The Somme

Somme - reserve

Feb. 21 - German attack at Verdun upset the Allied plans made at Chantilly Dec. 6-10, 1915, to attack on all fronts. French withdrew troops from Picardy, leaving the British to mount the Spring Offensive on their own. Britain had 54 divisions in the Somme facing 36 German divisions. The British Division of 12,000 infantry included 3 brigades of 4000 each; each brigade included 4 battalions of 1000 each. These half million volunteers were Kitchener's New Army, not professional soldiers, at best half-trained, British "Tommies" who called Germans "Fritz." They would be joined in 1916 by conscripts after the British passes the compulsory military service bill Jan. 6, 1916. Kitchener would not live to see his Tommies' big attack on the Somme, drowned June 5 on HMS Hampshire on way to Russia. David Lloyd George succeeded Kitchener as War Secretary, and Dec. 7, 1915, became Prime Minister of a new War Cabinet after the resignation of Herbert Asquith, and Arthur Balfour became Foreign Secretary. At first, the Lloyd George government supported the Somme campaign, wanted to help the French and Russians, but this support evaporated by October.

Feb. 25 - Rawlinson arrived at HQ at Querrieu and took command of the 4th Army, began plan to attack north of the river (not the meandering , marshy river itself that played no role in the battle). Highest point was Thiepval-Ginchy Ridge at 300 ft high, gave Germans clear view south and north of the slopes to the valley of the River Ancre. German built a first line of defense of three trench lines 200 yards apart, and two barbed wire belts 30 ft. wide with iron stakes, and dugouts 30 ft. below ground for 25-man garrisons, fortified the solid stone houses of several villages such as Thiepval and Beaumont Hammel and Orvillers and La Boisselle and Fricourt. The second line of defense 2000 yards east along the strong points of Schwaben Redoubt and Nordwerk and Longueval, anchored on the high ground on the ridge around Mouquet Farm and Pozieres. A German third line was under construction in 1916.

Apr. 3 - Rawlinson proposed limited "bite and hold" attack to advance in small increments, then go on the defensive and kill the Germans as they counteattacked. But Haig memo May 16 enlarged the plan to a general attack in waves of 11 divisions on a 16-mile front to overrun the German trenches quickly, preceded by 5-day bombardment and gas. French participation would only be 12 divisions from Montauban to the Somme River. Haig imitated Napoleon's breakthrough at Jena in 1806 when the cavalry broke through to destroy the Prussians after the infantry had made the breakthrough.

June 24 - Sat. night, artillery barrage began on 40-mile front from Frise in south to Arras in north, 150,000 shells every 24 hrs, from 1500 British guns, including 450 heavies. The shrapnel shells were supposed to explode 20 ft above ground, sending shrapnel into the wires on the ground, but fuzes not set correctly or did not work, and shells exploded too high, or only on impact with ground. The weather worsened June 26 and airplanes lost visibility, many problems with British artillery, unexploded shells, faulty barrels, broken recoil mechanisms, resuling in a 25% defective rate. Shells exploded on impact when hit the ground, did not break the wire. Over half patrols reported wire not cut, but ignored by Rawlinson. German artillery that survived included 598 field guns and 246 howitzers.

June 29 - After 5 days bombardment, 200,000 troops moved into assembly trenches, took off greatcoats and packs and stacked them near farm buildings, had small tin triangle on back to show location to artillery spotters.

July 1 - Somme battle began in the morning, British 4th Army advanced into No Man's Land between Gommecourt and Serre. British password "with" was easy for Brits to say but hard for the Germans, although most Germans able to speak some English. Haig controlled the press by putting war correspondents in uniform, made them less critical of army, still unable to go to the front, reported from Amiens.

July 1 - Attack of VIII Corps in north toward Beaumont Hamel began with Hawthorn mine explosion at 7:20 am, 10 minutes before zero hour, but Germans rushed machine guns to lip of crater before British arrived. 9 am, the 4th Division took Quadrilateral strongpoint north of Beaumont Hamel, only place in this sector where British troops reached German trenches. Newfoundlanders from Canada suffered 90% casualties in the Y Ravine, where their Caribou monument stands today. The Corps suffered 14,000 casualties, about half its strength.

