Battle of the Somme

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Somme Offensive
Part of the Western Front of the First World War
Wiltshire Regiment Thiepval 7 August 1916.jpg
British soldiers attacking
Date 1 July – 18 November 1916
Location Somme River, France
Result unsettled;
Participants
 United Kingdom
 France
 Canada
 Australia
 New Zealand
 South Africa
 India
 Newfoundland
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Douglas Haig
France Ferdinand Foch
German Empire Max von Gallwitz
German Empire Fritz von Below
Strength
13 British and 11 French divisions (planned)
51 British and 48 French divisions (actual)
10½ divisions (planned)
50 divisions (actual)
Casualties and losses
623,907 casualties
782 aircraft lost[4]
465,000 men[5]
British soldiers "going over the top", or leaving their trenches in the Battle of the Somme
Map showing the summary of how the front line changed during the battle

The Battle of the Somme was a big battle that happened during World War I. It started on 1 July 1916 and finished, without any noticeable change in positions, on 18 November 1916. The Somme is a river in northern France. The Battle of the Somme took place around the river. On the first day, there were about 60,000 casualties in the British force and 20,000 of those died. More than 1.5 million people died, were wounded or went missing, in the battle. Today, it is considered the worst battle of World War I, especially by Great Britain. In the minds of the French and the Germans, the Battle of Verdun (which was very similar) is considered to be the worst. In total between 300,000 German, British Empire and French soldiers were killed in the Battle of the Somme. This is very similar to the casualties of the Battle of Verdun.

On the Somme was the bloodiest day in British military history. For five days before 1 July, the British army shot non-stop at the German trenches, to destroy their trenches and the barbed wire that was in front of them. Thinking that most of the German defence was destroyed, at 7:30 am on the morning of 1 July, the British generals told all of the British soldiers to get out of their trenches and walk slowly over to the German trenches. They thought that it would be safe to do this, but they were very wrong. It was clear weather, which was perfect for the Germans because they could see everything the British and French were doing, and it meant the British and French could not surprise the soldiers. As the British soldiers climbed out of their trenches the German soldiers started to shoot them. The soldiers had to do what they were told and keep walking over the to the German trenches, even though they were walking straight into bullets. This is why so many soldiers died. Many of the soldier's bodies lay in the mud for weeks after they had been killed because it was too dangerous for other soldiers to go and get them. 1.73 million bombs were dropped on the German trenches and 1/3 of them did not work. This was because many of the artillery and bombs were not made properly.

Many different types of artillery were used during the Battle of the Somme. They were quite different to the weapons used in conflict today. We have a lot more technology available today and it is easier to find the weak spots of the enemy bases. The main weapons used were bolt-action rifles, machine guns, tanks, poison gas, howitzers and mines.

Poisonous Gas[change | change source]

The Germans used poisonous gases as weapons first. They used chlorine gas to begin with but it gave off a strong smell and was green so it could be easily seen by the enemy. It also blew back on the Germans when they used it. They began to wear dampened material over their mouths and noses. It was more effective if they did use urine instead of water. The British soldiers were given cotton pads and respirators. Death from chlorine gas was excrutiating and you suffocated after suffering from a burning pain in your chest. The Germans then started to use a different gas called phosgene which they mixed with the chlorine. Phosgene was more deadly than chlorine and was colourless and smelled like mouldy hay but it took 24 hours to take effect on the victim.

Rifles (guns)[change | change source]

Rifles were used by the soldiers in the trenches. The main type of rifle that they used was the bolt-action rifle which could fire 15 rounds per minute and could kill a person 1.4 kilometres away. This type of rifle was invented by a Scottish man called James Paris Lee, in America. The bolt-action rifle had a metal box where the cartridges were put on top of a spring. As the bolt opened, the spring forced the cartridges up against a stop and the bolt pushed the top cartridge into the chamber as it closed. After the rifle was fired, the opening of the bolt ejected the empty cartridge case and the return stroke loaded a fresh round. The cases held 3, 5 or 29 cartridges each.[source?]

Machine guns[change | change source]

The machine guns used were very big and needed at least 4 men to work them. They had to be put on a very flat surface. They had the power of 100 rifles and the infantry men hated the machine gunners. If a machine gunner was caught, he was more likely to be killed. Larger field guns needed up to 12 men to operate them. They fired shells which exploded when they hit. The machine guns were a major win for the Germans as they used them to their full effect as the British forces simply walked over no man's land straight into open gun fire. The British on the other hand did not have access to many machine guns therefore making their task even more difficult, as the Germans had the upper hand to look upon them as their position was higher than the British.

