The Battles of the Somme, 1916

The officially recognised dates for the British and Commonwealth part of the Anglo-French offensive of 1916 are 1 July 1916 - 18 November 1916. Although most of us call it the "Battle of the Somme", the official terms is "Battles", for the offensive is made up of a series of phases each of which are called a battle in their own right.

Background to the battle

The political and strategic background to the offensive

The tactical planning for the start of the offensive

The logistical preparations necessary before the offensive

The artillery bombardment before the infantry attack

Armies

Part of a map contained in the British Official History [Crown Copyright]. The Somme offensive was begun by the British Fourth Army (red) and the French Sixth Army (blue), attacking the German Second Army (green). The map shows the position of the front line just before the start of the offensive.

Defences

Part of a map contained in the British Official History [Crown Copyright]. The British Fourth Army faced three formidable German defensive systems of trenches, dugouts, underground shelters and deep barbed wire defences (green). The map shows the arrangement of the British Divisions deployed for the opening attack.


Opening phase: the Battle of Albert, 1 - 13 July 1916

In this opening phase, the French and British assault broke into and gradually moved beyond the first of the German defensive systems. For the British, the attack on 1 July proved to be the worst day in the nation's military history in terms of casualties sustained. It is the aspect of the battle that is most remembered and most written about, and for good reason - but to concentrate on the failures is to entirely miss the point of the Somme and why the battle developed into an epic period of the Great War.On the first day, British forces at the southern end of the British line made an impressive advance alongside the French Sixth Army, capturing the villages of Montauban and Mametz and breaking through the enemy's defensive system. North of Mametz the attack was an almost unmitigated failure. The situation led to a redirection of effort, with the offensive north of the River Ancre effectively being closed down and all future focus being on the line south of Thiepval. There was a stiff fight for Trones Wood and costly, hastily planned and piecemeal attacks that eventually took La Boisselle, Contalmaison and Mametz Wood during the rest of the period up to 13 July.

British order of battle for this phase

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 1st Division;
  • 8th Division;
  • 12th (Eastern) Division;
  • 19th (Western) Division, which captured La Boisselle on 4 July;
  • 23rd Division, which captured Contalmaison on 9 July;
  • 34th Division.

VIII Corps (Hunter-Weston) (transferred to Reserve Army on 4 July)

  • 4th Division;
  • 29th Division;
  • 31st Division;
  • 48th (South Midland) Division.

X Corps (Morland) (transferred to Reserve Army on 4 July)

  • 12th (Eastern) Division;
  • 25th Division;
  • 32nd Division;
  • 36th (Ulster) Division;
  • 49th (West Riding) Division.

XIII Corps (Congreve)

  • 3rd Division;
  • 9th (Scottish) Division;
  • 18th (Eastern) Division;
  • 30th Division, which captured Montauban on 1 July;
  • 35th Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 7th Division, which captured Mametz on 1 July;
  • 17th (Northern) Division, which captured Fricourt on 2 July;2
  • 21st Division;
  • 33rd Division;
  • 38th (Welsh) Division, best remembered for its costly fight for Mametz Wood.

Reserve Army (Gough)
Took over VIII and X Corps on 4 July

Detail: the fight for Montauban and Trones Wood
Detail: the fight for Mametz

Subsidiary attack on Gommecourt, 1 July 1916

A local attack on the northern flank of the main offensive, designed to ensure that Germans could not send reserve troops southwards and to conceal the actual extent of the front being attacked. No efforts were made to keep preparations secret. Casualties were very high and it can be argued that the attack had no effect on the rest of the offensive.

Third Army (Allenby)
VII Corps (Snow)

  • 37th Division;
  • 46th (North Midland) Division;
  • 56th (1st London) Division.

The Battle of Bazentin (or the Bazentin Ridge), 14 - 17 July 1916

By 13 July the British advance had taken it to a point where it was now facing the second German defensive system. A well planned and novel night attack on 14 July took British troops through that system in the area of Bazentin. There was a fleeting but lost opportunity to capture High Wood beyond it.

British order of battle for this phase

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

  • 2nd Indian Cavalry Division, which took part in a famous cavalry charge near High Wood on 14 July.

II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 1st Division;
  • 23rd Division;
  • 34th Division.

