1st July 2016 marked the 100th year anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, and the single largest loss of British life in history. This was just one battle amongst many that took place during World War One, a war that changed the world irrevocably.
The Battle, which aimed to relieve the French, who had been suffering severe losses at Verdun, began with a week-long artillery bombardment of the German lines. 1,738,000 shells were fired at the Germans with the aim to destroy the German trenches and barbed wire placed in front of them.
On 1st July at around 7.30am, the British army attacked north of the Somme with fourteen infantry divisions, while the French attacked a 13km front, which was south of the Somme, with five divisions. However, the unconcealed preparations for the assault and the week-long bombardment gave the Germans clear warning of the attack. As the British divisions walked towards the German lines, the machine guns started and the slaughter began. Although a few units managed to reach the German trenches, they were driven back. By the end of the day, the British had suffered 57,470 casualties, which is greater than the total combined British casualties in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean wars.
The French advance was considerably more successful than that of the British. They had more guns and faced weaker defences, but were unable to exploit their gains without British backup, so had to fall back to earlier positions.
Haig, who was organising the attack, now accepted that advances had to be more limited and concentrated on the southern sector. The British took the German positions there on 14th July, but couldn’t follow through. Bloody stalemate occurred over the next few months, with the Allies gaining little ground. On 15th September, Haig renewed the offensive, using tanks for the first time. However, these tanks were small in number, lightly armed and often suffered mechanical failure, so made little impact.
The battlegrounds were turned into a muddy bog after torrential rains in October; in mid-November, the battle ended, with the Allies only having advanced 8km. The only success that the British could claim was through their initial aim of relieving the French at Verdun.
So, what were the consequences of this bloody battle?
The Battle of the Somme marked the end of the formation of the ‘Pals Battalions’ and existing battalions were gradually incorporated into other units. The Battalions, comprising men from the same town who had enlisted together, suffered catastrophic losses: whole units died together and for weeks after the initial assault, local newspapers were filled with lists of dead, wounded and missing. In a notorious incident on the first day of the Somme, 585 men out of 700 of the Accrington Pals were killed or wounded in the space of 20 minutes. The death of the members from many ‘Pals Battalions’ left huge holes in many towns and communities in Britain which couldn’t be filled.
It was also a significant contributor to the German defeat. The number of German casualties (around 650,000) resulting from the Battle of the Somme placed an unprecedented strain on the German army and, after the battle, it was unable to replace casualties like-for-like. The British survivors of the battle gained valuable experience, with the British Expeditionary force learning how to conduct mass industrial warfare which other armies had been fighting since 1914, thereby improving the tactics of the war, helping to generate a British victory.
For Berkhamsted, the Battle of the Somme took the lives of 39 soldiers as shown on the Berkhamsted War Memorial. This would have dampened the morale of the Berkhamsted community, including our school, which for the whole country had begun to decline in late 1916 and remained low into the early winter of 1916-1917.
But perhaps most significantly, the battle symbolised the horrors of warfare in World War One: it epitomised the futility of trench warfare and had a considerable effect on the overall casualty figures of the war. For the first time, film cameras gave the British public an inside look at life on the front line, and more than 20 million people flocked to the cinemas to see The Battle of the Somme. Many spoke of a ‘lost generation’ created during the Battle. It remains today impossible to justify that almost 88,000 Allied men lost their lives for every one mile gained in the Battle of the Somme.
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