July 1 - Attack of X Corps toward Thiepval and Mouquet Farm up ridge 300 ft high, resulted in 10,000 casualties.

July 1 - Attack of III Corps in the center on the road to Pozieres was the main attack, where Haig planned to break through followed by the cavalry. But British had to advance up the bare open slope to top of Thiepval Ridge. German strongpoints were the villages of Ovilliers and La Boisselle. The Tyneside Irish 34th Division suffered 6380 casualties attacking La Boisselle. A mine was exploded at Y Sap, and smoke bombs covered British advance, but the Corps lost 12,000 casualties.

July 1 - Attack of XV Corps on Fricourt to be aided by a creeping barrage of 100 yards every 2 minutes, but was too fast for infantry, and density of shells was not enough to suppress enemy troops. Three mines exploded to create crater lips giving partial cover to advancing troops.

July 1 - Attack of XIII Corps in south toward Montauban was assisted by French artlllery from the XX Corps. By 9:30 am the British took the Pommiers Redoubt and Montauban Alley, and on the right took Glatz Redoubt and the Dublin Trench, occupied Montauban by evening.

July 1 - British casualties on the first day were 57,470 (19,240 killed and 38,230 wounded). Early writers John Buchan in 1917 and Liddell Hart in 1930 described a tragic attack in waves by British soliders shoulder-to-shoulder carrying 66-lb packs. Liddel Hart wrote the battle "proved both the glory and the graveyard" of Kitchener's Pals. These writers glorified the heroism of the British soldier, the individual skill and bravery that gave meaning to the battles. This interpretation has been followed by Martin Middlebrook 1971, Corelli Barnett 1979, Paul Kennedy 1988, and the BBC documentary The Great War 1996. However, recent historians have blamed the disaster on industrial warfare and killing machines, and the individual soldier's bravery at the Somme did not make much difference. Anthony Farrar-Hockley's book The Somme, 1970, and Prior/Wilson, The Somme, 2005, are examples of this different interpretation. The IWM exhibit in 2006 corrected many of the myths of the battle. Battalion commanders decided on the best method of attack, some in waves in the north, some in complex advances by skirmishers and snipers as in the south. 53 of the 80 battalions crawled or crept toward the German wire before standing to rush the trenches. Only 12 battalions marched in slow waves, some following a creeping barrage that was successful in the south where artillery observation from hills behind the British lines were the best. Whatever formation was used, could not penetrate German machine guns firing en masse and enfilade, at 6000 rounds per minute. Some observers in Albert watched the Tyneside Irish march towards the front in close formation, but they were not yet attacking in no man's land.

July 3 - Haig focused the attack in the south where the greatest gains had been made, built plank road from Fricourt to supply the front line British troops. The III Corps attacked toward La Boisselle, but failed. Over the next 10 days, Haig would allow several piecemeal attacks, but none with enough troops or coordination or artillery to have any chance of success.

July 6 - Attack on Mametz Wood by 7th Division failed, lost 4000 casualties.

July 10 - German casualties after 10 days were 40,200.

July 13 - From July 2 to July 13, 86 battalions had launched 46 attacks, suffered 25,000 casualties, raising the 13-day total to 85,000.

July 14 - Attack at night south of the road toward High Wood began at 3:25 am with 4 divisions behind small advance parties equipped with Lewis guns to 500 yds in front of German trench, then infantry crawled to within 50 yds, ready to attack at 3:25 am following heavy artillery bombardment. The troops reached the German second line by noon. The cavalry units attacked in the afternoon, but were machine-gunned and forced to dismount. Yet, the 2nd Indian Cavalry speared 16 Germans with lances. The Germans held the Switch Line and the British were unable to take the high ground of High Wood or Delville Wood; of 3000 South Africans that attacked Delville Wood, only 768 survived; base hospitals at Rouen and on coast were filled, trains took wounded to hospital ships at Boulogne, that took the wounded to British ports, and railroad trains unloaded thousands every day at Charing Cross Station for nearby hospitals.