XIII Corps (Congreve)

  • 3rd Division, which captured Longueval;
  • 9th (Scottish) Division, which also captured Longueval on 18 July;
  • 18th (Eastern) Division, which captured Trones Wood on 14 July.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 7th Division, the first formation to enter High Wood;
  • 21st Division;
  • 33rd Division.

Reserve Army (Gough)

X Corps (Morland)

  • 25th Division;
  • 32nd Division;
  • 48th (South Midland) Division, which captured Ovillers on 16 July;
  • 49th (West Riding) Division.

The attack at Fromelles, 19-20 July 1916

Officially not a part of the Battle of the Somme and positioned a considerable distance away, the attack at Fromelles was conceived to be a major diversionary action. The untried 5th Australian and 61st (2nd South Midland) Divisions were launched into an ill-planned attack against German defences which had already successfully repelled similar efforts in 1915. The attack achieved nothing of a diversionary nature and cost thousands of casualties.

Order of battle

First Army (Monro)

XI Corps (Haking)

  • 61st (2nd South Midland) Division;
  • 5th Australian Division.

The attacks on High Wood, 20 - 25 July 1916

The fight for High Wood, which had begun on 14 July, went on until mid-September. The wood sits on ground that gives the occupier militarily vital observation south to the Montauban ridge, east to Delville Wood and north east towards Flers and Guedecourt The first British units entered the wood late on 14 July 1916, but the Germans had recovered from the British breakthrough at Bazentin earlier that day and were now manning the "Switch Line" trench system which ran through the back of the wood. Both sides fought tenaciously to possess the wood. It became an epicentre of the bloody attack and counter-attack attritional fighting that characterised much of the Somme offensive after 14 July.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

XIII Corps (Congreve)

  • 19th (Western) Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 5th Division;
  • 7th Division;
  • 33rd Division;
  • 51st (Highland) Division.

The Battle of Delville Wood, 15 July - 3 September 1916

Delville Wood, which is within sight and today and easy walk of High Wood, was also fought over countless times for similar reasons and became a charnel house, choked with the dead of both sides. It is perhaps most remembered for the sustained attack mad by the South African Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division, a formation which was to all intents and purposes destroyed during its valiant efforts.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

XIII Corps (Congreve) (relieved by XIV Corps at night 16-17 August)

  • 2nd Division;
  • 3rd Division;
  • 9th (Scottish) Division;
  • 24th Division;
  • 53rd Brigade of 18th (Eastern) Division.

XIV Corps (Cavan) (relieved XIII Corps at night 16-17 August)

  • 20th (Light) Division;
  • 24th Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 7th Division;
  • 14th (Light) Division.

The Battle of Pozieres, 23 July - 3 September 1916

Pozieres was a small, straggling village on the main Albert-Bapaume road. It is situated on high ground that gives the occupier observation southwards along the road towards Ovillers, La Boisselle, Albert and beyond; to the east across to High Wood, Delville Wood and beyond; and westwards to Thiepval. Possession of Pozieres was key to making possible any further advances towards Bapaume, the capture of the Thiepval ridge and the breaking of resistance at High and Delville Woods. The battle for Pozieres and nearby Mouquet Farm became an epic in its own right, with tenacious German defence keeping determined British-Australian attack at bay for several weeks. This was the first large-scale Australian battle in France and proved to be its costliest in terms of total casualties.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 1st Division;
  • 15th (Scottish) Division;
  • 19th (Western) Division;
  • 23rd Division;
  • 34th Division.

Reserve Army (Gough)

Note: all below except 49th (West Riding) Division took part in fighting for Mouquet Farm

II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 12th (Eastern) Division;
  • 25th Division;
  • 48th (South Midland) Division;
  • 49th (West Riding) Division.

I ANZAC Corps (Birdwood)

  • 1st Australian Division;
  • 2nd Australian Division;
  • 4th Australian Division.

