On July 1, 1916, a largely volunteer British army attacked a well-trained and well-entrenched German force. It was the blackest day in British military history. By its end, more casualties had been suffered than any day before or since—a shocking 30,000 in the first hour, and another 28,000 by nightfall. The simple phrase “First Day on the Somme” has come to symbolize the horrors of the First World War.
If there ever was a place for the British and French armies not to launch an offensive, it was the valley of the Somme River. From its source northeast of St-Quentin, through Péronne and Amiens to the sea, the valley held surprisingly little of military importance. There were no communications centres or vital resources. About the only thing of significance was enemy soldiers; thousands of them.
The Germans had occupied the area since 1914 and the intervening months provided them with ample time to prepare strong defences in depth, on high ground overlooking the Somme Valley. Their extensive positions consisted of three well-sited trench lines, which contained strong dugouts, deep shellproof bunkers and fortified villages. All positions were behind thick barbed wire entanglements and connected by a network of communication trenches. From these protected locations, the soldiers of General Fritz von Below’s Second Army could pour heavy fire onto any attacker. Despite the many factors against an attack, the Somme was chosen for no other reason than it just happened to be the location where the British and French armies met in the war against the German army.
At a conference held in December 1915, the decision for a new offensive on the Western Front had been taken jointly by French commander-in-chief, Gen. Joseph Joffre, and his British counterpart, Gen. Sir John French (replaced on Dec. 19, 1915, by Gen. Sir Douglas Haig). It was to be part of a larger strategic offensive by the Allies attacking simultaneously on several fronts to prevent the Germans from switching resources. Then, the enemy threw a spanner into the Allied plans by attacking the great French fortress of Verdun in February 1916. Verdun quickly gained symbolic status for both sides, with the net result that the Germans and French were bleeding themselves white—with neither prepared to let the other win.
The French needed a diversion to draw the Germans away from Verdun, and Joffre demanded the launch of the joint planned offensive. Haig favoured an attack in Flanders, but he conformed to French wishes and agreed to an offensive on the Somme. Rather than the decisive, knockout blow originally envisaged, the aim now was simply to relieve pressure on the French. Although Haig had not yet concentrated the men and materiel he wanted—he would have preferred to wait until September—he obliged. The new date for the start of the offensive was June 25.
The main attack would be carried out by Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, with supporting attacks from Third Army to the north and the French to the south. But Rawlinson lacked confidence in his so-called New Army battalions—inexperienced men who had enlisted in response to Lord Kitchener’s call to beef up Britain’s small Regular Army at the start of the war. He felt they could not be controlled in rushing German trenches and ordered a massive five-day artillery barrage to destroy the enemy. This would allow his troops to then simply advance in close formation across the battlefield, wiping up any pockets of resistance that survived, at a stipulated pace of 91 metres per minute with one-minute intervals between successive battalions.
Detailed preparations commenced. Troops gathered, ammunition was delivered, medical facilities positioned to deal with casualties—estimated at 10,000 per day—and artillery targets registered. These preparations did not go unnoticed by the enemy. They knew an attack was imminent, but they did not know when or where it would strike. When the artillery bombardment began on June 24, they knew it would be soon.
Artillery was key to the success of the offensive. Its task was twofold: to destroy German trenches and to cut the barbed wire in front of them. Despite firing a million and a half shells, it regrettably failed at both tasks. There were too few heavy guns to smash all the trenches, many of the fuses on the rounds fired by the lighter guns exploded either too early or too late to cut the wire, several of the guns were worn out and 30 per cent of shells failed to explode. Moreover, the existence of the Germans’ deep bunkers was unknown and they were not targeted. Then, the original timetable was interrupted by heavy rain on June 26 and 27, delaying the attack.
In the pre-dawn hours of July 1, the assaulting infantry of 14 British divisions moved towards their assembly areas, each man struggling under a 32-kilogram burden. Rifle, bayonet, 220 rounds of ammunition, rations, water, gas helmet, wound dressings, two hand grenades, flares, a spade and two empty sandbags were a typical load. Many men carried more: machine-gun ammunition, mortar bombs, wire pickets and signalling equipment. To the south, 12 French divisions carried out similar preparations. The axis of advance was the old Roman road that ran in a straight line from Albert to Bapaume, 19 kilometres to the northeast.
The assault commenced at 7:30 a.m. when it was light enough to check the accuracy of the final bombardment. It was also bright enough to let the Germans clearly see their attackers. In the last few minutes before zero hour, the British detonated 17 mines. Among the assault battalions was the Newfoundland Regiment, which had returned from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign only three months earlier. Now, suitably reinforced, the Newfoundlanders were ready to bravely march into battle again.
In the northern sector, the main assault was made near the little village of Beaumont Hamel, where 29th Division attacked with its 87th and 86th brigades leading. At mid-morning, Major-General Beauvoir de Lisle, commanding 29th Div., misinterpreted a German flare as a signal for success and ordered 88th Bde., which included the Newfoundlanders, forward.
