‘A year of indecisive fighting…;on the whole victory inclining to us, and the decision brought nearer.’
General Sir Henry Wilson, 31 December 1916
The Battle of the Somme resulted in over 600,000 Allied and an estimated 500,000 German casualties.
War was now being waged on an industrial scale, with unprecedented numbers of men and guns. Yet the victory hoped for by Britain and its allies still did not happen.
Had the battle achieved anything?
The British learned bloody but vital lessons in how to fight big land battles. British generals were impressed with the fighting qualities of their civilian army. They believed the soldiers would do better next time.
For the Germans, the losses on the Somme came as a huge shock. Above all, their soldiers now feared the Allies’ ever-growing artillery power. They did not want to face such a battle again.
This map of just part of the Somme battlefield was marked after the war with the number of temporary grave markers found in each grid square.
Each recorded the burial of at least one man. Many bodies were obliterated or buried by high explosive and have never been found.
The official British casualty figure was 419,654 dead, wounded and missing. The French suffered 202,567, the Germans probably over 500,000.
Orpen painting A grave and a mine crater at La Boisselle
In late summer 1917 official war artist William Orpen painted a series of haunting pictures of the now abandoned Somme battlefield, including this painting, A grave and a mine crater at La Boisselle.
Orpen was a society portrait artist who had the personal support of Field Marshal Haig. This gave him privileged access to the front.
Oh God, they’re dead!
‘Oh God, they're dead!’
Woman in cinema audience, August 1916
The Somme gripped the British public. They knew that history was being made.
An official documentary film, The Battle of the Somme, was shown in cinemas from August 1916. An estimated 20 million people saw it within months of its release. Many hoped to glimpse a son, brother, father or friend.
The government also began to employ artists to record the war. The Somme provided their first subject.
Why did the government sponsor film-making and art?
The government and the military wanted to motivate the home front. They hoped people would see how important it was to support the soldiers who were fighting and dying for their freedom.
Films and war art were also shown in America and other neutral countries to create a positive image of Britain’s war effort.
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme film was the first feature length documentary to record soldiers in action.
It was intended to show that the ‘Big Push’ had been a success and that British soldiers were well supplied and cared for. The full 74 minutes are shown here with its original musical accompaniment.
By October 1916, the film had been booked by more than 2,000 British cinemas. It was also shown in 18 countries.
Official war artist Muirhead Bone recorded the Somme battle in charcoal drawings. These were later exhibited and published in a series of booklets.
The authenticity of Bone’s drawings made them a great success.
His most acclaimed work gave the public a glimpse of the ‘tank’. This revolutionary weapon was used for the first time on the Somme.
9.At All Costs
As 1916 drew to a close, there was still no sign of victory. New leaders urged their weary citizens to work even harder. Total war on the battlefield meant total war on the home front.
Nobody in Britain could escape the impact of war. Women kept the country going, filling jobs usually done by their fathers, brothers and sons. Even children played their part in the war effort.
Britain itself was now coming under attack. German aircraft bombed people in their homes. German submarines attacked ships bringing food and supplies.
There was armed rebellion in Dublin. But America’s entry into the war offered new hope for Britain and its allies.
The man the nation wants
…the man the nation wants… a man who can organise the country for victory.
The Daily Mirror on Lloyd George, 4 December 1916
In 1916 both Germany and Britain turned to new leaders to break the deadlock. These men were determined to win at any cost.
Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, heroes of the fighting on the Eastern Front became Germany’s military leaders.
What happened in Britain?
David Lloyd George ousted Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, who was criticised for lacking the dynamism to lead the country to a decisive victory.
Lloyd George created a small, all-party war cabinet to make major decisions. He set up new ministries to control the war effort and brought in successful businessmen to run them.
This new system of government meant a new determination to defeat Germany once and for all.
Hindenburg and Ludendorff changed the way Germany fought. In March 1917 German troops on the Western Front withdrew to new, stronger defences - the ‘Hindenburg Line’.
Germany would now concentrate its attack at sea, using submarines to spare its army heavy losses such as those on the Somme. At home, the ‘Hindenburg Programme’ conscripted workers to make factories keep pace with Allied production of weapons and munitions. Germany, now almost a military dictatorship, was pushed to breaking point.
Photo of Ludendorff
General Erich Ludendorff, shown in this photograph, was, in principle, Hindenburg’s deputy. In practice he became the most powerful man in Germany.
A cold, ambitious career army officer, Ludendorff was described by one fellow officer as ‘the evil genius of the German Army’.
But, with Germany struggling at Verdun and on the Somme, another commander wrote that, ‘The only man that could help us was Ludendorff’.
Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg became the symbol of Germany’s fight for final victory.
Nearly 70 years old when he became Germany’s military leader, he looms from the posters here, which advertise war loans and a film. In the first poster, loan subscribers are assured that their contributions would be ‘the best birthday gift’ Hindenburg could have. The second asserts that, ‘The times are hard but victory is certain’.
Hindenburg matchbox covers and wooden figure
Hindenburg, depicted on these match box covers, attracted almost god-like devotion in Germany.
Towns built statues of him. Parents named their sons after him. The Kaiser, depressed, ill and reduced to the role of figurehead, grew jealous of Hindenburg’s popularity.
The wounded British soldier who made this wooden figure was also unimpressed. He portrayed Hindenburg as an old man suffering from gout.
General Erich Ludendorff
Hindenburg, the Kaiser and Ludendorff study maps
David Lloyd George became Prime Minister on 7 December 1916.
Unlike Germany’s new leaders, his reputation had soared not on the battlefield, but on the home front as Minister of Munitions. He would now lead Britain’s all-out war effort.
Lloyd George was deeply critical of the loss of life on the Somme, but he shared his generals’ determination to crush Germany. There now was no going back.
This wooden figure shows David Lloyd George walking the political tightrope.
The toby jug encourages Britain’s people to give yet more. A shrewd political operator, Lloyd George engineered Asquith’s downfall and his own appointment as prime minister.
He secured support from Conservative and Labour politicians, newspapers and fellow Liberals who had grown frustrated with Asquith’s uninspiring leadership.
Daily Mirror front page
The ‘Daily Mirror’ was one of the popular newspapers which campaigned to make David Lloyd George Prime Minister.
He was not an obvious choice for its support. Before the war, Lloyd George had been a radical Liberal politician hated by conservative papers such as the ‘Mirror’ and their middle-class readers.
But the need for a strong war leader made him a popular choice.
Photo of Imperial War Cabinet
Lloyd George set up an Imperial War Cabinet, shown in this photograph, to co-ordinate further support and resources from the Empire.
Lloyd George inspired and dominated a streamlined war cabinet of seven senior ministers. He also brought ‘men of push and go’ - experts and businessmen - into government.
Two weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Lloyd George made a personal plea, publicised on the poster shown here, for Australian men to join up.
He needed to galvanise not only the British war effort, but that of the Empire as well.
Members of the Imperial War Cabinet in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street
Photo of Falkenhayn
General Erich von Falkenhayn, wearing goggles in this photograph, promised to knock out Russia in 1915 and France in 1916. He did neither. German General Wilhelm Groener wrote, ‘Falkenhayn seems physically worn out… the Verdun disaster has made him an old man’. Sacked from command of the German Army, Falkenhayn led German troops to victory over Romania in December 1916.
As Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, portrayed in this photograph, had quietly overseen the build-up of Britain’s army and its home front. Although agricultural minister Lord Selborne noted that Asquith ‘cared with his whole soul for England’s victory’, he was widely seen as indecisive. In September 1916 the death on the Somme of his eldest son Raymond left Asquith a broken man.