A Really Quick History: Why does the Somme matter?
-Over 1 million British, German and French soldiers killed
-Minimal gains on either side of the war
-First use of the tank
-Became symbol of the futility of the war
Tanks were first used at the Somme.
The Western Front 1914-15
World War One began in 1914 and quickly the Western Front was the most intense theatre of war in World War One.
Where was the front?
Compared to the Eastern Front, which extended across hundreds of thousands of square miles across several countries, the Western Front was confined to a relatively small area from the coast of northern France and Belgium to the Swiss border.
Its eastern boundary was the German border and its western the outskirts of Paris. In this small area, some of the fiercest and most chillingly iconic warfare of the conflict was fought, with whole areas of France given entirely over to the battlefield.
The Nature of the War
Under the Schlieffen Plan, the Germans swept through Belgium to invade France, slaughtering civilians and burning villages.
This bloody lightning attack opened the war on the Western Front and German tactics were brutal and shocking. The so-called “Rape of Belgium”, as reported in the newspapers of Allied countries, quickly established the image of bloodthirsty, amoral German soldiers subverting all the rules of war.
This was a significant propaganda tool throughout the war.
However, the battles of 1914 and 1915 changed the nature of war on the Western Front entirely. Rather than having the lightning-fast pace of the early months of the war, the set-piece battles became grinding, months-long engagements.
Firstly this was because of the bloody-mindedness of the generals in pursuing strategically small gains at massive cost. But secondly, and disastrously, trench warfare had come to dominate the conflict.
Aerial map of German trenches
Why was trench warfare so deadly?
The use of so-called fieldwork, i.e. the digging of defended earth work, had become more common in European fighting in the 18th century. A defender who was shielded from enemy fire in a trench was often able to kill several approaching foes before they closed in on his position.
However, in World War One, the building of trenches reached unprecedented levels, with complexes of dug-out fieldwork running for many, many miles and housing tens of thousands of men.
Older forms of fighting like cavalry became obsolete, of no use in the new, dug-out and well-defended landscape of the war.
A significant flaw in trench warfare, however, was that the increase in the destructive force of the firepower was not matched by the ability of troops, or military strategists, to move around and change positions. Essentially, troops became stuck in their trenches.
As both sides adopted trench warfare, the new nature of war – that battles could, so entrenched, last months and yet achieve almost no movement whatsoever and thus become a gruesome, unending and intensely bloody stalemate – was revealed.
Trench warfare quickly became a haunting and harrowing feature of the war and caused significant psychological damage to many involved in it.
1916: The Great Battles
As the war entered its second full year, mired in stalemate, the Germans retooled their strategy to bring the war to an end in France. The Germans now determined to “bleed France white”.
Verdun – the other great battle
Simultaneous to the Somme was the Battle of Verdun, a ten-month engagement between the French and the Germans. Both sides suffered astonishing casualties, with an estimated 540,000 French and 430,000 German casualties and yet again no strategic advantages on either side at the end.
Verdun is considered to be one of the most horrific events of World War I but also a powerful symbol of the French resolve to continue fighting despite the incredible levels of destruction much of the country faced. By December, both sides had returned to their original positions – but a million soldiers were dead.
For many French people, Verdun is seen as the great, futile tragic event of the war.
The Somme Begins
A few months after Verdun began, the British engaged the Germans along the Somme river. The conflict began on 1st July, 1916. The British intended to break through the German defences near the river. However, the military approach was catastrophic.
The order for men to march directly towards the enemy over no man’s land, coupled with the failure of bombardment to destroy German machine-gun posts, led to carnage.
On the first day, with a gain of only 1.5km, the British had suffered almost 60,000 casualties. About 60 per cent of British officers died on the first day. Nonetheless UK Field-Marshal Haig pressed on with the attack until November. No matter how the fatalities ran into the hundreds of thousands, the British military command would not call off the war. Months passed with no territorial advantage at all.
In September, a new technology was debuted at the Somme: the tank. The tanks were expected to accelerate the pace of the conflict but instead had little impact, being mechanically unreliable in the awful, muddy conditions. They only intensified the military firepower of the war without speeding up its conduct, killing more and more French, German and British men.
Monument to the fallen at the Somme, designed by the architect Lutyens, who lost five nephews in the war.
The End Of the Somme
When the offensive was eventually called off in late 1916, the British were still three miles short of their objectives for what they wanted to capture on day one of the battle. Fatalities on the British and Commonwealth side numbered 420,000 with German casualties as high as 680,000.
The Somme is now seen as one of the greatest, bloodiest failures of modern warfare, especially in Britain and the Commonwealth.
This is an edited extract of our upcoming Quick History of World War One, being published later this summer. Sign up here for more information about the book, including the option to get a free review copy in advance of publication.