This Day In History: The Battle Of The Somme Ends (1916)

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On this day in 1916, the commander of the British and the Empire armies on the Western Front called a halt to the Somme offensive. The offensive or battle had lasted a full four months.

On the morning of July the first, the British after a week-long artillery bombardment of the German front line ordered a general assault on the German lines. The British attack was an attempt to break through the German lines and to end the stalemate on the western front, it would also have helped to relieve the French who were under constant German attack at Verdun.

The Somme offensive was the brainchild of General Alexander Haig. In total, some twelve divisions were involved on the first day of the offensive. It soon became clear that the plan was not going as planned. The Germans had not been destroyed by the week-long artillery barrage. Instead, the British and Empire troops were met with heavy machine gun fire and they suffered heavy casualties. The British suffered some 60,000 casualties on the first day of the offensive. The offense had not taken the Germans by surprise and they had been warned beforehand of a probable British assault and they had reinforced their defensive positions.  Many have asserted that Haig had failed to plan the attack properly and had been over-optimistic.  The British military planners had failed to understand that the Germans could dig trenches so far down that they would be safe from artillery fire.

Zentralbild 1. Weltkrieg. Westfront 1916. Deutscher Soldat eines Sturmtrupps.
German soldier at the front in 1916

In the course of the next four months, there were almost 90 British attacks on the German lines. In total, the British only advanced some six miles. The British lost almost 150000 men killed and some 250,0000 injured, many of them maimed for life. In desperation at one point, the British used tanks for the first time in history, in an attempt to break the deadlock.

Somme one
British tank on the Somme

Haig called off the attacks on this day. He claimed that the battle had been a success. Haig confidently stated that the battle of the Somme had greatly weakened the German army and that it had helped the French to resist the German attack on Verdun. Haig also claimed that the attack had prevented a general German attack on the western front. Not many agreed with Haig’s assessment and among his greatest critics was the British Prime Minister Lloyd George. He personally blamed Haig for the failure at Somme and for the death of almost 150,000 British and Empire soldiers. Historians continue to debate if the Somme was a great failure or if it helped to weaken the Germans and to end the war.

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