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The Battle of the Somme (1st July 1916 to 18th November 1916) was one of the largest battles of the First World War, with more than one million casualties. The Allied 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. The main 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 original British regular army, six divisions strong at the start of the war, had been effectively wiped out by the battles of 1914 and 1915. The bulk of the army was now made up of volunteers of the Territorial Force and Lord Kitchener's New Army, which had begun forming in August 1914.

The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1st July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. As terrible as the battle was for the British Empire troops who suffered there, it naturally impacted the other nationalities as well. One German officer famously described it as "the muddy grave of the German field army". By the end of the battle, the British had learnt many lessons in modern warfare while the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses. British official historian Sir James Edmonds stated, "It is not too much to claim that the foundations of the final victory on the Western Front were laid by the Somme offensive of 1916."

The German Army were confronted with men from the United Kingdom, France, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. Every region and county in the United Kingdom lost men at the Somme and Cambridgeshire was no different. The casualty figures for the Allied Forces was 419,654 from Britain and the Dominions and 204,253 French, a total of 623,907 of which 146,431 were killed or listed as missing; 100 tanks (this was the first Battle in which these had been used) and 782 Royal Flying Corps aircraft were destroyed. The German casualties were between 465,000 and 600,000 of which 164,055 were killed or listed as missing. The Battle covered the areas of Albert, Bazentin, Fromelles, Pozières, Mouquet Farm, Guillemont, Ginchy, Flers-Courcelette, Morval, Thiepval Ridge, Le Transloy, Ancre Heights and Ancre.

The Thiepval Memorial

The Thiepval Memorial will be found on the D73, off the main Bapaume to Albert road (D929). Each year a major ceremony is held at the memorial on 1 July.

On 1st July 1916, supported by a French attack to the south, thirteen divisions of Commonwealth forces launched an offensive on a line from north of Gommecourt to Maricourt. Despite a preliminary bombardment lasting seven days, the German defences were barely touched and the attack met unexpectedly fierce resistance. Losses were catastrophic and with only minimal advances on the southern flank, the initial attack was a failure. In the following weeks, huge resources of manpower and equipment were deployed in an attempt to exploit the modest successes of the first day. However, the German Army resisted tenaciously and repeated attacks and counter attacks meant a major battle for every village, copse and farmhouse gained. At the end of September, Thiepval was finally captured. The village had been an original objective of 1st July. Attacks north and east continued throughout October and into November in increasingly difficult weather conditions. The Battle of the Somme finally ended on 18th November with the onset of winter. In the spring of 1917, the German forces fell back to their newly prepared defences, the Hindenburg Line, and there were no further significant engagements in the Somme sector until the Germans mounted their major offensive in March 1918. The Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20th March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. The memorial also serves as an Anglo-French Battle Memorial in recognition of the joint nature of the 1916 offensive and a small cemetery containing equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves lies at the foot of the memorial. The memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, was built between 1928 and 1932 and unveiled by the Prince of Wales, in the presence of the President of France, on 31st July 1932. The dead of other Commonwealth countries who died on the Somme and have no known graves are commemorated on national memorials elsewhere.

Somme Related Internet links:

Wikipedia - Battle of the Somme ((1916)

First World - The Battle of the Somme, 1916

Spartacus School Net - Battle of the Somme

Trenches on the Web

Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Thiepval Memorial

Naval & Military Press Military History Books

Last updated: 28 October, 2022

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