The Battle of the Somme

trench-ww1The Battle of the Somme (French: Bataille de la Somme, German: Schlacht an der Somme), also known as the Somme Offensive, took place during the First World War between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on either side of the river Somme in France. The battle saw the British Expeditionary Force and the French Army mount a joint offensive against the German Army, which had occupied a large part of the north of France since its invasion of the country in August 1914. The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the war; by the time fighting paused in late autumn 1916, the forces involved had suffered more than 1 million casualties, making it one of the bloodiest military operations ever recorded.

The plan for the Somme offensive evolved out of Allied strategic discussions at Chantilly, Oise in December 1915. Chaired by General Joseph Joffre, the commander-in-chief of the French Army, Allied representatives agreed on a concerted offensive against the Central Powers in 1916 by the French, British, Italian and Russian armies. The Somme offensive was to be the Anglo-French contribution to this general offensive and was intended to create a rupture in the German line which could then be exploited with a decisive blow. With the German attack on Verdun on the River Meuse in February 1916, the Allies were forced to adapt their plans. The British Army took the lead on the Somme, though the French contribution remained significant.

ww1-cemeteryThe opening day of the battle saw the British Army suffer the worst day in its history, sustaining nearly 60,000 casualties. Because of the composition of the British Army, at this point a volunteer force with many battalions comprising men from particular localities, these losses (and those of the campaign as a whole) had a profound social impact. The battle is also remembered for the first use of the tank. At the end of the battle in mid-November, British and French forces had penetrated 6 miles (9.7 km) into German occupied territory, with the British Army still three miles (5 km) from Bapaume, a major objective. The German Army maintained much its front line over the winter of 1916–1917, before withdrawing from the Somme battlefield in February 1917 to the fortified Hindenburg Line.

The conduct of the battle has been a source of controversy: senior officers such as General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force and Henry Rawlinson, the commander of Fourth Army, have been criticised for the human cost while failing to achieve their territorial objectives. Historians such as W. Philpott, G. Sheffield and J. Sheldon have concluded that the Somme saw the beginning of modern all-arms warfare, when the BEF learned many tactical and operational lessons and that the battle inflicted serious damage on the German army, which was a preliminary to its eventual defeat in 1918.

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