Tanks[change | change source]

The first tank was called ‘Little Willie’ and it had a crew of 3 men. The maximum speed that it could travel was 3 mph and it was not able to cross the trenches. The first tank battle, Flers-Courcelette named after the two villages that were the objectives for the attack, started on 15 September 1916. Out of the 49 tanks that should have been there only 36 arrived. This was the first time that tanks had been used in World War I but because they were only armed lightly and the mechanics of them often went wrong they did not make a great impact. However, casualties were low in the tank crews.

Mines[change | change source]

Mines are a way to blow up the enemy and really shock the enemy. Anti-infantry land mines have been in use since the invention of gunpowder and were used in the defence of breaches of fortresses in the 18th and 19th century (the British assault on the breach at Badajoz suffered many casualties from mines). However these were activated remotely by a defender lighting a very fast burning fuse at the appropriate moment. The British used 11 mines on the first morning of the Battle of Somme to startle and damage the German front line. The holes left by the mines were used by the Germans for machine guns though.

Trenches[change | change source]

There was a lot of disease in the trenches. The toilets in the trenches were mainly buckets and holes. This meant that diseases like dysentery spread very quickly. Dysentery causes stomach pains and diarrhoea and sometimes sickness. The body can become very dehydrated which can cause you to die. The water supply in the trenches was not very good. They added chloride of lime to purify the dirty water that the men collected from the shell holes but the soldiers did not like the taste of the chloride of lime – it tasted a bit like our swimming pool water!


The soldiers in the trenches suffered from lice. One man described them as, "pale fawn in colour, and they left blotchy red bite marks all over the body.” Another soldier said, "The things lay in the seams of trousers, in the deep furrows of long thick woolly pants, and seemed impregnable in their deep entrenchment. A lighted candle applied where they were thickest made them pop like Chinese crackers. After a session of this, my face would be covered with small blood spots from extra big fellows which had popped too vigorously." As well as causing lots of scratching, lice also carried disease. This was known as pyrrexhia or trench fever. The first symptoms were shooting pains in the legs and this was followed by a very high fever. The disease did not kill the soldiers but it did stop them from fighting. Trench Foot was an infection caused by standing in the wet for a long time and not being able to dry your shoes and socks out. Your feet would go numb at first and then turn red or blue, and if you got gangrene you may have to have your foot amputated. Brigadier-General Frank Percy Crozier argued that: “The fight against the condition known as trench-feet had been incessant and an uphill game." The only way to get rid of trench foot was to dry your feet and change your socks several times a day.


Lots of men injured in the trenches had parts of their bodies amputated. This was from being wounded or having them blown off by mines or shells.

There was also a big rat problem, because there were lots of corpses. One soldier, Harry Patch, claimed they were as big as cats. Another said “The rats were huge. They were so big they would eat a wounded man if he couldn't defend himself!" The rats ate the eyes first, then burrowed into the corpse and ate the insides.

The area between the two sides was called No Man’s Land and it was very dangerous because there was lots of barbed wire and shell-holes and no man’s land is usually a sea of mud. The soldiers that went over the top were easy targets for enemy machine gunners. In the battle the Allies lost about 600,000 men, but the Germans lost just as many.

The Prince of Wales[change | change source]

The Prince of Wales served on the Somme as a Staff Officer. Although genuinely disappointed not to be involved in the fighting, the understanding his service gave him of ordinary men and the rest admiration he earned from them, strongly influenced the rest of his life both as Prince of Wales

Today[change | change source]

Today, the place where the Battle of the Somme took place has lots of cemeteries, war memorials and museums for people to visit and pay their respects.

Also, some farmers find remnants of barbed wires. Finding them is known as the "iron harvest".

References[change | change source]

  1. Griffith, Paddy (1994). Battle Tactics of the Western Front; The British Army's Art of Attack 1916–1918. Yale University Press. p. 84. ISBN 0-300-05910-8 .
  2. Williams, John Frank (1999). ANZACS, The Media and The Great War. UNSW Press. p. 162. The definition of 'victory' after such a tremendous bloodletting during the Battle of the Somme is very much disputed by historians such as John Frank Williams.
  3. Sheffield 2003, p. 156
  4. The Battle of the Somme, historylearningsite.co.uk
  5. Wynne, Graeme Chamley (1976). If Germany attacks: the battle in depth in the West. West Point Military Library. Greenwood Press. p. 131. ISBN 0837150299 .