What were the events and the outcomes of the Battle of the Somme in WWI?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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The Battle of the Somme, also known as the Somme Offensive, began on July 1, 1916, and ended (officially) on November 18, 1916, and was centered on an area on both sides of the Somme River, anchored at the southern end by Chaulnes and the northern end by Beaumont-Hame.  The battle was fought by British forces under the command of Douglas Haig, French forces led by Ferdinand Foch, and German troops commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Max Von Gallwitz.  The most notable consequence of the Somme Offensive is not the amount of territory taken but the casualties suffered on both sides: the British lost, in killed and wounded, approximately  420,000 men; the French, 205,000; and the Germans, 465,000.  As one historian of the war has noted on the attack by French and British troops on the Germans, who were in a protected defensive position, "large numbers of soldiers . . . unprotected by anything but cloth uniforms . . . against rapid-fire weapons, was bound to result in very heavy casualties for the attackers" (Keegan 293)).  As with other horrific episodes of "trench warfare"--Verdun in February, 1916--it became obvious to even the most obtuse commander that war-fighting technology had far surpassed the battle strategies of all armies involved.  British casualties on the first day of the offensive were almost 58,000 killed and wounded, the largest casualty rate of all time for the British Army and an unfortunate record that still holds its place.

An important innovation attempted in the offensive was the British use of massed artillery against the Germans, the goal being to saturate the German lines with approximately 3 million shells before the British troops left their trenches to overrun German positions.  After the initial barrage, the British artillery was supposed to have provided what is known as a "creeping barrage," in which shells fall just in front of the advancing troops to keep the Germans down in their trenches.  Because the Germans were so well protected by their defensive positions, this strategy was a monumental failure, and the result was the effective destruction of an entire British army.  This is not to imply that the Germans were left unscathed--as their casualty numbers indicate, even the Germans' formidable defensive positions did not protect them sufficiently from massive artillery and infantry assaults.  They simply died and were wounded at a slightly slower rate.

Gains for the British and French during the Somme Offensive consist of about 6 miles of territory,  but when weighed against Allied casualties of nearly 485,00 killed and wounded, the cost in human terms of nearly 81,000 men per mile is clearly unsustainable.  Even though trench warfare continued through to the armistice on November 18, 1918, there were very few battles on the scale of the Somme Offensive and none that replicated the disastrous casualty rates.  The war, by 1916, had essentially become a war of attrition rather than for territory primarily because there were not enough fresh troops left who could be depended up to take and hold new territory.

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