July 15-31 - British piecemeal attacks on High Wood and Guillemont failed, although Delville Wood was finally taken. Poor weather prevented use of airplanes or accurate artillery spotting. German machine-gunners at Guillemont increasingly used flanking fire against attacking troops.

July 23 - Attack on Pozieres began at 12:30 am by 2 Austrialian "Anzac" divisions from 2nd Army. Haig thought if Pozieres could be taken, then Thiepval still impregnable on its bluff might be taken from the rear. But the 1st and 2nd Anzac Division lost 6846 casualties, half its strength, trying to take the OG 1 and 2 trenches. The attack was renewed by the 4th Anzac Division that lost 4650 against Mouquet Farm.

Aug. 7 - attack on Guillemont - heavy thick mist, no sun, smoke and fumes of bombardment, 2 Brit battalions by mistake attacked each other, only captured part of a German trench called Cochrane Alley

Aug. 8 - King George V visited Haig at Montreuil; king announced he would serve no spirits until victory, no wine for Joffre at Aug 8 dinner

Aug. 14 - began to rain, ground turned to deep mud.

Aug. 29-Falkenhyn dismissed due to failure against French at Verdun and Hindenburg became German Chief of Staff.

Sept. 1-3 - Pozieres Ridge, Mouquet Farm

Sept. 3 - attack on Guillemont behind a creeping barrage advancing 50 yds ahead, sky filled with smoke and mist and flying debris and spouts of liquid mud; British used phosphorous smoke bombs, captured village Sep. 3.

Sept. 5 - open air cinema at Morlancourt showed Charlie Chaplin, followed by Battle of the Somme documentary film made by Geoffrey Malins

Sept. 9 - Ginchy taken by 16th Irish division helped by a heavy creeping barrage. British unable to take strong fortifications at the Quadrilateral that defended Leuze Wood and Bouleaux - "Lousy" and "Bollocks" - and connected by trench to the Triangle on Ginchy Ridge. The Quadrilateral was built 3 miles behind the German front lines.

Sept. 15- Attack on Bapaume included the first use of " tanks " by British in attack on the Quadrilateral at night, 10 kept back in reserve, each weighed 28 tons; the lead tank, known as D1, was the first tank in history to go into battle; noise of tank and its 105 hp engine was deafening; each side gun weighed a ton (had to be removed to get through French railroad tunnels); tank D1 went down Longueval-Ginchy road to Delville Wood, Germans terrified and ran, but artillery shell put D1 out of commission; tank D3 helped take the Switch Line, but not the Gap Trench; airplane spotted a tank in village of Flers; best news of the war, published in headlines of newspapers; it was tank D16, with 3 others that were the only ones still operating, that broke the German lines, and on Sept 17 the British took High Wood

Sept. 22 - Flers, Courcelette

Sept. 24 - Germany began plan to withdraw to stronger Siegfried Line.

Sept. 27 - Thiepval finally captured, and Mouquet Farm, but Germans still held crest of ridge with Schwaben Redoubt and Stuff Redoubt and Zollern Redoubt.

Nov. 18 - The Battle ended after one last attempt to take Grandcourt by the 18th Division. According to the IMW, "Over a million men became casualties in the long and bitter struggle on the Somme. The offensive cost Britain and the Empire 419,654 casualties, 125,000 of them dead. In Britain the impact of the losses was severe, particularly in the north of England where many of the Pals battalions had been recruited. French casualties numbered 204,253. Estimates of German casualties vary widely between 437,000 and 680,000. A German staff officer described the Somme as 'the muddy grave of the German field army.'"



revised 11/1/06 by Schoenherr | WWI Timeline | Links | Topics | Maps | Reserve