A Franco-British offensive on the Somme was planned as the major Allied effort on the Western Front in 1916. The start of a desperate struggle between French and German forces at Verdun in February meant that the British Army would have to assume the main role. It was a mixture of pre-war regular soldiers, territorials and volunteers. Many belonged to 'pals' battalions, drawn from local communities, clubs and places of work, who joined up, trained and fought together.

1 July 1916

On 1 July 1916, after a week-long artillery bombardment of German positions, the infantry assault began. Starting along a line from Maricourt to Foucaucourt-en-Santerre, the French Sixth Army drove the German Second Army from its front-line defences north and south of the river Somme, while divisions of the British Fourth Army took the villages of Montauban and Mametz.

In the north between the Albert-Bapaume Road and Gommecourt, British forces made little progress and suffered heavy losses attacking formidable defences, many of which had survived the artillery barrage. By the end of the first day, the British Army had suffered some 57,000 casualties, including more than 19,000 killed.

'Pals' of the 10th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, marching to the trenches, Doullens, 28 June 1916

'Pals' of the 10th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, marching to the trenches, Doullens, 28 June 1916. IWM (Q 743)

141 Days

Operations continued during the following months and men from every part of Britain and across the British Empire took part. Volunteers from many other countries fought as part of the British Army. Both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and munitions to the struggle.

Battle of Albert (1–13 July)

On 1 July, there were catastrophic losses in the north of the British line with attacks near Serre, Beaumont-Hamel, Thiepval and La Boisselle all ending in failure. In the south, however, British and French forces made better progress. During the following days, British efforts were focused on exploiting this success. Pushing north, the British drove back the Germans, capturing the villages of La Boisselle and Contalmaison, while much of the strongly defended Mametz Wood fell to the 38th (Welsh) Division and Trônes Wood to the 18th (Eastern) Division.

Troops of the French 201st Infantry Regiment returning from the front line near Bronfay Farm, 23 September 1916
Northumberland Fusiliers of the 103rd (Tyneside Irish) Brigade advancing to attack La Boisselle on the morning of 1 July 1916. IWM (Q 52)

Battle of Bazentin Ridge (14–17 July)

After two weeks of piecemeal attacks, British forces were in position to launch their second major assault of the offensive. This would be against part of the German second line of defences located on the Bazentin Ridge. Moving into position overnight, British divisions attacked at dawn following a five-minute ‘hurricane’ bombardment and captured most of the German positions between Bazentin-le-Petit Wood and the village of Longueval. On the afternoon of 14 July, cavalry of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division charged across the battlefield near High Wood, while the men of the 9th (Scottish) Division fought for control of Longueval and Delville Wood.

Battle of Delville Wood (15 July–3 September)

After the success of the Bazentin Ridge dawn attack, a fierce struggle for control of Delville Wood and High Wood raged for several weeks, during which both sides attacked and counter-attacked. The initial capture of most of Delville Wood was carried out by the South African Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division which suffered heavy losses. A similar struggle was fought for nearby High Wood by the 1st and 7th Divisions until it was finally captured by 47th (2nd London) Division on 15 September.

Battle of Pozières Ridge (23 July–3 September)

Situated on high ground, the village of Pozières formed a strategically vital position in the strongly fortified German second line of defences. The village fell to the 1st Australian Division on 23 July, but the battle for control of the surrounding high ground continued for weeks. The plateau to the north and east of the village was secured by 3 September, but German defenders at Mouquet Farm held out against determined assault by Australian and Canadian troops. The eventual capture of Mouquet Farm on 26 September opened the way for further attacks towards Bapaume and Thiepval.

Battles of Guillemont (3–6 September) and Ginchy (9 September)

After the capture of Trônes Wood on 14 July, the next objective to the east of the British line was the fortified village of Guillemont. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to take the village and the battlefield had been transformed into a shell-blasted wasteland. On 3 September, the remains of the village were taken by the 20th (Light) Division and elements of the 16th (Irish) Division. On 9 September, the nearby village of Ginchy fell with the 16th (Irish) Division again playing a central role.

