The Battle of the Somme, fought between July and November of 1916, was one of the costliest and most traumatic conflicts of World War I. Its significance in shaping the course of the war and the fate of Europe cannot be overstated. The primary objective of the battle was to alleviate the pressure on the French army at Verdun, which had been under relentless attack by the Germans since February of that year. But the battle became much more than that, and the fighting would last for months with no clear victor.

The battle began with an unprecedented artillery barrage that hammered the German front lines for days before the British and French infantry advanced. The bombardment was meant to destroy the barbed wire and trenches of the enemy, making it easier for British and French soldiers to cross into no-man's-land. The shelling was so intense that it was heard in England, and the British hoped that it would pave the way for an easy victory.

PHOTO AT RIGHT: Des Fermes - Somme,  Ca. 1916. Allied soldiers soldiers occupy entrenchments and dugout bunkers in the shell blasted wood. Source: War History Network license.

Ernst Junger, a German soldier, reflected on his experiences of war in his memoir Storm of Steel, originally published in Germany in 1920 under the title In Stahlgewittern. In this poignant piece of work, Junger provided a vivid and detailed account of his time spent on the battlefield. He carefully documented the horrors he witnessed, the challenges he faced, and the enduring impact that these experiences had on him. Through a combination of powerful language and rich detail, Junger brought the realities of war to life, providing readers with a profound understanding of the devastating impact that conflict can have on the human psyche. Despite the challenges he faced, Junger emerged from the war with a deep sense of determination, courage, and resilience, qualities that would serve him well throughout the rest of his life. Junger writes: "Wounded men went down left and right in craters--we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments, we felt our feet settling on soft, yeilding corpses, whose form we couldn't make out on account of the darkness." (Junger 2004, 96)

But on the morning of 1 July, the British soldiers found out that nothing would be easy. As they emerged from their trenches and advanced towards the enemy lines, they were met with an unrelenting hail of machine gun and artillery fire. The losses were catastrophic, and the first day of the battle remains the deadliest in British military history. Over 57,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in action. It was a shocking loss, and one that set the tone for the rest of the battle.

The Battle of the Somme was unlike any other engagement up until its time. It was marked by new weapons, tactics and warfare. Tanks made their debut into battle (early models, which broke down at an alarming rate), and new weapons such as gas would be used in later battles of the war. The battle also saw the rise of trench warfare, which would define the rest of the conflict. The Allies hoped to break through German lines and push them back on their heels, but it became clear that the Germans were well-prepared and dug-in.

In fact, the Germans remained the dominant force for much of the battle. The British and French even struggled to gain a few measly hundred yards of ground, despite their best efforts and sheer numbers. The German army could also rely on the formidable nature of their concrete bunkers and trenches. These fortifications were some of the best in Europe, and they provided cover for German soldiers from the relentless artillery barrages. Peter Hart notes the courage of the German Army. He writes that "From start to finish they fought as heroes: their artillery engaging in a never-ending duel with the British and French artillery; the infantry stoically enduring the horrendous artillery bombardments liable to crash down on them at all times of the day and night only to emerge time after time to man their machine guns and fight to the death, or launch a desperate counter-attack to retrieve some lost trench or corpse." (Hart 2010, 533)

The Battle of the Somme would continue for months, with both sides suffering terrible casualties. It became an unceasing, exhausting cycle of attack and counterattack, with neither side achieving much of an advantage. The sheer scale of death and destruction was staggering, and it left an indelible mark on the psyche of Europe. Historian Peter Hart writes that "The overall British casualties during the battle are indeed, higher than any sane individual would like to comprehend at 419,654, of which some 131,000 were dead. To this should be added the 204,253 French casualties and the approximately 450,000-600,000 German casualties." (Hart 2010, 528)


The Battle of Albert was the opening engagement of the Battle of the Somme and saw the British Army launch an attack against the German lines near the town of Albert. Although the British made some initial gains, they were ultimately unable to break through the German defenses. The French Sixth Army, along with the right wing of the British Fourth Army, dealt a significant blow to the German Second Army. However, the British offensive from the Albert–Bapaume road to Gommecourt was disastrous, incurring around 60,000 British casualties. The battle was notable for the first use of tanks in warfare, although they proved to be unreliable and not particularly effective in this engagement.

The Battle of Bazentin Ridge, which took place from 14-17 July, saw the British make significant gains against the German lines. The British Fourth Army, under the command of General Henry Rawlinson, launched a dawn offensive against the German 2nd Army, led by General Fritz von Below. Using a combination of artillery and infantry assaults, the British were able to capture the high ground of Bazentin Ridge, which gave them a strategic advantage in the region.

