History of the Somme

1 July – 18 November 1916

The Battle of the Somme was a key battle in the First World War, and one of the bloodiest battles in military history. Over the course of 141 days, more than a million men became casualties.

In December 1915 British and French officers agreed to mount a joint attack on German positions in Picardy, astride the River Somme. After the Germans launched a devastating assault on French forces near Verdun in February 1916, it became clear that the British army would need to lead the campaign. Britain’s General Sir Douglas Haig hoped for a decisive breakthrough, but also saw that the battle would harden his largely inexperienced army.

From late June, British artillery bombarded German positions, firing more ammunition from more guns than ever before. On 1 July 1916, British and French troops launched their assault. While the more experienced French forces captured their objectives with only light losses, the British Army endured a day of disaster. By nightfall, after a day of ferocious German resistance, the British Army had suffered 57,470 casualties.

Over gruelling months, the battle became a relentless attritional struggle. The Allies succeeded in making small advances into enemy territory, but slowly and at heavy cost, as the German army made equally costly counterattacks. On 15 September, the British used tanks for the first time. As the battle ground on into autumn, the worsening weather made living conditions ever harsher.

The Battle of the Somme ended on 18 November 1916, when General Sir Douglas Haig called a halt. In four and a half months, the British and French forces had advanced six miles. The British had suffered 419,654 casualties, the Germans around half a million. Though failing to deliver a decisive breakthrough, the battle had wide-ranging strategic effects. In its scale, the battle marked the ramping up of both Britain’s industrial war effort and the fighting power of its army. In wresting the strategic initiative from Germany, the battle changed the course of the war.

Suggested reading

Philpott, W. (2009). Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century. London: Little, Brown.

Prior, R.; Wilson, T. (2005). The Somme. Yale University Press.

Duffy, C. (2006). Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 (Phoenix 2007 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Sheffield, G. (2003). The Somme. London: Cassell.