Oldham Historical Research Group

'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
- Only the monstrous anger of the guns.'
from 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' by Wilfred Owen


The Battle of the Somme, from the 1st July to the 18th of November 1916, was, in effect, a series of Battles in which, by November, there were around 600,000 Allied casualties. On the first day, alone, the Allies lost 20,000 men killed and almost 40,000 injured. Many of the Battle names are familiar to us: Albert, Bazentin Ridge, Delville Wood, Pozieres Ridge, Guillemont, Gincy, Courcelette, Thiepval Ridge, Morval, Le Transloy and Ancre. The Battles of Fromelles and Gommecourt, were subsidiary battles intended to divert German troops and support the Somme offensive.

Originally conceived as a joint Anglo - French initiative to break through the German lines, and hasten the end of the war, this plan foundered when the Germans launched their attack at Verdun in February 1916, occupying a large proportion of the French army for the remainder of 1916. The British Commander in Chief was General Haig. It was decided to go ahead with the planned offensive, just the same, relying on the British 4th Army, under the command of General Rawlinson, and with part of the 3rd Army and the French 6th Army in support. The decision also served to relieve some pressure on the French at Verdun when some German forces were diverted to the Somme after July.

The British 4th Army included some Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and Indian Divisions. It also included a significant number of the Lancashire, Yorkshire West Riding and Manchester Battalions, all of which had attracted local volunteers. Amongst these was the 24th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, the 'Oldham Comrades', which was in the 7th Division. The 24th had been converted to a Pioneer Battalion in May 1916 and would remain with the division on the Somme for the duration of the Battle.

Preparatory to the 'Big Push', was a week-long continuous bombardment of the enemy lines in an attempt to destroy the German defences and the troops within them. At regular intervals along a line almost 14 miles long, heavy artillery kept up a constant barrage in which it was thought impossible that more than a handful of the enemy could survive.Almost unbelievably, 1,700,000 shells had been rained down on the German lines in a roaring inferno of destruction. In addition, the German positions had been mined and, at zero hour (7:30am), on the 1st of July, a total of 19 mines was detonated under the German positions. However, the German defenders had retreated into deep, reinforced dugouts and bunkers to wait-out the bombardment. When it stopped, they emerged from their hide-outs and with machine guns trained on the slowly advancing lines of troops, mowed them down in their thousands. What followed, for the allies, was a mix of partial success in some sectors and disaster in others.

The men of the various battalions had climbed out of their trenches on the command, at 7:30am, with orders to walk, in lines, towards the enemy trenches, in the confident belief that most of the oppositon had been destroyed. They made an easy, slow-moving target for the German machine-gunners as they raked the field.

However, the toll of casualties wasn't completely one-sided, Not all the German sections were as strongly defended or as swift to take action, and these units paid a heavy price. The following day the battle continued with attack and counter-attack, a prelude to the months of fighting still to come, as the advantage swung continuously from side to side.

September saw the appearance of the first tanks on the battlefield, in the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, from the 15th to the 22nd of September. The outcome was disappointing as these first tanks were largely untested and unreliable; failing to live up to expectations.

By late September the weather was beginning to deteriorate and conditions on the battlefields became ever more dreadful. The last battle on the Somme, in 1916, was that of Ancre. It started on November 13th, with the troops having to contend with fog, deep mud and heavy enemy fire. With only partial success, and heavy rain falling, the Battle of the Somme ceased on the 18th of November.

What had started as an Allied offensive, to break through enemy lines and bring about a speedy end to the war, degenerated into a series of battles of attrition, with both sides losing hundreds of thousands of men and comparatively little territorial gain.

From a German point of view the Battle of the Somme was a disaster in terms of both territorial and troop losses. The German front line had been pushed back (but not broken as initially planned), and their loss of men was almost as great as that of the allied forces. An account of the week-long initial bombardment makes us aware of the toll this took on the Germans both mentally and physically. Yes, the underground bunkers gave protection unless they received a direct hit but a direct hit meant that whole platoons were buried alive. Those that did survive had spent a week underground, with the constant roar of explosions close by and the fear and expectation that the next would obliterate their own bunker. Once the actual battle had begun, allied planes would circle the German positions, seemingly without any German planes being in evidence to chase them away. Their radioed messages to base, identifying strategic positions, were monitored, and the German artillery warned to take cover, but the troops in the frontline trenches were not in contact and couldn't be warned. [Ref:p. 49-50, 'War on the Western Front' ed. by Dr. Gary Sheffield.]

It's probably too easy for us to rely on clichéd opinions, such as, "lions led by donkeys", and the like, based on brief descriptions of the battle which don't always give us a clear understanding of the bigger 'picture'. The following links will, hopefully, help us to fill in a few of the gaps.

The 12 Battles of the Somme (1st July - 18th November 1916)
from the CWGC website HERE
The Battle of the Somme
from the National Archives HERE
The Battle of the Somme
on the Wikipedia website HERE
The Battle of the Somme
on the Long Long Trail website HERE
The Battle of the Somme
from the BBC website HERE
Order of battle for the Battle of the Somme, and the disposition of the troops
on the Wikipedia website HERE
Downloadable or read on-line, 24 page leaflet ... '1916: The Somme'
From the CWGC website HERE
A list of Somme Cemeteries, with extensive information
can be seen
HERE on the 'Great War 1914-198 website.
Somme project menu link
link to home page
WW1 menu page
WW1 links page