As the Newfoundlanders advanced, they found the communications trenches leading forward blocked by the dead and dying from the first assault. They were ordered to climb out of the trenches still 200 metres short of their start line and advance in plain view of the enemy. It was a massacre. Many were killed or wounded as they attempted to get to the start line, but the heaviest casualties occurred when the soldiers bunched to negotiate gaps in the British wire. Concentrated German machine-gun and rifle fire cut them down, leaving few to get into no man’s land. Unbelievably, a few Newfoundlanders actually made it to the German wire, which remained largely undamaged by the artillery barrage, before the attack ground to a halt.
In the space of a few minutes, the Newfoundland Regt. had virtually ceased to exist. Of the roughly 800 men who went into battle at that place on that fateful day, only 68 remained uninjured to answer the roll call. In the words of Gen. de Lisle, “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
Nowhere did the British advance on July 1 reach its objectives, although the French to the south quickly attained theirs. Despite his tremendous losses on the first day—20 per cent of his fighting troops—Haig remained confident and determined to continue the attack. He even noted in his diary that these casualties “cannot be considered severe in view of the numbers engaged, and the length of front attacked.” A succession of limited and disjointed pushes followed at a cost of another 25,000 casualties until mid-July, when the German second line was breached around Bazentin Ridge.
As he was to do on so many future occasions, Haig summoned the Canadian Corps to his aid. The corps’ three divisions left the Ypres area and arrived on the Somme near the end of August. By then, most of the German second line had been captured, but the third line remained intact. After a period of acclimatization, the Canadians would take part in Haig’s next big offensive, scheduled for Sept. 15. Meanwhile, limited British attacks had continued between July 15 and Sept. 14, when Fourth Army suffered another 82,000 casualties and advanced approximately 900 metres, a net result even worse than on July 1.
The beginning of the last great effort to break through the German lines was the battle of Flers-Courcelette, chiefly remembered as the debut of the tank. The first tanks were unreliable, lumbering monsters with a top speed of 3.2 kilometres per hour. They were intended mainly to crash through barbed wire and cross trenches, while protecting their crews from small arms fire. Of the 49 tanks available for this assault, 32 made it to the start line and of these only 21 got into action.
Flers-Courcelette also marked the Canadians’ first offensive operation of the war. At 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2nd and 3rd divisions attacked along with nine British divisions. The village of Courcelette was 2nd Division’s objective. Its 4th and 6th brigades advanced behind a rolling barrage astride the Albert-Bapaume road towards their objectives of Sugar and Candy trenches in front of the village, which intersected about 800 metres from Courcelette, forming an enormous “X.” By 7:30, the two trenches had fallen and the soldiers dug in.
To the left of 2nd Div., 3rd Div. launched 7th and 8th brigades against the strongly defended Fabeck Graben trench line. On the division’s right, 8th Bde. units captured the northern extension of Sugar Trench, clearing the way for the capture of part of Fabeck Graben. Units of 7th Bde. then moved through and by nightfall had captured all but a 250-metre section of the trench.
At 6 p.m. 5th Bde. resumed the attack on Courcelette. After fierce hand-to-hand fighting, the 22nd (French Canadian) and 25th (Nova Scotia) battalions, supported by two tanks, succeeded in capturing the village, while the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion mopped up by-passed Germans among the ruins. Following their usual tactics, the Germans launched violent, repeated counterattacks against the Canadians, which were successfully beaten off. The fighting was so fierce that the Van Doos commanding officer, Lt.-Col. T.L. Tremblay, noted “If hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette, I would not want my worst enemy to go there.” Courcelette became the first of more than 250 villages and towns liberated by the Canadians during the war.
The next day it was 1st Division’s turn to take the lead, as it attacked the heights beyond Courcelette, but with little success. Meanwhile, 3rd Div. continued its attack against the next line of German defences, Zollern Graben, roughly 1,000 metres north of Fabeck Graben, although the two gradually converged west of Courcelette. The attack failed, but units of 7th Bde. captured the last remaining section of Fabeck Graben still held by the enemy. Additional attacks during the next few days failed to dislodge the Germans, who by now had reinforced their positions. This phase of the battle ended on Sept. 22 with Zollern Graben firmly in German hands.
Four days later, the Canadians were in action on Thiepval Ridge against three successive trench lines in the corps’ left sector. Zollern Graben was again an objective, as well as Hessian and Regina trenches further to the rear, plus Kenora Trench, a large spur that branched off from Regina Trench. Following three days of preliminary bombardment, the attack went in shortly after noon on a warm, sunny Sept. 26 by units of 1st Div, with a supporting attack on their right by 2nd Division’s 6th Bde.
On the right of 1st Div., the 14th (Royal Montreal Regt.) and 15th (48th Highlanders) battalions from 3rd Bde. immediately ran into heavy opposition from machine-gun nests and artillery fire, but somehow continued to move forward. Around mid-afternoon, soldiers of the 14th reached their objective at the eastern end of Kenora Trench, but the 15th was held up. The Germans launched immediate and repeated counterattacks against the 14th, which, reinforced by two companies from the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, held out until the next evening. Finally, too weak to withstand additional attacks, the remnants withdrew.