12626879280?profile=RESIZE_710xThe Battle of Fromelles, which occurred on 19-20 July, was a disastrous engagement for the British. In an attempt to draw German forces away from the main battlefront, the British launched a poorly planned and executed attack that resulted in heavy losses for the British Army. The attack preparations were rushed, with troops inexperienced in trench warfare and the German defenses significantly underestimated, resulting in the attackers being outnumbered two to one. On 19 July, von Falkenhayn recognized the British offensive as the anticipated assault on the 6th Army. The following day, he commanded the Guard Reserve Corps to reinforce the Somme front. The Battle of Fromelles caused losses for the German defenders but failed to gain ground or significantly divert German forces from the Somme. This battle also signified the Australian Imperial Force's first engagement on the Western Front and was described by McMullin as "the worst 24 hours in Australia's entire history."

PHOTO AT RIGHT: Somme, Ca. September -  November 1916. French Red Cross station on the front. Soldiers on stretchers in the foreground. Source: War History Network license.

The Battle of Delville Wood, which took place from 14 July to 15 September, strategic operation aimed at securing the British right flank, while the central forces advanced to capture the elevated regions of High Wood and Pozières. Following the Battle of Albert, the offensive shifted focus towards capturing fortified villages, woods, and other key terrains that provided advantageous positions for artillery observation, launching further attacks, and gaining other tactical benefits. Despite suffering heavy losses, the South Africans were eventually able to capture the wood, although they were unable to hold it for long.

The Battle of Pozieres, which occurred from 23 July to 7 August, saw the Australian Imperial Force engage in a fierce battle for control of the village of Pozieres. The battle was notable for the large number of casualties on both sides, with the Australians suffering heavy losses but ultimately being able to capture the village.

The Battle of Guillemont, which took place from 3 -6 September, saw the British launch a series of attacks against heavily fortified German positions. Despite making some initial gains, the British were ultimately unable to break through the German defenses and suffered heavy losses in the process. The Battle of Guillemont was seen by some as the German army's ultimate endeavor during the conflict. Joffre, Haig, Foch, General Sir Henry Rawlinson, and Fayolle held numerous meetings to orchestrate coordinated offensives by the four armies; nonetheless, all such attempts were unsuccessful. The halt of Anglo-French attacks at the end of August aligned with the most significant counter-offensive by the German army in the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of Ginchy, which occurred on 9 September saw the British make significant gains against the German lines in the village of Ginchy. Using a combination of artillery and infantry assaults, the British were able to capture the village and secure a strategic foothold in the region. After the Battle of Guillemont, the British forces aimed to advance to strategic positions for observation of the German third line, in anticipation of a major offensive planned for mid-September. Starting on 3 September, British attacks extended from Leuze Wood to Ginchy, where the 7th Division initially seized the village, only to be driven out by a German counter-offensive. The seizure of Ginchy, along with the French Sixth Army's significant victory on 12 September, facilitated larger, coordinated assaults by both armies. These joint operations, in concert with the Tenth and Reserve armies, led to the capture of substantial ground and inflicted around 130,000 casualties on the German forces throughout the month.

The Battle of Flers–Courcelette, which took place from 15-22 September, was a significant engagement that saw the first use of tanks in a successful assault. The British were able to capture several key positions, including the villages of Flers and Courcelette, although they suffered heavy losses in the process. The battle marked the British Army's third and final significant offensive, targeting both an intermediate defensive position and the German third line to capture Morval, Lesboeufs, and Gueudecourt. Concurrently, the French initiated attacks on Fregicourt and Rancourt to encircle Combles, complemented by an offensive on the southern bank of the Somme. Although the operation did not yield a strategic breakthrough, it resulted in tactical gains, advancing the front line by approximately 2,500 to 3,500 yards and imposing casualties on the German forces. Additionally, this battle featured the inaugural engagement of the Canadian Corps, the New Zealand Division, and tanks from the Heavy Branch of the Machine Gun Corps on the Somme front.

12626879458?profile=RESIZE_584xThe Battle of Morval, which occurred from 25-28 September, saw the British launch a successful assault against heavily fortified German positions in the village of Morval. The battle was notable for the use of creeping barrages, which allowed the British to advance under cover of artillery fire. The offensive was delayed to coincide with the French Sixth Army's operations near Combles, south of Morval, and due to adverse weather conditions. The joint operation aimed to prevent German defenders near Thiepval from receiving reinforcements before an attack by the Reserve Army, planned for 26 September. The towns of Combles, Morval, Lesboeufs, and Gueudecourt were taken, with a few tanks entering the fray later in the day. The German forces suffered casualties; however, the French advance was relatively slower. On 25 September, the Fourth Army made its most significant penetration since 14 July, causing considerable hardship for the German troops, especially in the salient formations, re-entrants, and pockets around Combles.

