Famous Battles in History World War I and the Battle of the Somme

About the famous battle of the Somme in World War I between the Germans and the Allies.

MORE FAMOUS BATTLES--ON LAND AND AT SEA

THE SOMME, 1916

French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre firmly believed the war on the western front would be won by a decisive breakthrough, even though two years of trench warfare had demonstrated this to be suicidal idiocy. In 1916 Joffre planned a grand offensive employing British and French troops. The British commander, Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, also dreaming of a breakthrough, agreed to the plan.

The strategy called for a French attack along a 10-mi. front south of the Somme River in France, while the major attack would be launched by the British along a 15-mi. front north of the river. On June 24, the Allied artillery began a seven-day barrage of the German lines, expending 1,627,824 shells. Hidden away in their 40-ft.-deep bunkers, the Germans were alerted to the impending attack by the long bombardment. Young Corp. Adolf Hitler waited with enthusiasm, while other Germans erected banners, taunting, "Come on, British pigs; we're ready for you."

On July 1, the shelling stopped, and at 7:30 A.M.--a warm Saturday morning--the Allies attacked. The Germans scrambled out of their dugouts to man their machine guns. The British advanced in dense waves, only to be caught in the German barbed wire and massacred by machine gunners. That first day, the British lost 57,450 men and gained a mere 1,000 yd. The French did only slightly better.

For the next 10 weeks, the Germans coordinated a strong defense, while the Allies continued their futile frontal attacks, thus causing 10,000 casualties a day. Haig admonished his men to attack "without intermission." By Sept. 15, Haig, in a desperate mood, decided to use his secret weapon--the tank. Eighteen British tanks (another 31 broke down on the way to the front) rolled into the German lines. However, there were too few to endanger seriously the German position.

For another two months the battle dragged on. Torrential rains came. Soldiers drowned in trenches, and the wounded fell down and disappeared in the mud. Finally, this battle of attrition simply petered out on Nov. 19. The Allies had won a strip of land 30 mi. long and 7 mi. wide at its widest point. The cost was 195,000 French casualties, 420,000 British, and 650,000 German.

The Somme--the bloodiest battle in all history--had merely rearranged the trench lines. Its architect, Joffre, was ordered to retire, for his grand design had cost over a million men and achieved nothing.

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