Originally just the name of a 150 mile (250 km) long river
in northern France
that has its source near Saint-Quentin and meanders through the landscape until it reaches its mouth on the English Channel. It is, however, most associated with World War One
and some of the deadliest fighting in this “Great War” in 1916.
There were actually several battles in the environs of the upper Somme, in the Picardy region (now Hauts-de-France), beginning in September 1914, and also during the final phases of WW1 in 1918. But what is usually referred to as the “Battle of the Some
” is that of 1 July to 18 November 1916
. While the earlier battles were fought between the French and German armies only, the 1916 battle involved the British and Commonwealth military. The French Army fought south of the River Somme, the British in the areas north of the river and south of Arras
These are the individual places associated with that battle covered in separate chapters on this website:
There are several more sites in the region, such as the Ulster Memorial Tower
and Visitor Centre near Thiepval, which focuses on the contribution to the war by Northern Ireland
, or the Franco-Australian Museum
and the new (opened 2018) Sir john Monash Centre
, both in Villers-Bretonneux and focusing on Australia
’s involvement in the war on the Western Front. In addition, there are of course all those countless war cemeteries
dotting the landscape, not only those administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but also ones for soldiers of other, smaller nations that were also involved in the war but are less commonly associated with it these days.
This is not the place to go into the details of how the battle was planned and how it unfolded. There are numerous dedicated online resources that can provide those minutiae for readers with a keen interest in such things. Here only a rough summary has to suffice:
Plans for a major offensive in the Somme region go back to the end of 1915 and early 1916. Originally it was to be led by French forces with the British conducting support operations. But since Germany
had begun its massive assault at Verdun
in February 1916, the French had to divert several divisions as reinforcement in that battle and so the British would take over the lead role at the Somme.
Following preparations for the “Big Push”, involving amassment of artillery, ammunition and soldiers, training and rehearsals, tunnelling, as well as air-borne reconnaissance, the actual battle was to begin in the early hours of 1 July (slightly delayed due to wet weather). It was preceded by large-scale preparatory artillery bombardment.
“Zero Hour” was 7.30 a.m. of 1 July. Minutes before that time, eight large underground mines and several smaller further ones were detonated underneath crucial German strongpoints (see Lochnagar Crater
) just before the infantry soldiers stepped out of their trenches (“went over the top”, as it was called) to begin the frontal attack on foot. In total 100,000 soldiers stormed forward. The German defences were weakened due to the mines and artillery bombardment, but since the Germans had dug in deep and constructed bunkers and machine-gun positions, they were able to mount a strong defence along large stretches of the front, from which they were able to mow down the advancing British foot soldiers. The result was a terrible casualty count. In fact the first day of the Battle of the Somme stands as the worst day in the entire history of the British Army: almost 60,000 casualties, of whom around 19,000 were killed. Along the northern parts of the line of attack, the Allied objectives were largely not achieved, only further south did the British manage to eliminate German forces and make territorial gains. Over the next few days in what’s become known as the Battle of Albert (see Somme 1916 Museum
) the British captured several fortified villages from the Germans.
However, due to the heavy losses, the British had to limit their objectives to capturing just select strategic positions one by one, instead of the originally anticipated single big breakthrough. Several particular place names are associated with these battles, including Thiepval
and Delville Wood
. It was also during these battles that the British introduced the use of tanks for the first time.
This piecemeal fighting dragged on and on for almost five months until worsening weather of the beginning winter forced an end
to the battling on 18 November. The ground gained was a mere 6 miles (10 km) of previously German-held territory at the widest point. The main objective of a breakthrough was not achieved, nor did the Allies manage to capture the town of Péronne
as had been planned.
The total of casualties
on both sides was around a million, with nearly 100,000 dead on the British side plus about half that on the French side and a possibly even higher figure on the German side (although those figures are contested). This makes the Battle of the Somme in 1916 one of the bloodiest in all of history. And all that for very little gain. Moreover, what little territorial gain had been made was swiftly lost again in the German Spring Offensive of 1918 (cf. Ypres
What British General Douglas Haig had intended to be the “Great Push Forward” hence became informally known as the “Great Fuck-up” instead, and Haig’s legacy as the alleged “butcher of the Somme” lives on to this day.
The Battle of the Somme is the main focus of commemoration
for Great Britain
, alongside perhaps Ypres
(whereas for Germany
has a similar such status). This is why the region is well prepared to cater for British
battlefield tourists (as well as visitors from some Commonwealth nations). Not only do all the memorials and museums provide English-language narratives and labelling, there are also various British operators of WW1
-themed guided tours conducted in English, and even some accommodation options are British-run (see e.g. Auchonvillers
). This makes the region one of the easiest to navigate for people who do not speak French all that well (which in other parts of France
can be a major hindrance).
- Somme 1 - ex-war landscape today
- Somme 2 - pockmarked trench landscape a century later
- Somme 3 - relics
- Somme 4 - yet another war cemetery
- Somme 5 - unexpected nationality here
- Somme 6 - Polish memorial
- Somme 7 - Ulster tower
- Somme 8 - Northern Irish involvement
- Somme 9 - poppy