The Battle of Somme
Instructions: Explain “THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME”
The Battle of Somme, popularly referred to as the Somme Offensive, was a one of the landmark battles during World War I. Often deemed the bloodiest battles in history, it was fought between July 1 and November 1, 1916, near France’s river Somme, between the Franco-British Army and the Germans. So fatal was this battle that on the first day, the British Army suffered casualties in the region of 57,000, one of the largest British losses since the Crimean, Korean and the Boar Wars. While the aftermath of the war saw sustained improvements in combat tactics in both the French and British Armies, the casualties resulting from the war are most remembered. At the time the battle ended, the British had lost around 420,000 soldiers, the French about 200,000 and the Germans around 465,000, all this in a period of about four months.
Genesis of the war
According to Trueman (2015), the battle of Somme was preceded by the Battle of Verdun, often considered as the largest and longest battle of the First World War. The Germans believed Britain to be their greatest enemy and so, Britain would fall once their most significant ally, the French was defeated. To achieve this, the Germans attacked the French at Verdun. For some time, the French suffered significant casualties in this war. To relieve pressure from the French, a decision was arrived at, to attack the Germans from the North, which would require Germany to remove some troops from Verdun, thus easing the pressure from the French. As later explained by Sir William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, ‘The primary objective of the Battle of Somme was to relieve pressure on the French Army and also to inflict as heavy losses as possible amongst the German Armies’ Trueman (2015)
Preparation and attack
As a result of the French commitment at Verdun, the British assumed a major role in the battle. They launched the war with a weeklong artillery bombardment into the German lines. It’s estimated that close to 1.8million shells were fired at the Germans. It was believed that this artillery would completely destroy the German barbed wire and trenches and therefore make the German Army an easier target.
Led by Field Marshall Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson, the British Army attacked North of Somme with 14 infantry divisions while the French attacked south of the river with five divisions. The Germans, on the other hand, deployed seven divisions to their defense. On the first day, after seven days of consistent bombardment, the British advanced into the battlefield in readiness for the attack, which turned out to be a disaster. After weathering the artillery fire deep in their trenches, the Germans came out fighting soon after the artillery fire died. As the British troops advanced, they were mowed down by the German fire, resulting in the loss of 19,240 British soldiers and close to 40,000 wounded ( Duffy,2006). Despite this heavy loss, Douglas Haig resolved to continue the attack, resulting in significant post-war criticism, with most commentators saying that losses suffered were unjustifiable.
To many, the Battle of Some symbolized the horrors of the First World War, with significant impact on the overall casualty figures reported, which epitomized the futility of trench warfare. The aftermath of this war also saw sustained criticism aimed at the British Generals who led the war, for the appalling casualties suffered by the British and French troops. Douglas Haig was particularly criticized for unnecessarily prolonging the war, especially the last six weeks.
Critics of this war argue that the Somme was an expensive lesson learned in how not to mount an effective warfare, especially since most of the British troops comprised of young and inexperienced soldiers and volunteers. The German army was also greatly weakened and in early 1917, retreated to new and shorter defensive lines (Philpott, 2009).
Apart from the large casualty numbers witnessed during the battle, it’s documented that there were significant delays in the fixing of the destroyed transport systems since it was believed that the war was not over yet. It was also believed that it was pointless to build infrastructure that would be abandoned after the war.
While Winston Churchill publicly criticized the British conduct of the battle, rival conclusions by military historians pointed out that the British army had no other strategic alternative other than to launch an offensive on the Germans.
It’s believed that during and after the battle, both the British and the French Armies started real improvement in warfare tactics, with the use of the tanks gaining currency during this war. Both countries began significant investments in warfare which paid off in subsequent military involvements. It’s also believed that the Somme battle is the beginning of the all-arms warfare in the modern world.
As a result of massive casualties suffered, this war added a significant tally to the World War I military casualties. It’s therefore, often used to exemplify the folly and futility of world war blundering in western fronts, particularly as it came at the mid of the world war.
Trueman, C. N. (2015) “The Battle of the Somme” The History Learning Site, retrieved from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/world-war-one/battles-of-world-war-one/the-battle-of-the-somme/