British mark I tank, C.19 'Clan Leslie' behind the lines in the Chimpanzee Valley, 15 September 1916
British mark I tank, C.19 'Clan Leslie' behind the lines in the Chimpanzee Valley, 15 September 1916. IWM (Q 5574)

Battle of Flers-Courcelette (15–22 September)

Throughout July, August and September, British forces had fought bitter and costly attritional battles for woods and villages, facing strong German defences and counter-attacks. On 15 September the British launched a major attack across a wide front, while the French Sixth Army advanced to the east of Combles. In significant advances, Flers fell to the 41st Division, the 15th (Scottish) Division took Martinpuich and Canadian forces overcame the German defences around Courcelette. The battle marked the first use of tanks and the first major actions on the Somme of the New Zealand Division and the Canadian Corps.

Troops of the French 201st Infantry Regiment returning from the front line near Bronfay Farm, 23 September 1916
Troops of the French 201st Infantry Regiment returning from the front line near Bronfay Farm, 23 September 1916. IWM (Q 67719)

Battles of Morval (25–28 September) and Thiepval Ridge (26–30 September)

In the autumn rain, a joint Franco-British advance continued at Combles, Morval, Lesbœufs and Gueudecourt while the British Army launched an attack at Thiepval to secure the ridge that dominated the battlefield from Courcelette to the Schwaben Redoubt. Thiepval was eventually captured by the 18th (Eastern) Division with the formidable Schwaben Redoubt falling on 28 September.

Battles of Le Transloy (1–20 October) and the Ancre Heights (1 October–12 November)

As the weather deteriorated, the battlefield became muddy and waterlogged. The British Army continued to push north-east towards the next area of high ground, suffering heavy casualties while attacking the German defences around the Butte de Warlencourt. Meanwhile, British and Canadian forces sought to drive the remaining German troops from their defences north of Thiepval to secure the heights overlooking the valley of the River Ancre.

Battle of the Ancre (12–18 November)

On 13 November, in freezing sleet and snow, British forces attacked north of the River Ancre across the ground where they had suffered severe losses on 1 July. The 51st (Highland) Division captured Beaumont-Hamel. The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division captured Beaucourt while south of the Ancre, the 39th Division advanced past the remains of St Pierre Divion. On 18 November – the final day of the offensive – there was one final flurry of action. With the weather making the ground all but impassable, the offensive was halted.

A chaplain of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department conducting a burial service near the trenches, Guillemont., September 1916
A chaplain of the Royal Army Chaplains' Department conducting a burial service near the trenches, Guillemont., September 1916. IWM (Q 4248)

Aftermath

An estimated 3.5 million men took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. By its end, well over one million had become casualties. Precise figures are almost impossible to calculate. The British official history concluded that the forces of the British Empire had suffered some 420,000 killed, wounded or missing, although the total was almost certainly higher. The French Army sustained more than 204,000 casualties. German records documented a total of nearly 430,000 killed, wounded or missing, but other estimates suggest a far greater number.

The battle had significant military, political, industrial and domestic consequences for all the countries involved. Many men returned home with physical or psychological wounds that never healed. Even those who survived unscathed would carry their experiences for the rest of their lives.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

Thiepval Anglo-French Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of 300 servicemen of the British Empire and 300 French servicemen. Rising above the cemetery is the Thiepval Memorial which bears the names of more than 72,250 British and South African servicemen who died on the Somme and who have no known grave. In addition, the memorial commemorates the Anglo-French Alliance during the First World War.

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 5,570 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 3,780 remain unidentified. Within the cemetery is the Caterpillar Valley New Zealand Memorial which bears the names of more than 1,200 New Zealand servicemen who died on the Somme and have no known grave.

Serre Road No.2 contains the graves and memorials of more than 7,120 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 4,940 remain unidentified. Close by are Serre Road No.1 Cemetery, Serre Road No.3 Cemetery, and Serre-Hébuterne French Military Cemetery.