Featured Articles - First battle of the SOMME, 24 June - 30 November 1916
Gunners of the Royal Garrison Artillery carrying trench mortar ammunition to the trenches. Acheux, 28th June 1916. © IWM (Q 747)
Table showing sampled sources and stated end dates of the battle.
The 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Great War in 2014 received huge media attention In 2016 there will again be massive media coverage and many commemorative events throughout Europe, especially in the areas of the 1916 battles of the Somme. In the various statements, reference will be made to the number of casualties suffered in what has become known as the First Battle of the Somme.
In fact it wasn’t one battle, rather a series of battles and subsidiary attacks commencing with an artillery bombardment on 24 June 1916. Twelve major infantry offensives were subsequently identified, starting with the Battle of Albert and ending with the Battle of the Ancre.
Somme casualty numbers are, inter alia, affected by datal variations caused by deaths during the battle period as a result of wounds received before the battle, later deaths as a result of the battle and those at hospitals outside the Somme area. A fundamental question to the understanding of casualty numbers, of which units fought in the battle and other such statistics is, ‘When did the battle start and end?’
In order to establish these dates, twenty significant websites were surveyed. Importance was determined by the listed sequence resulting from googling the question “when did the Somme battle start” and examining the same sites for end date. Twelve books, all acknowledged reference sources, were also consulted.
In the Beginning
The most commonly quoted start date for the First Battle of the Somme, is 1 July 1916 and it is on the anniversary of this date that most commemorations take place. The Battles Nomenclature Committee (BNC) in their report published in May 1921 referred to the ‘Battles of the Somme’ as beginning on this date. Indeed, all the sources consulted quoted this date, although six also referred to 24 June as the start, that being the day that the artillery bombardment opened, July 1 being the commencement of the infantry attack.
If the scale of resources employed, casualties sustained and/or military significance are yardsticks for the dating of a battle, then the start date of this battle is unquestionably June 24.
The artillery attack used close to one and three-quarters of a million shells across the battlefront, starting with the 18 pounders wire-cutting attempts; a huge expenditure without which the infantry assault would not have taken place. In the period 24 - 30 June the Royal Garrison Artillery suffered a total of 63 fatalities worldwide. Of these, 30 are buried or commemorated in the Somme area and of which 23 are recorded as KIA. Thus by any criteria, 24 June is the start date for this battle.
And at the End
If the actions on the Somme battlefields, major events linked by lesser ones, are to be regarded as one battle, then why regard the end date as being that of the final day of the Battle of the Ancre? After all, Haig in his Somme report referred to ‘the strain of the five month battle launched on 1 July’.
The Battle of the Ancre, designated by the BNC, ended on 18 November yet there were actions after that date every bit as significant as many of those taking place between the designated Somme battles. One example is the attempted rescue of more than 100 men of the 1st and 2nd Divisions cut off in Frankfort Trench behind Beaumont Hamel. A number of unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue them until their surrender was forced on 25 November (1).
The table (left) illustrates the great variation in views as to when the Somme battle ended.
Thus 60% favour 18 November as the end date; not really surprising as BNC’s grouping of the Somme Battles ends on that date. Unfortunately not all sources have due regard for accuracy when quoting casualty numbers relating to the Battle. Four websites and two books quote British casualties as being around 420,000 although showing three different end dates covering a three-week span.
The 880 page official book of Military Statistics on p324 refers to the period of ‘the Somme I offensive’ as ending on 30 November. The casualty numbers on this page need to be viewed with caution as they refer to the whole of France and exclude Sick.
Any numbers quoted have perforce to be approximate, but that does not excuse gross inaccuracy. It is sufficient to contemplate the huge scale of the Somme slaughter and yet expressed as a daily British casualty rate, the Somme only comes fourth of five major battles, being only half that of the rate during the German 1918 Spring Offensive.
Although most sources give 1 July as the battle start date, this major event clearly began on 24 June. Modern views have been much influenced by the complete title of Martin Middlebrook’s excellent book, ‘The First Day on the Somme - 1 July 1916’. As to end date, I am influenced by post 18 November events, Haig’s Somme despatch and the official statistics publication - so it is 30 November.
(1) This event is detailed by WFA president Professor Peter Simkins in the essay ‘Somme Footnote’ in his 2014 book ‘From the Somme to Victory’.
Previously published in the Western Front Association Bulletin, Issue No. 105, 2016. © Stan Grosvenor, 2016
Published on South Ribble in the Great War, 25 September 2016