The 1916 Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, with more than one million casualties. The British and French forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25 mile (40 km) front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. One purpose of the battle was to draw German forces away from the battle of Verdun; however, by its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun.
The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1 July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties of which 19,240 were killed or died of wounds. It remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
It is difficult to declare the Battle of the Somme a victory for either side. The British and French did succeed in capturing ground but little more than 5 miles (8 km) at the deepest point of penetration, well short of their original objectives. Taking a long-term view, the Battle of the Somme delivered more benefits for the British than it did for the Germans. As British historian Gary Sheffield said, “The battle of the Somme was not a victory in itself, but without it the Entente would not have emerged victorious in 1918.”
Prior to the battle, Germany had regarded Britain as a naval power and discounted her as a military force to be reckoned with, believing her major enemies were France and Russia. Starting with the Somme, Britain began to gain influence in the coalition, especially following the mutinies in the French army in 1917. In recognition of the growing threat Britain posed, on 31 January Germany adopted the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in an attempt to starve the island nation of supplies, an act that would ultimately bring the United States into the war.
At the start of 1916, the British army had been a largely inexperienced mass of volunteers. The Somme was the first real test of this newly raised “citizens army” that had come into being following Lord Kitchener’s call for recruits at the start of the war. It is brutal but accurate to observe that many of the British soldiers killed on the Somme lacked experience, and therefore their loss was of little military significance. However, they had been the first to volunteer and so were often the fittest, most enthusiastic and best educated of the citizen soldiers. For Germany, which had entered the war with a trained force of regulars and reservists, each casualty was sapping the experience and effectiveness of the German army. The senior German commander Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria stated, “What remained of the old first-class peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield.”
The Battle of the Somme damaged the German Army beyond repair, after which it was never able to adequately replace its casualties with the same calibre of soldier that doggedly held its ground during most of the battle. By the end of the battle, the British and German armies were closer to being equally matched; effectively militias.
German commanders did not believe the army could endure continual battles of attrition like the Somme. On 24 February, 1917, the German army made a strategic scorched earth withdrawal from the Somme battlefield to the prepared fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, thereby shortening the front line they had to occupy.
The original Allied estimate of casualties on the Somme, made at the Chantilly conference on 15 November, was 485,000 British and French casualties versus 630,000 German. These figures were used to support the argument that the Somme was a successful battle of attrition for the Allies. However, there was considerable scepticism at the time of the accuracy of the counts. When a final tally was compiled after the war, a count of 419,654 British and 204,253 French killed, wounded and prisoners was reached; a total loss 623,907 of which 146,431 were killed or missing.
The British official historian Sir James Edmonds maintained that German losses were 680,000, but this figure has been discredited. A separate statistical report by the British War Office concluded that German casualties on the British sector could be as low as 180,000 during the battle. Today commonly accepted figures for all German losses on the Somme are between 465,000 and 600,000. In compiling his biography of General Rawlinson, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice was supplied by the Reichsarchiv with a figure of 164,055 for the German killed or missing.
The average casualties per division (consisting of circa 10,000 soldiers) on the British sector up until 19 November was 8,026 — 6,329 for the four Canadian divisions, 7,408 for the New Zealand Division, 8,133 for the 43 British divisions and 8,960 for the three Australian divisions. The British daily loss rate during the Battle of the Somme was 2,943 men, which exceeded the loss rate during the Third Battle of Ypres but was not as severe as the two months of the battle of Arras (4,076 per day) or the final Hundred Days offensive in 1918 (3,645 per day).
The Royal Flying Corps lost 782 aircraft and 576 pilots during the battle.