million shells. British commanders were so confident
they ordered their troops to walk slowly towards the German lines. Once they had been seized,
cavalry units would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans.
However, unconcealed preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the
Germans clear warning. Happy to remain on French soil, German trenches were heavily fortified and,
furthermore, many of the British shells failed to explode. When the bombardment began, the
Germans simply moved underground and waited. Around 7.30am on 1 July, whistles blew to signal
the start of the attack. With the shelling over, the Germans left their bunkers and set up their
As the 11 British divisions walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started and the
slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach German trenches, they could not exploit
their gains and were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 60,000 casualties, of
whom 20,000 were dead: their largest single loss. Sixty per cent of all officers involved on the first day
It was a baptism of fire for Britain's new volunteer armies. Many 'Pals' Battalions, comprising men
from the same town, had enlisted together to serve together. They suffered catastrophic losses:
whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers would be filled
with lists of dead, wounded and missing.
The French advance was considerably more successful. They had more guns and faced weaker
defences, yet were unable to exploit their gains without British backup and had to fall back to earlier
With the 'decisive breakthrough' now a decisive failure, Haig accepted that advances would be more
limited and concentrated on the southern sector. The British took the German positions there on 14
July, but once more could not follow through. The next two months saw bloody stalemate, with the
Allies gaining little ground. On 15 September Haig renewed the offensive, using tanks for the first
time. However, lightly armed, small in number and often subject to mechanical failure, they made
Torrential rains in October turned the battlegrounds into a muddy quagmire and in mid-November
the battle ended, with the Allies having advanced only 8km (five miles). The British suffered around
420,000 casualties, the French 195,000 and the Germans around 650,000. Only in the sense of
relieving the French at Verdun can the British have claimed any measure of success.