The Battle of the Somme: 100 Years

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Photo information: British troops go “over the top” during the 1916 Battle of the Somme in northern France. Credit: © Paul Popper, Popperfoto/Getty Images

Today, July 1, is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the 1916Battle of the Somme during World War I (1914-1918). To mark the solemn occasion, thousands of people, including members of the Britishroyal family, gathered at the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing and other poignant places on the former Somme battlefield in northern France. The Somme campaign took place during the summer and autumn of 1916 and consisted of a series of largely unsuccessful offenses by British and French troops against part of Germany‘s western battlefront. The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest examples of trench warfare in history. The battle is named for the area’s main feature, the Somme River, which rises near the French-Belgian border and flows west for about 140 miles (225 kilometers) to the English Channel.

This morning at Thiepvala village central to the battle that was completely destroyed in the wara two-minute silence was followed by a reading by Prince Charles and the hymn “Abide With Me.” Then theArchbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, said a prayer: “On this day we remember all those caught up by the battle on the Somme; those who faced the terrible waste and devastation, those who fought against all the odds, who endured the clinging mud and squalor of the trenches.”

On July 1, 1916, British infantry went “over the top” (that is, came out of their trenches) to mount an attack upon the German positions. They believed that they would encounter little resistance, but German gunfire decimated the attacking infantry. On this first day of the battle, some 20,000 British soldiers died, and another 40,000 were wounded.

French forces to the south took many of their early objectives, and their losses were not as severe. They used tactics that had proved successful in the fighting at Verdun—brief, creeping bombardments, with infantry advancing in smaller groups. The 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Verdun took place earlier this year in February.

1916 Battle of the Somme Credit: WORLD BOOK map

1916 Battle of the Somme
Credit: WORLD BOOK map

For the rest of July 1916 and over the next few months, the British and French carried out a series of assaults upon the German lines. The attacks gained little ground, and both German and Allied troops suffered heavycasualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing). By November 18, when the battle was called off, the British and French had pushed the Germans back only 7 miles (11 kilometers).

Estimates of casualties vary, but many experts believe that more than 1 million soldiers died during the Somme campaign: about 420,000 British soldiers, nearly 200,000 French soldiers, and between 450,000 and 650,000 Germans. The Allies failed to force a major breakthrough, but the attack succeeded in draining significant German reserves. Also, the slow evolution of new tactics and technologies—particularly in the use of artillery, tanks, and warplanes—proved key in later battles.

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