The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme began at 07.30 hrs on 1st July 1916 when approximately 100,000 British soldiers went over the top along a 24 kilometre (15 mile) stretch of the Western Front extending from Serre and Gommecourt in the north to Montauban in the south. To the south of Montauban the French Army also attacked as part of this offensive which was designed to drive the German Army backwards and relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun.
In the days leading up to the launch of the offensive the German defences were heavily bombarded and over 1 million artillery shells were fired onto targets in the German frontline. These were primarily aimed at conducting counter-battery operations and destroying the enemy wire. Of the shells fire approximately a third were duds failing to explode on impact.
Seventeen mines were detonated beneath the German frontline immediately before the infantrymen went over the top and all but one of these was set-off at 07.28 hrs. The Hawthorne Ridge mine near Beaumont Hamel was detonated at 07.20 hrs and this is the one that you often see in film clips of the period.
At 07.30 hrs the Officers and men of five British corps from General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army and the French XX Corps of General Fayolle’s Sixth Army rose up from their trenches and advanced across no-man’s land towards their objectives. In the north at Gommecourt the VII Corps of General Allenby’s Third Army made its diversionary attack in support of the main effort. The Germans who had been sheltering in their deep dugouts manned their trenches as the artillery bombardment lifted to set up their machine guns and face the assault. In the main the British soldiers advanced across no-man’s land at walking pace, in many places they were held up by the German wire that had not be effectively cut by the barrage and this combined with the withering defensive machine gun and accurate artillery fire that the enemy were able to put down resulted in extensive casualties. Of the 100,000 British soldiers that went over the top on 1st July 1916 approximately 60% became casualties and that day has gone down in history as the 'Bloodiest Day in the History of the British Army'.
The first day saw mixed results. North of the Albert – Bapaume road the VII, X and III Corps had, with the exception of the 36th (Ulster) division, been disastrous. The Ulstermen who had managed to secure the vipers nest that was the Schwaben Redoubt west of Thiepval had found their position untenable and withdrew in the face of fierce German counter-attacks.
In the southern sector there was limited success. Immediate south of the Albert – Bapaume road between La Boisselle and Fricourt there was some penetration. To the east of the bend in the frontline XV Corps at Mametz and XIII Corps in the vicinity of Montauban to the left of the French took all of their main objectives. Of the thirteen fortified villages held by the Germans at the beginning of the attack that were planned to be taken only two; Mametz and Montauban were in British hands.
The French to the right of the British were more successful achieving all of their objectives with comparatively light losses. Their artillery bombardment had been more effective and they had advanced in a more cohesive manner not being greatly hampered by uncut wire. Unfortunately, this success was not immediately followed up giving the Germans an opportunity to reinforce their defences ready for the next attack.
The 2nd of July saw some realignment of the British command structure with General Gough taking control of the VIII and X Corps in the north. The high numbers of casualties sustained on the first day made any continuation of a general advance impossible, but two spate attacks were undertaken. The assault at Thiepval to regain the Schwaben Redoubt and capture the village was unsuccessful while at Mametz the achievements of the 1st were further progressed with the capture of the neighbouring village of Fricourt.
The emphasis of the British assault thereafter turned to the southern sector as they tried to exploit their limited success. Between 4th and 14th July Bottom Wood and Mametz Wood were assaulted by XV Corps and Bernafay and Trones Woods were attacked by XIII Corps. The capture of these woods was followed up with attacks against Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand by XV Corps on the left and Delville Wood by XIII Corps on the right. On the left the results were dramatic with 8 kilometres (5 miles) of German second line positions being over run in the vicinity of Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. On the right, however, the XIII Corps were brought up abruptly by the German resistance at Delville Wood which developed into a long and ferocious struggle for its control.
The fighting at Delville Wood continued with the South African Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division entering the fray at 06.15 hrs on 15th July. They captured the majority of the wood though the northwest corner remained in enemy hands. The Germans realising the importance of the wood counter-attacked with gusto supported by very heavy artillery fire. On 18th July heavy rain and the determined German counter-attacks forced a partial withdrawal and on the 20th the South Africans were relieved by the 7th Division. It would not be until 9th September 1916 that the wood was finally secured, but even then the Fourth Army’s progress was significantly hindered by the heavily fortified villages of Guillemont and Ginchy.
Whilst the struggle to make headway continued at Delville Wood the attention on the left turned towards the Thiepval Heights and the heavily fortified and defended villages of Thiepval and Pozières. The assault at Pozières was entrusted to the ANZAC Corps of General Gough’s Reserve Army and they launched their attack at 00.30 hrs on 23rd July following an intense Hurricane bombardment. The Australians captured their initial objectives quickly, but were soon subjected to heavy German bombardment and counter-attacks. The 1st Australian Division held on to their gains and on 27th July were replaced in the line by the 2nd Australian Division. They made repeated attacks to capture Pozières Windmill that was to the east of the village along the Albert – Bapaume road. This was situated within the main German second line defences on the crest of the ridge and it was finally secured on 5th August 1916. The attention was then pushed northwards towards Mouquet Farm that lay between Pozières and Thiepval which still remained in German hands at the beginning of September. It took more than a month to secure this shattered village and between 23rd July and 3rd September 1916 the Australians sustained 14,618 casualties, almost as many as they had lost during the entire Gallipoli campaign.
