July 1st, 1916, marked the first day of the 4 month Battle of the Somme and saw the worst losses in the history of the British Army, with over 57,000 casualties and nearly 20,000 deaths.
The first day of the battle saw some successes, with the French forces pushing the German Second Army back considerably. However, the British troops, comprised of pre-war regulars, conscripts and volunteers was less fortunate. Few troops ever saw the German frontline, let alone threatened it, instead being torn down in No Man’s Land. Remnants of the old style of battle remained, with truces being called to collect wounded from No Man’s Land, but new technologies, principally machine guns and chemical weapons had fundamentally altered the method of combat, by few British generals took note. They blew their whistles and implored young patriots to climb out of the (relative) safety of the trenches to a painful, terrifying death.
The Somme was not an unusual battle. By 1916, there was a 450-mile border of trenches on the Western Front between the French and British against the Germans. A German offensive at Verdun in February had left French reserves drained, forcing the British to take the lead on the Battle of the Somme. In total, on July 1st, 1916, nearly 20,000 British and 7,000 French troops died, alongside 12,000 Germans. This was one of the most catastrophic days in military history.
This was possible because of the relative quiet of the Somme prior to this engagement, which had allowed for significant German fortification of the area and, as with all trench warfare, the nature of the battle gave advantage to the defender. Though British bombardments weakened German defences in some areas, the North of the 25-mile Somme battle line is relatively unscathed, and British soldiers bunching together to get through barbed wire are mown down by machine gun fire.
The huge levels of inexperience among British troops and failure of the artillery to effectively neutralise German defences leads to the objectives being missed by significant margins, despite huge numbers of soldiers being lost. This continues throughout the Battle of the Somme.
By November 18th, 1916, the Battle has ended. But the costs are gargantuan. Over the 4 months, 10 miles of land is gained at the cost of 430,000 British, 200,000 French and 450,000 German troop deaths.
Incredibly, given the current understanding of the battle, news of the victory in the Somme led to the battle being considered a success for the British army. The gained understanding of how to fight trench warfare, the French victory at Verdun and the denigrating of German morale and armed forces signalled hope of an allied victory in the war.
As with the Battle of Stalingrad, this historical battle is considered one of the bloodiest in history and was commemorated in 2016 out of respect for the huge loss of life on both sides, with the centenary being marked by a two-minute silence, announced by Prime Minister David Cameron during a speech, who said, “There will be a national two-minute silence on Friday morning. I will be attending a service at the Thiepval Memorial near the battlefield, and it’s right that the whole country pauses to remember the sacrifices of all those who fought and lost their lives in that conflict.”