PHOTO AT RIGHT: Somme, 26 - 30 September, 1916. German prisoners taken during the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, under British armed guard. Source: War History Network license.

The Battle of Thiepval Ridge, which took place from 26-28 September, was a significant engagement that saw the British make significant gains against the German lines. Using a combination of artillery and infantry assaults, the British were able to capture several key positions on the ridge, although they suffered heavy losses in the process. The battle signified Lieutenant General Hubert Gough's Reserve Army's first major offensive, aiming to capitalize on the Fourth Army's earlier attack at Morval by starting a day later. Thiepval Ridge, being well-fortified, saw the German defenders putting up a strong fight. Nonetheless, the British forces' coordination between infantry and artillery faltered after the first day, amidst the chaos of fighting in the complex maze of trenches, dugouts, and shell craters. The British did not achieve their final objectives until the Battle of the Ancre Heights. Organizational difficulties and deteriorating weather impeded General Joffre's plans for robust, coordinated attacks by the Anglo-French forces, leading to disjointed and less effective operations by the end of September, which also saw a revival of German defensive strength. In this time, the British experimented with new tactics in gas warfare, machine-gun barrages, and tank-infantry collaboration, as the Germans struggled to counter these new methods of warfare.

The Battle of Le Transloy, which occurred from 1 October to 11 November, was a long and brutal engagement that saw the British engage in a series of attacks against entrenched German positions. Despite suffering heavy losses, the British were eventually able to make some gains in the region.

The Battle of the Ancre Heights, which took place from 1 October to 11 November, was a significant engagement that saw the British launch a series of attacks against heavily fortified German positions. Under General Haig's leadership, the Battle of the Ancre Heights began with the Third Army aiming to secure the area east of Gommecourt. Concurrently, the Reserve Army advanced north from Thiepval Ridge and east from Beaumont Hamel Hebuterne. The Fourth Army's goal was the Peronne–Bapaume road near Le Transloy, which included the Beaulencourt Thilloy Loupart Wood, north of the Albert Bapaume road. The Reserve Army's offensive focused on capturing the Regina Trench Stuff Trench, extending from north of Courcelette to the western end of Bazentin Ridge, and included the Schwaben and Stuff Redoubts. Challenging weather conditions hindered their progress. Reinforcements, such as a U.S. Marine Corps brigade from Flanders and new German divisions from quieter sectors, often launched counterattacks. The British forces achieved their objectives on 11 November.

The Battle of the Ancre, which occurred from 13 - 18 November, was the final major British offensive of the year, involved the Fifth Army advancing into the Ancre valley. This move aimed to exploit German weariness from previous battles and set the stage for a new offensive in 1917. British Commander Haig was swayed by political considerations, the morale of the Allies, and General Joffre's insistence on continuing the assaults in France. The battle began with an explosion under Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt. Although the attack on Serre was unsuccessful, a unit of the 31st Division momentarily met its goals before retreating. Further south, the forces captured Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt-sur-l'Ancre. Beyond the Ancre, the St. Pierre Division collapsed, the edges of Grandcourt were approached, and by November 18, the Canadian 4th Division had taken Regina Trench and Desire Support Trench. The fighting then paused until January 1917, as both armies faced severe winter conditions.

Despite the heavy losses and disappointment, the Battle of the Somme did achieve some strategic objectives. The German army was forced to divert resources away from its relentless assault on Verdun, which had threatened to break the back of the French army. Furthermore, the Allies were able to refine their tactics and learn from the devastating losses. They would use these lessons in subsequent battles, leading to the eventual triumph of the Allied forces. 



Beckett, Ian F. The Great War: 1914-1918. London: Routledge, 2014.

Harris, J. P. Douglas Haig and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Hart, Peter. The Somme: The Darkest Hour on The Western Front. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010.

Junger, Ernst. Storm of Steel: The Classic Memoir of World War I Combat. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Lloyd, Nick. The Western Front: A History of the Great War, 1914-1918. New York: Liveright Publishing, 2021.

"What Was the Battle of the Somme?" Imperial War Museums. https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-was-the-battle-of-the-somme.

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