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Battle of the Somme

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Battle of the Somme

The year was 1916 and the Battle of the Somme may have been the largest battle in the First World War. There were more than one million casualties and men faced each other over the decaying wastes of No Man's Land, and confronted the realities of dirt, disease, and death. The attack was expanded over 30 kilometers, from north of the Somme river between Arras and Albert. The battle lasted from July 1 until November 18, and included a one day record for troops lost.

The first day on the Somme

The planned attack would include 13 British divisions (11 from the Fourth Army and two from the Third Army) staged north of the Somme river, and on the south side of the river the French Sixth Army was also ready to attack on command. On the opposing side of things stood the German Second Army commanded by General Fritz von Below. July 1, 1916, 7:30 a.m. was known as zero hour for the Battle of the Somme. Little did the Germans know that a few days prior the British had dug 10 mines beneath the German front-line trenches and strong points; the three largest mines included 20 tons of explosives each. Ten minutes before zero hour at 7:20 a.m. the mine beneath Hawthorne Ridge Redbout was detonated. With in eight minutes the remaining mines exploded causing a tremendous surprise for the Germans. There was brief and unsettling silence after zero hour as the artillery shifted their aim onto the next line of targets, and in the words of poet John Mansfield:

"[T]he hand of time rested on the half hour mark, and all along that old front line of the English there came a whistling and a crying. The men of the first wave climbed up the parapets, into tumult, darkness, and the presence of death, and having done of all pleasant things, advanced No Man's Land to begin the Battle of the Somme." (The Old Front Line, 1917)

Even though the British had put in a lot of thought for the first day of the Somme, overall it was a failure and a big one at that. The total loss after the first day for the British was 57,470 men. Including 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners. It was hard to get an exact count of German soldiers lost because they only submitted casualty losses every ten days. It is estimated though that they lost around 8,000 men of the first day of the battle. The disparity between British and German casualties where extremely large and was the highest at Ovillers where the Germans had an 18:1 ratio on the British.

Aftermath of the fist day

Confusion and poor communications through the extended chain of command meant it was some days before the British leaders realized the scale of the disaster and casualties lost. Two days after the start of the war on July 3 a reconnaissance patrol from the 18th Division ranged two miles into German territory without encountering an established defensive position. This opportunity was missed though, and the Germans were able to recover in time. During the first two weeks of July the battle became disjointed in preparation for making a major push. Between the 3rd and 13th of July the British carried out 46 "actions" only leading to a loss of 25,000 men, but still no significant advances. Even as early as July 2nd German leaders had ordered seven divisions to the Somme as reinforcements, and seven more were shortly behind a with in another week. 35 extra divisions where poured on the British sectors In July and August and a further seven divisions on the allied French sector. All of this movement by the Germans meant that by late August there was only one division left as a reserve, worrying German commanders. The British had hoped to benefit from all the deploying of German divisions on the Somme. They would do this by a series of raids and demonstrations that were carried out with aim of "pinning" the German division on the front line. However the British did not get the results they had planned for. 7,080 combined Australian and British casualties were lost trying to wipe out the German divisions. The British had once again lost much confidence as well as casualties and still had gained no ground or made a halt since the first day of the battle.

Introducing the Tank!

The Battle of the Somme was a dog fight of the trenches. The machine gun was being used heavily on both sides of the Battle with thousands of rounds fired everyday. That was until September 25, the day the British had introduced the tank. The British had felt that there secret weapon would break the dog fight of the trenches. Even though the tank was something new, this did not mean it would be a huge benefit for the British. Early tanks had a top speed of only 2 miles per hour, and were easily outpaced by the infantry. The tanks were very unreliable. Of the 49 tanks available on September 25, only 32 made it to the start line, and of these, only 21 made it into action. Mechanical break downs happened frequently, and many others became bogged or ditched in the shell holes and trenched of the tore up battlefield. Even though over all the tank was not much of a success, it did have a few benefits that were somewhat helpful for the British, such as they were untroubled by barbwire obstacles and impervious to rifle and machine gun fire. The tank had also helped the British make the first advance in quite sometime. They had advanced 4,500 yards of the German third position, but still had fallen short of their objectives and once again the break though had eluded them. The tank had shown some promise, but its lack of reliability limited its impact on the Battle.

Battle of Bazentin Ridge

On July 14 (Bastille Day) the Fourth Army was finally ready to resume the offensive in the southern sector. The attack, known as the battle of Bazentin Ridge, was aimed at capturing the German second defensive position



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