Battle of the Somme begins
At 7:30 a.m., the British launched a massive offensive against German forces in the Somme region of France. In the past week, 250,000 Allied shells had shelled German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and fell in no man’s land on July 1, expecting to find the clear path for them. However, dozens of heavy German machine guns survived the artillery assault and the infantry was massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 injured. It was the heaviest day in British military history. The disastrous battle of the Somme lasted more than four months, the Allies having covered a total of only five miles.
When the First World War broke out in August 1914, a multitude of Britons aligned themselves to engage in the war effort. At the time, it was generally believed that the war would end within six months. However, by the end of 1914, more than a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and no final victory was in sight for either the Allies or the central powers. On the Western Front – the battle line that stretched over northern France and Belgium – the fighters had settled in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition. Mutilated and bombed soldiers returning to Britain with stories of machine guns, artillery barrages and poison gas have seriously dampened the enthusiasm of potential new volunteers.
READ MORE: Why was the Battle of the Somme so deadly?
With the aim of raising enough men to launch a decisive offensive against Germany, Britain replaced voluntary service with conscription in January 1916, when it passed a law requiring the enrollment of all single men aged 18 to 41. A massive offensive against Verdun in February, Britain extended the military service law, calling for the conscription of all men, married and single, between the ages of 18 and 41. Towards the end of June, the battle for Verdun still raging, Britain prepared for its main offensive along a 21-mile stretch of the Western Front north of the Somme.
For a week, the British bombed the German trenches in preparation for the attack. British Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, believed that artillery would decimate German defenses and allow a British breakthrough; in fact, it was used primarily to eliminate the element of surprise. When the bombing died down on the morning of July 1, the German machine teams came out of their fortified trenches and installed their weapons. At 0730 hrs, 11 British divisions attacked at the same time and the majority of them were shot down. Soldiers hopefully carried heavy supplies for a long march, but few crossed more than 200 meters. Five French divisions attacking at the same time south of the Somme were doing a little better, but without British success, there was little that could be done to exploit their gains.
After the initial disaster, Haig resigned himself to more modest but equally ineffective advances, and more than 1,000 Allied lives were lost for every 100 meters won over the Germans. Even the introduction of tanks into Britain on September 15 for the first time in history has failed to break the deadlock in the Battle of the Somme. In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, and on November 18, Haig canceled the Somme offensive after more than four months of massacres.
READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of the First World War
With the exception of its effect of diverting German troops from the Battle of Verdun, the offensive was a miserable disaster. This represented a total gain of just 125 square miles for the Allies, with more than 600,000 British and French soldiers killed, injured or missing in action. German casualties were more than 650,000. Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of deadlocked men and resources along the Western Front ultimately contributed to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.