The Battle of the Somme


Tragedy: ‘a sad, lamentable event; one causing or involving death and unhappiness’ (Webster’s Universal Dictionary).


Before Action


... I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;-
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

The last poem of William Noel Hodgson (written just before the battle of the Somme).

The son of a Bishop, Hodgson volunteered for the Devonshire Regiment in Sept. 1914, at the age of 21.   He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery on 25 Sept. 1915, when he and a small party held a captured trench for 36 hours without food or reinforcements.  

On 1 July 1916, he was killed by bullet in the throat from a German machine gun while taking a supply of bombs to his men in newly captured trenches near Mametz.



1.   Read this web page, ‘The Battle of the Somme’.   Make a list of all the things (at least a dozen) you might claim to be ‘tragic’ – ie:


examples of bad leadership


examples of human suffering


examples of failure.

2.   ‘Generalise’ your points, to distinguish between the general point and the specific evidence.   Draw up a two-column table, listing ‘Tragedies’ in one column, and ‘Evidence’ in the other.

3.   Research the web links, seeking further ideas why the Battle of the Somme might be regarded as a great military tragedy, and further evidence for all your ideas.







History Learning Site

BBC News account  

Straightforward account  

Spartacus encyclopaedia  

Account of the first day, and a day-by-day diary of the rest of the battle


Peter Simkins' summary of the battle (detailed account)  (simpler account)


Philip Gibbs account - the effect of the battle on the Germans


First Day of the Somme - map with accounts of engagements.


BBC Animated map - BRILLIANT!

The Somme after 1 July - an account by Peter Simkins


A death at the Somme 



Pupils' essays:

Gemma Cheetham (9J)

Lucy Pollock (9J)



Lloyd George

John Keegan


Special Studies:

Accrington Pals

Newfoundland Regiment

South Africans

Swavesey (inc map)

Irish Soldier  


Source Documents

The Somme

Sources of the Battle of the Somme


A resource evaluating the reliability of the magazine: The Great Push


Film and Youtube

Watch clips of the film

Another video



Mr Huggins' presentation on humour for the OCR exam - ppt. / swf.

Planning the Battle

On 1st July 1916, Haig and Joffre planned a joint attack on the German lines near Bapaume (although Haig would have preferred to fight further north).   The action was designed to relieve some of the strain on the French at Verdun.   Haig was quite hopeful that it would break through the German lines and bring the Allies victory.  


This 1916 cartoon from the Daily Mirror – entitled ‘The Somme Punch’ – shows the Somme as the Kaiser’s nose.  



This map shows Haig’s plan – the army would break through the enemy lines, then the infantry and cavalry would sweep on past Bapaume.  


Artillery Bombardment

The attack was preceded by an eight-day artillery bombardment, in which 1537 British guns fired 1,723,873 rounds.   The sound of the bombardment could be heard in England.  


The aim of the bombardment was two-fold: firstly to kill the German soldiers and reduce them to shell-shocked chaos, secondly to destroy the German barbed wire.  


But the artillery failed The shells were not powerful enough to break down into the German dug-outs (which were up to 9 metres deep), and the shrapnel shells, which consisted merely of cases filled with ball-bearings, did not destroy any of the wire, but simply made it more tangled and impassable.    




The historian JM Bourne writes: ‘Rarely can so much effort have been expended to such little effect…   Once the artillery failed, the infantry was doomed.’  


1st July

Mines (tunnels) had been dug under the German trenches and packed with explosives.   At 7.28 am these were detonated just before the British attack, giving the Germans 2 minutes warning.  

Then, at 7.30 am, whistles were blown and the men went ‘over the top’.   Each man carried a gas mask, groundsheet, field dressings, trench spade, 150 rounds of ammunition and such extras as sandbags or a roll of barbed wire – up to 80 pounds of equipment.

Thinking that the Germans had been destroyed by the bombardment, and fearing that their inexperienced soldiers would become disorganised in a rush attack, the generals had ordered that the men should walk, in straight lines, across No Man’s Land.

They were slaughtered.   ‘They went down in their hundreds.   You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them,’ wrote one German machine-gunner.   One British battalion was unable to advance because it could not climb over the bodies of the dead and wounded blocking the way.   The British officers, ordered to carry only a pistol, and leading their troops by example, were easily marked out and shot – the result was chaos.   Even seasoned soldiers were shocked.

At this point a British commander decided to detonate a mine which had failed to explode, burying his own men under a hail of rock and soil.  

Some British units captured enemy positions, but in the afternoon the Germans counter-attacked and recaptured most of the land they had lost. 










Blackadder Goes Forth: Goodbyee gives a vivid impression of the slaughter involved in going ‘over the top’.   The phrase is still used today to describe something excessively stupid.  



British casualties on the first day were 20,000 dead and more than 35,000 wounded – ‘probably more than any army in any war on a single day’.   The British soldiers at the Somme were not conscripts – they were volunteers, who had flocked to join up in response to Kitchener’s ‘Your country needs you’ poster.   In the First World War, men from the same town served together in the same regiment; now they were killed together.   Friends and brothers died side by side, and towns lost all their young men in the same battle.

Despite the setback of the first day, Haig – in his HQ in the château at Valvion, 50 miles behind the lines – was still confident.   He continued the attacks for 4 more months.   He made a major attack, following the same plan, and with the same results, in September.  




A wounded man is rushed to the Forward Dressing Post.   Half an hour later, he was dead.


By August, questions were beginning to be asked – Lloyd George lost confidence in Haig.   At home, there was grief and horror.   A propaganda film – designed to encourage support for the war by showing the public what the men were going through – was well-received by many people as a 'glimpse of what our soldiers are doing and daring and suffering in Picardy'(The Times).   Not everyone welcomed it; one wounded soldier had to be led hysterical from the cinema, and one woman, after a stunned silence, shrieked out: ‘They’re dying!’   Nevertheless, the film was seen by 20 million people in Britain, as well as world-wide.

At the front, also, morale began to fall.   Soldiers were shot for ‘cowardice’, but bravery was pointless.   The British troops reached the limit of their endurance.

Only on 18 November, as winter set in, did the battle grind to a halt.   Bapaume had not been captured.   Only 6 miles of ground had been taken.   The final casualties were: British 415,000, French 195,000, Germans perhaps 600,000.

Lloyd George called the battle of the Somme: ‘The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history or war’.   



Do the assignment:

Why is the Battle of the Somme regarded as such a great military tragedy?


This is a simple ‘why’ essay (see ‘How to write an Essay’).


Write the essay as a series of paragraphs, one point to each paragraph.   For each point, give evidence of the tragedy.   Don’t forget to explain why this was a tragedy, remembering to say how great a tragedy it was, and linking it to other points.