The Battle of Guillemont, 3 - 6 September 1916

South of Delville Wood, the second German defensive system snaked down to the village of Guillemont. It became another place where men of both sides were cut down in their thousands, as attack and counter-attack took place.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

XIV Corps (Cavan)

  • 5th Division;
  • 16th (Irish) Division;
  • 20th (Light) Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 7th Division;
  • 24th Division;
  • 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

The Battle of Ginchy, 9 September 1916

Another stoutly-defended location, Ginchy could only be attacked once Delville Wood and Guillemont were in British hands.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

XIV Corps (Cavan)

  • 16th (Irish) Division;
  • 56th (1st London) Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, 15 - 22 September 1916

This was a large-scale general renewal of the offensive after the weeks of attritional fighting for the third German system at Pozieres, High Wood, Delville Wood, Guillemont and Ginchy. It is historically noteworthy for being the first time that tanks were used in battle. Few in number, mechanically unreliable and as yet without proven tactics for their best use, the small numbers of tanks that actually went into action had an important positive effect. High Wood and Delville Wood were finally cleared and a deep advance was made to Flers and towards Combles. The Canadian Corps entered the Somme fighting for the first time.

Tanks

The British army used tanks for the first time in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Developed in great secrecy, they came as a surprise to the Germans and British troops alike. This London press advertisement appeared on 12 October 1916, just a few weeks later. The cartoonist, quite forgivably, has clearly never seen a tank but has done his best!

Somme

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

  • 1st Cavalry Division;
  • 2nd Indian Cavalry Division

III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 1st Division;
  • 15th (Scottish) Division, which captured Martinpuich;
  • 23rd Division;
  • 47th (2nd London) Division;
  • 50th (Northumbrian) Division;
  • 103rd Brigade of 34th Division.

XIV Corps (Cavan)

  • Guards Division;
  • 5th Division;
  • 6th Division;
  • 20th (Light) Division;
  • 56th (1st London) Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 14th (Light) Division;
  • 21st Division;
  • 41st Division;
  • 55th (West Lancashire) Division;
  • New Zealand Division.

Reserve Army (Gough)

II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 11th (Northern) Division;
  • 49th (West Riding) Division.

Canadian Corps (Byng)

  • 1st Canadian Division;
    2nd Canadian Division;
    3rd Canadian Division.

The Battle of Morval, 25 - 28 September 1916

Having broken through the prepared lines of German defence, the British force now faced a new set of challenges as it was now fighting in much flatter, open ground and approached the distant gentle slopes of the Transloy ridges. Fighting was, as before, severe but gradually the British chipped away and pushed forward. The weather began to turn autumnal, bringing rain, making the battlefield increasingly difficult and stretching men to limits of their physical endurance.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 1st Division;
  • 23rd Division;
  • 50th (Northumbrian) Division.

XIV Corps (Cavan)

  • Guards Division, which captured Lesboeufs;
  • 5th Division;
  • 6th Division, which also captured Lesboeufs;
  • 20th (Light) Division;
  • 56th (1st London) Division, which captured Combles.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 21st Division, which captured Gueudecourt;
  • 55th (West Lancashire) Division;
  • New Zealand Division.

The Battle of Thiepval, 26 - 28 September 1916

Thiepval had been one of the strong points in the German first line that had proved so impossible for the British attack on 1 July. Now outflanked to the east, Thiepval and the heights on which it sat fell to an efficiently executed attack.

Order of battle

Reserve Army (Gough)


II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 11th (Northern) Division;
  • 18th (Eastern) Division.

V Corps (Fanshawe)

  • 39th Division.

Canadian Corps (Byng)

  • 1st Canadian Division;
  • 2nd Canadian Division;
  • 3rd Canadian Division.

The Battle of Le Transloy, 1 - 18 October 1916

A period of fighting in terrible weather in which the heavy, clinging, chalky Somme mud and the freezing, flooded battlefield became as formidable an enemy as the Germans. The British gradually pressed forward, still fighting against numerous counter-attacks, in an effort to have the front line on higher ground from which the offensive could be renewed in 1917.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)


III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 9th (Scottish) Division;
  • 15th (Scottish) Division;
  • 23rd Division, which captured Le Sars;
  • 47th (2nd London) Division, which captured Eaucourt L'Abbaye;
  • 50th (Northumbrian) Division.

Note: all above except 50th (Northumbrian) Division took part in attacks on the Butte de Warlencourt during this phase; 48th and 50th attacked that feature at a later date.

