Battle of the Somme
The summer of 2016 will see Europe marking centenary commemorations of one of the bloodiest battles ever fought – the Somme offensive of the Great War. Desperate to break the stalemate and mounting casualties of trench warfare on the Western Front, Allied military planners launched a major offensive on a wide front to the north and south of the Somme River, hoping to win a decisive Allied victory and hasten an end to the war. In preparation for the offensive, Allied artillery pounded the German positions with 1.6 million shells over a week long period, certain that they would destroy their trench system, creating numerous breaches, which could be exploited by advancing infantry units when the whistles blew and they went over the top.
When the artillery guns fell silent, thousands of young soldiers left their trenches and started walking towards the German lines, in a slow and orderly manner, as they had been instructed to do by their officers. The devastated landscape of mud, shell craters and debris they had to navigate made progress slow and ponderous, which helped to magnify the disaster that was to unfold. The unopposed advance the Allied troops had been assured to expect was cruelly shattered in a hail of German machine gun bullets. Forewarned of the attack by the unprecedented Allied artillery barrage, German soldiers sheltered in their fortified positions, until a lull in the shelling allowed them to assess the damage and make hasty repairs. As the unsuspecting Allied soldiers approached their positions, German machine gunners opened fire. The slaughter was unprecedented, even by the horrendous standards of the Great War – by the end of the first day, the British had suffered almost 60,000 casualties, with more than 20,000 of these fatalities. This was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army and one which illustrated the futility of attritional trench warfare and senseless loss of life.
The Somme Offensive was also significant in marking the introduction of new technologies to help break the stalemate of trench warfare. In the skies above the trenches, aircraft battled for supremacy of the skies, with the Royal Flying Corps introducing new fighters to combat the Fokker Scourge. On the cratered wasteland of the battlefield below, the British Army deployed their ‘landships’ for the first time, giving the new vehicles the name ‘Tanks’ to preserve their secrecy from the enemy. Despite the unprecedented carnage of the Somme battlefield, this marked something of a turning point in military thinking and the technology of war would slowly begin to take precedence over sheer numbers of fighting men.