Battle of the Somme

Since the trenches had put an end to mobile warfare, neither the Allies nor the German Empire had proved capable of resolving the stalemate. The Allies had concluded thus that no tactical innovation would provide a solution and it was brute force that was required.

This Allied strategy centered on simultaneous mid-year assaults on the three fronts. On the Western Front a joint British and French offensive was to take place along the front to the north and to the south of the Somme River.

The planning of the operation had only just begun when the Germans attacked the commune of Verdun-sur-Meuse, on 21 February 1916.  The resulting battle of Verdun consumed much of the French war effort for the balance of 1916. As Christmas approached and peace settled into the region the dead were recorded as 303,000.

The French pressured Britain’s new commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, to rush the Somme offensive in order to relieve pressure in Verdun. Haig managed an enormous build-up of men and arms and he became convinced that the German lines would be destroyed, allowing the cavalry into the open countryside, where it could attack battery positions and disrupt communications.

However, the German forces, log forewarned of the attack and able to discern at least some of the Allies’ preparation, had engaged in a massive restructuring of their defences, most especially in the northern area of the British arrack. Besides, they were firmly entrenched along the ridges and the villages of the northern Somme countryside.

Beginning on 25 June, the Germans suffered an intense bombardment. British artillery fired more than 1,700,000 shells. On the morning of 1 July, a 40-km front consisting of several thousand French and British troops, and including units from Newfoundland and Bermuda, began an advance across No Man’s Land, resulting in one of the greater slaughters in military history, as more than 57,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing. This number continues as the heaveast losses ever suffered by the British Army in a single day. Included in the British number were 733 of the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment, cut down within an hour’s exposure outside the commune of Beamont-Hamel. Every one of their officers was listed among the dead or wounded.

In late August 1916, under the command of Lieutenant General Julian Byng, the newly formed Canadians Corps were moved from the Ypres Salient to join the front line at the Somme. They took over a section west of the German-held village of Courcelette. Heavy combat ensued and the corps’ number was reduced by more than 2,600 casualties before their first offensive.

On 15 September, the Canadians joined with the British for an assault along a 2-km stretch of the front close to their own lines. Here there was something of a breakthrough due to the debut of the tank. The appearance of several new engines of war intimidated the Germans, and helped greatly in pushing back their lines. The Canadians and the British advanced taking and holding Courcelette, but the next day German reinforcements arrived and from this point on any movement by either side was insignificant.

The Canadians managed to push the German line a further kilometre away from Courcelette, on 26 September. After that, again and again the Canadian Corps attacked German entrenchments, with frustrating results. More than a month was consumed in an attempt to take the Regina Trench, which finally was taken on 11 November.

One week later, the battle ended. Four and a half months had elapsed since the battle had started. The Allies had managed to advance their line by as much as 8 km and this territory had been gained at a cost of nearly 630,000 men, more than 146,000 of whom had been killed. The Germans (they refer to the Battle of the Somme as das Blutbad – the Blood Bath, suffered 164,055 killed and 270,460 wounded.

The Canadians had been at the Somme for three months. They lost 24,092 men.

Their reputation as a fearless fighting force, established in confronting the clouds of chlorine gas at the Second Battle of Ypres, was solidified and recognized on both sides of the trenches.

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