In 1916 British and Empire troops took the lead in a huge attack on the River Somme.
Britain had high hopes for this offensive. In France, it now fielded an army large enough to play a major part alongside its allies. Workers at home could finally supply the shells and guns required.
The first troops went over the top in the early morning of 1 July. By evening nearly 20,000 of them lay dead. Over the next five months, British and Empire soldiers fought repeated battles on the Somme. They gained little ground. But the scale and ferocity of their attacks astounded the German Army.
The big efforts must be ours
‘This next year the big effort must be ours.’
General Sir John Charteris, 1 January 1916
The Allies planned to defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary in a series of massive, coordinated offensives. Britain and France would attack on the Somme. This rural region, largely untouched by war, was where their armies stood alongside each other. But Germany’s surprise attack at Verdun drastically reduced the number of French troops available to fight.
What was Britain’s part in the Allied plan? Because of Verdun, Britain would now lead this ‘Big Push’. Thousands of fresh, keen troops from Britain’s volunteer army were ready for their first large-scale battle. British commander General Sir Douglas Haig hoped it would bring breakthrough and victory.
Huge quantities of munitions and supplies were shipped from Britain’s home front. On 24 June, 1,500 British guns began a week-long bombardment to smash German defences before the infantry attacked.
In June 1916 the Allied offensives began with an unexpected success. Russian forces, led by General Alexei Brusilov, shown in this photograph, smashed the Austro-Hungarian Army in Galicia, Eastern Europe. They advanced over 60 miles, taking 350,000 prisoners. Brusilov’s success, celebrated in Allied newspapers, persuaded Romania to join the Allies.
General Alexei Brusilov
Cap and jacket
This cap and jacket were worn by General Sir Douglas Haig, who replaced Sir John French as commander of the British Expeditionary Force in December 1915. Professional, tough and self-assured, Haig believed he was fighting for ‘Christ and the freedom of mankind’. His first task was to plan the Somme offensive with French generals Joseph Joffre and Ferdinand Foch.
Note from Haig
This note from Haig to one of his staff asks for estimates of the number of troops likely to be at his disposal during the summer of 1916. Many of these men were the volunteers of 1914. But Haig was worried by their inexperience. Just four months before the offensive was due to begin, he described the New Army as ‘a collection of Divisions untrained for the field’.
For most of Britain’s volunteer soldiers, the Somme would be their first great battle. This is the uniform of a private of the 20th Northumberland Fusiliers, a New Army battalion that landed in France in January 1916.
Many Kitchener volunteers were looking forward to action at last. Captain Bill Bland of the Manchester Pals described his men as, ‘in good form ... eager and keen. I love ‘em’.
The French would attack in the south of the 14-mile Somme front, next to their British allies. This is the uniform of a French infantry captain. Since 1914 the French had learnt costly lessons about fighting large battles.
Every soldier was given a First Field Dressing in case they were wounded. It was carried in a special jacket pocket. A sophisticated network of aid posts, clearing stations and hospitals prepared to receive the casualties.
General Rawlinson estimated that the battle would cost 10,000 dead and wounded every day. Costly as this would be, it would be a small price to pay if the German Army could be dealt a crushing blow.
British military conference memorandum
General Haig hoped for a breakthrough – a decisive victory. But this British military conference memorandum shows that his plans did not take this for granted.
As an alternative, Haig looked to support the French at Verdun by ‘wearing down’ the Germans while allowing his raw troops to gain valuable battle experience.
The British artillery plan for the ‘Big Push’ shows the gunners’ tasks before ‘Z Day’, the day the infantry would attack.
These include counter-battery fire - destroying enemy guns.
The correspondence shows disagreement between Haig and his subordinate, Rawlinson. General Rawlinson wanted to shell only the German front line, but Haig pressed for a deeper bombardment. In the event this diluted the British guns’ impact.
British 9.2 howitzer
Heavy artillery such as this British 9.2-inch howitzer opened fire on 24 June 1916. For a week, the guns pounded German lines with over 1.5 million shells. Confident that the guns would pulverise German defences and the men in them, Haig instructed General Rawlinson to prepare for ‘a rapid advance’. On 30 June Haig wrote to his wife, ’I feel that everything possible …to achieve success has been done’.
Soldiers of the Buffs and the Queen’s Regiment in action on the Somme
I placed my soul and body in God’s keeping, and I am going into battle with His name on my lips.
Second Lieutenant John Sherwin Engall, 30 June 1916
At 7.30 am on Saturday 1 July 1916, British troops lambered from their trenches to advance across no man’s land towards the German lines. But the attack was a disaster.
In just a few hours, 19,240 of them were killed and 37,646 listed as wounded or missing.
The British failed on most sectors of their front. The French attack was a major success.
Why were the British losses so terrible? Although the British bombardment was the biggest yet, the shelling was scattered over too wide an area. On most of the front, it did not destroy German guns, cut through dense barbed wire or smash well-protected dugouts. Many shells were ‘duds’ which did not explode.
The infantry paid the price.
The artillery bombardment was meant to destroy the two belts of barbed wire that protected the German front line, each up to 1.5 metres high and 27 metres deep.
But in many places the wire was still intact and British soldiers were caught helpless.
French soldier Private Berenger wore this helmet when he went into action by the side of his British allies. It was damaged by shrapnel.
The French, with their greater experience and more effective artillery, won a major victory on 1 July 1916.
Berenger’s commander, Major Le Petit, advanced towards the German front line arms linked with the commander of the 17th Liverpool Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Fairfax.
The first day of the Somme saw some successes, particularly where accurate French artillery fire had helped clear the way. These rare photographs show soldiers of the British 55th Brigade sheltering from German fire after reaching their objective over a mile behind the German front line.
They had left their trenches in early morning mist and had reached their objective by 5pm in stifling afternoon heat.
This letter was written on 1 July 1916 by General Sir Walter Congreve VC, commander of XIII Corps. His soldiers took all of their objectives, with German wire ‘splendidly cut everywhere’, although 55th Brigade took heavy casualties. Congreve addresses the letter to his son, Major William Congreve, who was killed on the Somme on 20 July and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest gallantry award.
German MG 08 machine gun
The German MG 08 machine gun fired up to 450 bullets per minute.
On 1 July this weapon caused heavy casualties as German machine-gunners emerged from their deep dugouts largely unscathed by the bombardment. Major James Jack described, ‘the murderous rattle of German machine guns, served without a break, notwithstanding our intense bombardment, which had been expected to silence them’.
Ernest Crosse was chaplain to the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Devonshire Regiment. On 2 July he used this flag to conduct the burials of 163 of their men, mostly victims of machine gun fire.
The casualties of 1 July 1916 were the worst ever suffered by the British Army in a single day. One in five of the British soldiers who went over the top was killed.
Lee-Enfield rifles and Pattern 1907 bayonets
The attacking British infantry expected to drive the Germans from their trenches with their Lee-Enfield rifles and Pattern 1907 bayonets.
But many soldiers who advanced across no man’s land found little chance against machine gun fire and artillery. Some soldiers were cut down even before they had crossed their own front line.
Men of 55th Brigade after taking their objective at around 6pm on 1 July