XIV Corps (Cavan)

  • Guards Division;
  • 4th Division;
  • 6th Division;
  • 20th (Light) Division;
  • 56th (1st London) Division.

XV Corps (Watts)

  • 12th (Eastern) Division;
  • 21st Division;
  • 30th Division;
  • 41st Division;
  • 55th (West Lancashire) Division;
  • New Zealand Division;
  • 88th Brigade of 29th Division.

Reserve Army (Gough)

Canadian Corps (Byng)

  • 1st Canadian Division;
  • 2nd Canadian Division;
  • 3rd Canadian Division;
  • 4th Canadian Division.

The Battle of the Ancre Heights, 1 October - 11 November 1916

Now that Thiepval had fallen, the Germans no longer had dominating positions over looking the valley of the River Ancre. The British attack, long since dormant in this area, was now renewed.

Order of battle

Reserve Army (Gough)


II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 18th (Eastern) Division, which captured the Schwaben Redoubt;
  • 19th (Western) Division;
  • 25th Division, which captured Stuff Redoubt;
  • 39th Division (transferred from V Corps on 4 October), which also captured the Schwaben Redoubt;
  • 4th Canadian Division (transferred from Canadian Corps on 4 October).

Note: all above except 19th (Western) Division played a part in the capture of Regina Trench.

V Corps (Fanshawe)

  • 39th Division (transferred to II Corps on 4 October).

Canadian Corps (Byng) (withdrawn 17 October)

  • 1st Canadian Division;
  • 2nd Canadian Division;
  • 3rd Canadian Division;
  • 4th Canadian Division (transferred to II Corps on 17 October).

The Battle of the Ancre, 13 - 18 November 1916

The battle was now extended northwards across to the far side of he River Ancre. The British force attacked in fog and snow on 13 November from the very same front lines from which the attack had failed so badly on 1 July. Beaumont-Hamel was finally captured but Serre once again proved an objective too far. Considerable casualties were sustained before the battle was called off.

Order of battle

Fourth Army (Rawlinson)

III Corps (Pulteney)

  • 48th (South Midland) Division.

Fifth Army (Gough) (retitled from reserve Army)

II Corps (Jacobs)

  • 18th (Eastern) Division;
  • 19th (Western) Division;
  • 39th Division;
  • 4th Canadian Division.

V Corps (Fanshawe)

  • 2nd Division;
  • 3rd Division;
  • 32nd Division;
  • 37th Division;
  • 51st (Highland) Division, which captured Beaumont-Hamel;
  • 63rd (Royal Naval) Division.

XIII Corps (Congreve)

  • 31st Division;
  • 120th Brigade of 40th Division.

End of the Somme offensive

The Somme offensive had been conceived of as part of a huge simultaneous war-winning attack by the Allies on the Eastern and Western Fronts. The strategy was blunted by the German attack at Verdun in late February 1916, which turned French attentions to that area for most of the rest of the year. The strategy had failed. There was no striking territorial or positional benefit to an advance on the Somme: the war would not be won by advancing eastwards into yet more miles of rolling French farmland. It would have been tempting to abandon the offensive, but this was simply not possible: the obligations of coalition meant that the British had to keep on applying pressure on the Somme in order to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun: at least, that was the theory. Once the offensive had been reduced in its weight by the need to concentrate French forces at Verdun, the Somme's only contribution to winning the war would be the material reduction of the German ability and willingness to fight. It can be argued that it did make such a material reduction, but it came at enormous and at least equivalent cost in Allied manpower and resources due to dogged and skilful German defensive fighting. While the Somme was going on, German high command was already making preparations to give up the ground and to withdraw into the impregnable defences the British would come to know as the Hindenburg Line.

But there is a British positive from the Somme: the army, much of which was a new citizen army raised in 1914, was learning its trade and beginning to match its enemy. Equipment, munitions, tactics, command and control were all rapidly developed as a result of the bloody debacle of the first day and of all the subsequent attritional fighting since. Even in the appalling ground and weather conditions of the later phases of the battle, it does not appear that morale fell. As the awful battles of 1917 would show, there was much necessary development and learning yet to come, and it came at high cost in blood - but the war-winning force of 1918 began its life on the Somme in 1916.

 


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