10 Facts About the Battle of the Somme

Gabrielle Kramer

3 mins

27 Jun 2018

The Battle of the Somme is remembered as one of the bloodiest events of the First World War. The amount of casualties on the first day alone is astounding, but there were over a million casualties once the battle was through.

Made up primarily of a volunteer army, the Battle of the Somme was the largest military offensive that the British Army had launched in 1916.

1. Before the battle, Allied forces bombarded the Germans

Following the start of the Battle of Verdun, the Allies looked to further weaken German forces. Beginning on 24 June 1916, the Allies bombarded the Germans with shelling for seven days. Over 1.5 million shells were fired, but many were defective.

2. The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days

After the bombardment, the Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916. It would last for almost five months. The last battle was on 13 November 1916, but the offensive was officially suspended on 19 November 1916.

3. There were 16 divisions fighting along the Somme River

Made up of both British and French troops, 16 Allied divisions began the Battle of the Somme. Eleven divisions from the British Fourth Army were led by Sir Henry Rawlinson, who was under the commander of General Sir Douglas Haig. The four French divisions were led by General Ferdinand Foch.

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was known as the ‘Butcher of the Somme’. Learn more about him on the History Hit podcast.Listen Now.

4. Allied military leaders were too optimistic

The Allies had overestimated the damage done to German forces after seven days of bombardment. The German trenches were deeply dug and mostly protected from the shells.

Without accurate information about the state of the German forces, the Allies planned their offensive. The French’s resources were also relatively depleted from the Battle of Verdun, which had started in February 1916.

5. 19, 240 British were killed on the first day

The first day of the Somme is one of the bloodiest in British military history. Due to poor intelligence, the inability to focus more resources on this offensive, and the underestimating of the German forces, nearly 20,000 British troops lost their lives on day one of the 141-day offensive.

Find out more about this inglorious record for the British army on HistoryHit.TV.Listen Now.

6. Soldiers’ heavy packs of equipment hindered their pace

One of the dangers of trench warfare is going over the top of the trench and entering No Man’s Land. It was important to move quickly to ensure one’s safety and effectively engage with the enemy.

But the soldiers were carrying 30kg of equipment on their backs in the first days of the battle. This slowed their pace immensely.

7. Tanks first appeared during the Battle of the Somme

On 15 September 1916, the first tanks were used. The British launched 48 Mark I tanks, yet only 23 would make it to the front. With the help of the tanks, the Allies would advance 1.5 miles.

A British Mark I tank near Thiepval.

8. Nearly 500,000 British were killed

After 141 days of battle, there was over a million casualties between the British, French, and German forces. Once the Battle of the Somme was over, 420,000 British men had lost their lives.

9. German casualties rose because of General Fritz von Below’s order

General Fritz von Below ordered his men not to lose any land to the Allies. This meant that German forces were required to counterattack in order to regain any losses. Because of this order, about 440,000 German men were killed.

10. A documentary was made in 1916

Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell created the first feature length film to include soldiers on the front. Named The Battle of the Somme, it includes shots from both before and during the battle.

Soldiers are seen moving through the trenches in Malins and McDowell’s The Battle of the Somme documentary.

While some scenes were staged, most depict the gruesome reality of war. The film was first shown on 21 August 1916; within two months it had been seen by more than 2 million people.