Battle of the Somme: Failure or Victory? (July 1, 1916) - History Key

Battle of the Somme: Failure or Victory? (July 1, 1916)

This day in history, in 1916, was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the most important battles of WWI. In the first day of the battle, England lost over 19,000 soldiers. Therefore, the Somme Offensive occupies an important place in the collective memory of the British Army. It was one of the longest battles during the war (4 months) and was the first major operation launched by the British Army on the Western Front. Historians are debating the importance of this battle even today. Was the Somme Offensive a catastrophe for the British Army? Or, on the contrary, did it contribute to the defeat of Germany?

A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment
A German trench occupied by British Soldiers near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment © John Warwick Brooke/ Image Source: Wikipedia

Under expectations

Sir Douglas Haig
Sir Douglas Haig © Elliott & Fry/ Image Source: Wikipedia

Most of you probably know the battle because of what happened in the first day. On July 1, about 120,000 people attacked the 18 km German front. By the end of the day, over 19,000 soldiers had died and another 38,000 were reported missing or badly wounded. In return for these immense losses, the English had conquered only a section of the German frontier line in the south, much below the commanders’ expectation. Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British forces, hoped that through this major offensive, his army will penetrate the German lines.

These great expectations hurt the British and probably were the basis of the disaster from the first day. In order to have free passage for the cavalry, Haig ordered the artillery units the task of destroying the German defensive lines. That is why Haig has extended the artillery units far too long to fulfil the purpose. The German artillery remained largely untouched and they destroyed the British infantry units as they advanced.

A young German Sommekämpfer in 1916
A young German Sommekämpfer in 1916 © CC BY-SA 3.0 de/ Image Source: Wikipedia

A deadly determination

Despite the failure, Haig was determined to continue the offensive. The French have also encouraged him since the French units from the south had done much better than the English. Haig’s goal was to move closer to the second line of German defence in the southern sector. However, his plans was outlined in the second period of the struggle when three quarters of his troops were concentrated on a continuous front, while in that period, most of the daily battles were small-scaled. On the other hand, the Germans were able to move their artillery units from those areas, thanks to the British tactics. In that second period of the battle, the British army lost another 25,000 people.

 Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme, 1916
Men of the Royal Irish Rifles rest during the opening hours of the Battle of the Somme, 1916 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

On July 14, Haig resumed the intense attack on the large front. Therefore, five divisions advanced overnight and extended over a distance of 8 km. This time, the attack was a success, the British succeeding to destroy the German defence lines. But the success was short-lived. To exploit the success of the attack, the British advanced with cavalry and infantry units across the German lines, but they were destroyed by the German artillery from positions that had not been initially bombarded.

A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916
A piper of the 7th Seaforth Highlanders leads four men of the 26th Brigade back from the trenches after the attack on Longueval. July 14, 1916 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

In the period between July 15 and September 14 the British troops lost about 100,000 soldiers, despite the fact that wasn’t organized any major offensive at that time. They lost the soldiers to conquer an area of 8,8 km2.

A new weapon

The second half of September, the English used the old tactics again. The reason was simple: Haig wanted to use a new weapon: the Tank. Once again, Haig focused more on his purpose than on his means. The tank, without any support wasn’t very effective to destroy the large canons of the Germans. Even so, Haig has again expanded his forces along the defensive lines of the Germans.

Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers, 1916
Soldiers gather near a Mark I tank at Flers, 1916 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

Again, the Germans had absolutely no trouble to destroy the English units. However, Haig’s hope about the tank wasn’t fully ruined. A group of tanks made the Germans from the second line near Flers to panic, making an easy target for the British infantry from behind. The next day, the last settles from the second German defensive lines were conquered. Thus, Haig’s new goal was to capture the third line, which he concentrated all the bombing force.

On September 25, the operation to conquer the third line was a great success for the British. Even so, Haig ordered a new attack on October 7, despite that the weather was very bad. Once again, with predictable actions, the British failed to win and lost many people. Unfortunately for the Germans the luck came for the English with commander Gough, who managed through a very well-planned attack on November 13, to conquer Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval (two objectives from the first day of the Battle of the Somme). Thus, Haig was pleased and declared the campaign to be completed.

Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road outside Flers, 1916
Horses haul ammunition forward in deep mud along the Lesboeufs Road outside Flers, 1916 © Image Source: rarehistoricalphotos.com

Victory or failure?

Some think that all that Haig has done through this battle destoyed the hopes of most of the British and killed thousands of young soldiers. But some historians who appreciate the commander consider the battle focused too much on the first day disaster, ignoring the fact that between July 2 and November 19 the Germans suffered more defeats than the British. Haig’s critics come with their own arguments. After all, the English and the French have lost more people than the Germans (620,000 vs 500,000)

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