The Battle of the Somme

by Gemma Cheetham, 9J



The context        The Plan        The artillery bombardment        1 July 1916       

The battle after 1 July        Conclusion and historians' comment





Leading up to the battle of the Somme there was fighting all over the world, the most important was on the western front. On 3rd August 1914 Germany had invaded Belgium. At the end of September the German was only 30 miles away from Paris. At the battle of the Marne the German army was stopped by the British and French armies. As the British and French armies advanced the Germans dug trenches to defend themselves, after a couple of days of fighting the advance of both the British and French armies was stopped. The Germans and British armies both decided to try another method instead of going forwards both armies were going sideward, trying to outflank each other, they both dug trenches as they went . They did this until they reached the sea, that was called ‘the race to the sea’ in September to November results of this was that the trenches stretched from Switzerland to the English channel. Both of the armies tried braking through the others trenches. They defended with shells and machine guns and advanced on foot with rifles. In 1916 both sides realized they wouldn’t brake through each other’s lines. Millions of soldiers died trying to capture a few hundred or more yards of mud, this was called the ‘war of Attrition’. In April 1915 at the battle Ypres, Germany became the first country to use poison gas in warfare. The British were the first army to ever use tanks as a weapon in war in the battle of the Somme. 


The context

 The plan for the Battle of the Somme was to amass a huge new army of soldiers. The men and supplies would be collected in the reserve trenches. German trenches will be bombarded for 7 days non-stop. The British fired over one and a half millions shells from 1537 guns at the German lines, which should have destroyed the German dug-outs which were dug 9 metres deep into the ground, shred their barbed wire and kill most of the Germans. Also 10 mines would be dug under the German strong points. They would explode 2 minutes before the attack. The British army would cross ‘No Man’s Land’, walking and would stay in line. They would take over the German trenches. We would set the mines to blown up at 7.28 am except the one at Hawthorn Ridge which would be blown at 7.20 am, which was a mistake. Germans would shell British trenches and the British soldiers would be ready for the attack.


The Plan

The British guns pounded at the German trenches the big guns blazed for seven days non-stop, everyone thought nothing could survive the bombardment. The British gunmen stood side by side for 29 kilometers. The thunder of the gunfire could be heard in London. The Germans survived the bombardment and begun to get their own back, this made the Germans more enthusiastic, less men went on sick parade and no-one wanted to miss the fight. On and on the guns went off day after day, the noise was terrible, no one could speak, it was an amazing show from behind the lines. It was like watching fireworks in the darkness. The day dawned, the mist turned into a beautiful summers morning. Then the guns started thundering while soldiers waited in their trenches. Soon after the guns stopped, silence. This  was strange for the soldiers. Below the ground the miners were busy tunneling towards the German trenches. They were planning to blow the Germans sky high. Mines blew and the attack began at 7.30 am. Everyone could hear the bang, and from that the Germans knew that the British were about to attack. The Germans raced from their deep dug outs far below the ground into their trenches. They had not been blown to pieces! They were ready. The Germans’ began to fire, the British army couldn’t believe it. The Germans weren’t dead and weren’t disorganized. The British carried on. The German gunmen had not been knocked out and the German trenches had not been smashed. Also the barbed wire hadn’t been cut by the British gunfire.