On 1st Division’s left, units from 2nd Bde. managed to fight through Zollern Graben towards Hessian Trench, and a few soldiers even penetrated beyond Hessian into Regina. During the counterattacks that followed, the Canadians retained their tenuous foothold, and sporadic fighting continued until Sept. 28, when 3rd Div. attempted to advance on Regina Trench, but was stopped cold by machine-gun fire and uncut wire.
With Hessian secured on Sept. 29, the corps renewed its assault against Regina, one of the most heavily defended positions on the Somme. It lay just over the crest of a ridge, which made hitting it with artillery fire difficult. In a drizzling rain in mid-afternoon on Oct. 1, the first attack went in by units of 4th, 5th and 8th brigades. The attack suffered a severe setback when some Canadians were hit by their own artillery falling short.
As the assault troops moved forward, the hail of rifle and machine-gun fire that greeted them indicated that the preliminary artillery bombardment had also failed to hit the enemy’s trenches. Uncut enemy wire added to the confusion. When soldiers who made it across no man’s land struggled to find openings in the wire, entire companies were wiped out. The handful of soldiers who did manage to get into Regina Trench were overrun or pushed out by German counterattacks. By the end of the day, over half the attacking troops were casualties and Regina Trench was still firmly in enemy hands.
Heavy rain prevented further attacks until the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 8, when several units from 1st and 3rd divs. again moved forward. Due to their weakened state—companies were little more than platoons—twice as many battalions were used as in previous attacks. Once again some soldiers got into Regina Trench, but ran out of ammunition and grenades and could not hold on against fierce counterattacks.
This was the last attack the corps made on the Somme, but not the last Canadian involvement. As the corps moved north into reserve on Oct. 17 for much-needed rest, it left behind the entire corps artillery to support future attacks. At the same time, the newly formed 4th Div., which had landed in France in mid-August to undergo a period of familiarization training, arrived on the Somme.
On Oct. 21, 4th Div. launched its first attack when the 87th (Grenadier Guards) and 102nd (North British Columbians) battalions followed a creeping barrage. They gained a 600-metre section of Regina Trench less than 15 minutes after zero hour, largely because artillery fire had finally broken the German wire and killed several of the enemy. This time artillery support also allowed the Canadians to hold out against counterattacks.
Perhaps misinterpreting the success of the Oct. 21 attack, on Oct. 25 4th Div. attacked with only one battalion, the 44th (Winnipeg). Coupled with inadequate artillery support, not one soldier reached Regina Trench and the assault failed: a tragic lesson for the new division. The division’s third and final attack went in after midnight on Nov. 11, this time with sufficient troops and adequate artillery support before and during the assault. In just over two hours, the remainder of Regina Trench was taken—and held.
One last attack remained, against two newly-constructed trenches—Desire and Desire Support—600 metres north of Regina Trench. At 6:10 a.m. on Nov. 18, five 4th Div. battalions advanced in swirling sleet behind a creeping barrage. By 8 a.m. most of their initial objectives had been taken and troops were digging in beyond Desire Support Trench. Then heavy rains started the next day, precluding any further attacks that year. The slaughter on the Somme was finally over.
The Somme was the first major offensive mounted by the British. By the end of the 18-week-long battle, British and French forces had penetrated only 12 kilometres into German-held territory in one of the bloodiest military operations in history. The British never even reached their first-day objectives. The battle continued long after it had achieved its stated and limited aim of drawing off German forces from Verdun.
So why did Haig persist, especially in the face of such huge losses? Haig’s detractors—of whom there are many—accuse him of being an unimaginative commander who could see no other alternatives to costly battles of attrition. One of his own justifications for the Somme was that the enemy’s strength had been considerably worn down, a conclusion that was neither accepted at the time nor afterwards. Today, the Somme is generally regarded as a costly failure, and one for which Haig must bear the lion’s share of responsibility.
Was the battle worth it? According to one school of thought, the Somme represented an important step forward in the war and resulted in developments that ultimately led to Germany’s defeat. It marked the beginning of real co-operation and co-ordination between the different arms, especially infantry and artillery, aided by aircraft, signallers, engineers and tanks. In addition to refinements to the rolling barrage, artillery developed the techniques of flash-spotting and sound-ranging to calculate the location of enemy guns, as well as the pre-registration of targets to achieve surprise.
The Germans also learned from the Somme, especially in defensive tactics. Rather than hold their front lines at all costs, they developed a flexible defence in depth, which countered British improvements to a large degree. The proof occurred in 1917 when the two armies met again in combat: massive losses for little gain. Such a useless waste of manpower in battles of attrition could not continue; a means had to be found to restore the seemingly forgotten principle of fire and movement to the battlefield. But that was not to occur until the closing months of the war.
Although reliable figures are hard to confirm, at a conservative estimate more than a million and a quarter men became casualties of all types on the Somme: perhaps 420,000 British Empire, 195,000 French and 650,000 German. Canadian losses numbered 24,000, nearly 8,000 of them fatal. In the opinion of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Somme was “the most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.”
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