In mid-September the tank was introduced to the battlefield when it was used in action for the first time during the Battle of Flers – Courcelette. On 15th September 1916 eleven divisions attacked along an 11 kilometre (7 miles) supported by 34 of the new technological development, the tank. This was the tank very much in its infancy and they were in the main unreliable and tended to breakdown or get bogged down in the churned up mud of the battlefield. This saw the introduction of the Canadian Corps into the carnage of the Somme at the western end of the battle against the village of Courcelette. Some progress was made, however, with the capture of the villages of Flers, Martinpuich and Courcelette. The assault was finally halted by very heavy rain and stiff German resistance. At the same time the 47th (London) Division finally cleared High Wood to the north west of Delville Wood.
The end of September saw a renewed assault with General Gough’s Reserve Army pushing forward once again in an effort to secure Thiepval in the north and General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, in conjunction with the French, pushing toward Bapaume. At Thiepval the Reserve Army attacked with four divisions on a 5.5 kilometre (3.5 mile) frontage along Thiepval Ridge between Courcelette and Thiepval. Mouquet Farm was finally over run by the 11th Division and two Canadian divisions on the right managed to get up onto the high ground above Courcelette and achieve their objectives. At Thiepval the 18th Division made steady progress against the heavily fortified enemy positions in and around the village and chateau. Their advance was temporarily halted by heavy German machine gun fire and fierce resistance, but this was overcome by the intervention of a tank and Thiepval was finally in British hands.
With Thiepval in British hands the need to secure the whole of the ridge was apparent and this is where the main effort lay throughout October and into November. Following the capture of Thiepval the weather deteriorated and the series of attacks along the ridge to secure it were carried out in appalling conditions. The efforts of General Gough’s Reserve Army finally overcame the last resistance on the ridge when Regina Trench fell to the Canadians on 13th November 1916. This cleared the way for the final act of the Battle of the Somme, the elimination of the German salient in the British line between the Albert – Bapaume road and Serre, including the capture of Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt.
At 05.45 hrs on 15th November 1916 the 51st (Highland) Division and 63rd (Royal Naval) Division attacked against Beaumont-Hamel and Beaucourt respectively. In the thick fog and supported by an intense barrage the assault soldiers advanced. They had to make their way forward through thick cling mud and in the face of fierce German resistance. The two villages were secured, but elsewhere the gains were limited.
On 18th November 1916, with the onset of the winter rains, General Haig finally called an end to the Battle of the Somme. During the 4½ months of the offensive 419,645 British, 202,567 French and 582,919 Germans; a staggering 1.2 million men from all combatant nations became casualties.
On one of our Battle of the Somme tours you will explore the battlefields across which the British and Commonwealth forces fought as they strove to drive the German Army backwards in the company of one of our expert guides. You can visit the sites and memorials associated battles of:
1st July 1916 — ‘the Bloodiest Day in the History of the British Army’
at: Gommecourt; Serre; Auchonvillers; Beaumont Hamel; the Ancre Valley; Thiepval; Authuille; Ovillers-la-Boisselle; La-Boisselle; Fricourt; Mametz and Montauban. This could include visiting the battlefield locations of: Sheffield Park Serre; Jacob's Ladder and the Sunken Lane near Auchonvillers; the Hawthorn Ridge Crater near Beaumont Hamel; Newfoundland Park Beaumont Hamel; the Pope's Nose, Ulster Tower, Thiepval Wood and the site of the infamous Schwaben Redoubt; the Memorial to the Missing on the Somme at Thiepval; the Nab on the higher ground above Authuille; Sausage and Mash Valleys leading into Ovillers-la-Boisselle and La-Boisselle; the Glory Hole and Lochnagar Crater near La Boisselle; the German Military Cemetery at Fircourt; Point 110 and the infamous Bois Français to the south of Fricourt; the Devonshire and Gordons Cemeteries near Mametz; the Liverpool and Manchester Pals Memorial at Montauban and more ...
The Battle of the Woods
at: Bottom Wood, Mametz Wood; Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand Woods; High Wood and Delville Wood. This could include visiting the battlefield memorials dedicated to the 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial at Mametz and the South African National Memorial at Delville Wood.
The Australian Attacks at Pozières
which could include visiting the site of the Chalk Pit; the Australian First Division Memorial; the Gibraltar Blockhouse; Pozières Church; the Communal Cemetery; Pozières Windmill and Mouquet Farm.
The Canadians on the Somme
including the Newfoundlanders at Beaumont Hamel and Gueudecourt and the Canadians at Courcelette and up onto the Thiepval Ridge.
The fist use of Tanks
studying the fledgling efforts of the tank during their first use in warfare. This could include visiting the Tank Memorial near Pozières and the battlefields near Courcelette, Martinpuich, north of Longueval and at Flers.
and more ...