|At 7:30 on the morning of July 1, 1916, soldiers from 11 British divisions emerge from their trenches near the Somme River in northwestern France and advance toward the German front lines, marking the beginning of a major new offensive on the Western Front in World War I.
With the bulk of French resources concentrated on holding the fortress city of Verdun, under siege by the Germans since February 21, 1916, it was clear that the main offensive effort on the Western Front that year would have to be made by the British. After months of planning under the leadership of Sir Douglas Haig, commander in chief of the British forces, the attack on the Somme—destined to be the
largest military engagement in history up to that time—was ready. After a full week of bombarding German positions near the Somme— including 1.5 million shells fired from over 1,500 guns—the infantry advance began on the morning of July 31, along a 25-mile-long front extending across both banks of the river.
The six German divisions facing the advancing British took little time to pull out their heavy machine guns from where they had stored them during the bombardment. Out of the 110,000 British soldiers approaching through No Man's Land towards the German trenches, some 20,000 were killed & 40,000 wounded that day alone—the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history to that point & today.
This disastrous initial advance was credited variously to lack of foresight on the part of the British command—their failure to conceive that the Germans could build their trenches deep enough to protect their weapons, or bring them up so quickly once the artillery barrage had ended—the total lack of surprise surrounding when the
attack began and the inferior preparation of the British artillery, for which the infantry paid a heavy price.
Between mid-July and mid-September, British forces launched no fewer than 90 attacks—all ill-coordinated, hurried and ineffectual, and all against narrow fronts, with their objective alternating between breakthrough and attrition. Over the course of the next four-and-a-half months, the Allies were able to advance a total of only six
miles in the Somme region, at the cost of 146,000 soldiers killed, before Haig called off the offensive on November 18. The German death toll—at 164,000--was even higher.
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a nemesis of Haig's, later delivered a resounding condemnation of the battle: "It is claimed that the Battle of the Somme destroyed the old German Army by killing off its best officers and men. It killed off far more of our best and of the French best. The Battle of the Somme was fought by the
volunteer armies raised in 1914 and 1915. These contained the choicest and best of our young manhood….Over 400,000 of our men fell in this bullheaded fight and the slaughter amongst our young officers was appalling…Had it not been for the inexplicable stupidity of the Germans in provoking a quarrel with America and bringing that mighty people into the war against them just as they had succeeded in eliminating another powerful foe—Russia—the Somme would not have saved us from the inextricable stalemate."