The artillery bombardment

Mines had been dug under the German trenches and packed with explosives. At 7: 28 am they were detonated, just before the British attacked, giving the Germans two minutes warning. In division 56 they had just finished digging temporary trenches in the middle of ‘No Man’s Land’, so that they did not have so far to attack. In division 46 it was very muddy, some of the men had spent the night up to their waists in water. Most of the men had been killed after the heavy German shelling during the night. The 48’s division were mainly kept in reserve. The 31st division had dug a secret tunnel to get closer to the German lines, but the Germans had seen them, so they raided and demolished them. Holes had been cut in the British wires and white tape laid down to show the British troops where to go. Division 4 and 29th had five access trenches that had been built towards the German lines. They were allocated only one machine gun and they had mines to blow it up when they had to abandon it. In division 32 they were ready to attack up hill. Division 8 had just finished digging out, and were ready with riffles to advance. At the 34th division two huge mines exploded at 7: 28 am on the German frontline just north of here. The 21st and 7th division had built Russian saps on ‘No Man’s Land’, two minutes before zero hour three mines went off. 18th and 30th divisions had also built Russian saps, there were five of them. Then the whistle blew for 7: 30 am, all divisions slowly advanced over ‘No Man’s Land’ in straight lines like the General had ordered. All divisions had been told that the enemy trenches had been smashed up, after the artillery bombardment. All the soldiers were expecting shell-shocked soldiers ready to surrender. In fact the very deep German trenches were unharmed and miles of barbed wire stood uncut. Everywhere the soldiers met a hail of accurate machine gun fire. The machine gunners occupied their strong point, and across a 25 mile front, the British hopes were dashed, by the steady stutter of the Maxim guns. The Germans fought back over ‘No Man’s Land’ with high explosives and in some sectors, wrecking the British frontline trenches. In division 56 at 8: 30 am they had taken over the German frontline. In division 46 the counter artillery and machine gun fire had killed or wounded most of them. Division 46 failed to capture the German lines and suffered a lot of casualties. At division 31 there was a moments pause and orders were shouted down the ranks. Then the men dashed for the German trenches. The same happened in divisions 4, 29, 30 and 36. Most of division 34 were killed by the counter artillery. Division 7 over-ran the German trenches and the troops advanced 700 yards. In the 21st division the attackers broke through the German frontlines. In division 30 at 8: 30 am they had joined up with the French army and consolidated their positions, ready to move on. The French division had utterly destroyed the German trenches, and most of the German artillery as well. Most of the French division attacked at 9: 30am two hours after the British attack, by which time the Germans had decided that the French were not going to attack and were taken by surprise. On the 1st July, 1916 the British army sustained 56,470 casualties, of which 19,240 were killed or died of wounds.


1 July 1916

The battle went on until the 19th November 1916. Small scale attacks by the British took place every week, but there were several concerted efforts across the front. The first and most successful took place on 14th July when General Rawlinson was granted his wish to make a night attack. On 14th July the British attacked the German second line at 3: 25 am under very heavy bombardment. General Haig was in charge of the British soldiers. He carried on just as before, thousands and thousands of British soldiers pounded away at the Germans all through the summer of 1916. During the 4 ˝ months the battle was going on the soldiers moved around the trenches. They stayed in the front trench which was called the ‘firing trench’, then moved on to the second trench which was called ‘the travelling trench’. Then finally to the supporting trench, then behind the lines and rest. On 29th August the British captured 266 German officers, 15,203 other ranks, 86 guns and 130 machine guns. The 15th September was one of the days of greatest progress for the allies and the British began the third phrase of the battle by advancing on a six mile front to a depth of 2000 to 3,000 yards. On 14th October the French made progress. On 18th November the British advanced north and south of the Ancre and reached the outskirts of Grand Court. The operations ended and the battle of the Somme was over. Towards the end of the battle the British brought in tanks, soon after the Germans surrender as they did not know what the tanks were. At the end of the battle the total amount of British casualties were 419,654. The French lost 204,253, and German casualties ranged between 437,000 to 680,000.


The battle after 1 July

In the battle of Somme the British came up with what they thought was a excellent plan. They thought they had worked out all the necessary ideas to destroy the German army, using mines underground and massive amounts of artillery bombardments. All this timed exactly, across the length of the trenches. But the plan didn’t take into account the depth of the German trenches or the German army ability to withstand the bombardment. When the British soldiers walked across No Man’s Land on the first day they were totally unprepared for the German response. The battle went on for months after that day, before the French and British eventually defeated the Germans.


Historians have described the battle with comments like ‘All that remained of their effort was a great mass of prostrate figures’ and ‘A brave volunteer army had marched to its death’. Almost suggesting that the battle was over as soon as the plan failed. J M Bourne said ‘Once the artillery failed, infantry was doomed’.


This battle is remembered by the British people more than any other First World War battle, mainly because of the army was composed of many volunteers and because of the great loss of life, in such a short space of time. This made people think much more about the effects of war, as almost every British family lost one or more of its male members. People were more reluctant to go to war after this battle. Also because it was the first time tanks were used, which have now become an important part of warfare. The battle had a big effect on women too, while the men were at war women were doing the jobs of men in Britain. They were going out to work each day to keep the country running. Once the war was over many of the women wanted to be regarded as equals and keep on doing traditionally men’s jobs, and also they wanted to be able to vote and have their voices heard.

Conclusion and historians' comment