The Battle of the Somme, fought by the British and French against the Germans, was one of the deadliest battles of the First World War and all of human history. But how many people were killed in the conflict?
It is not known for certain how many people were killed at the Battle of the Somme, but it is estimated that around one million people were casualties, including 300,000 dead. It lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1916, with the first day of battle alone killing 19,240 British soldiers.
To find out more about the Battle of the Somme and the controversy surrounding it, read on.
Context of the Battle of the Somme
With the Western Front of the First World War having descended into a stalemate, with little territorial gain made since 1914, the Allied Powers decided on the necessity of a heavy Franco-British assault on the German lines following the Chantilly Conferences of 1915. The French and British lines joined by the River Somme, so this site was chosen for the offensive.
It had been decided that the French forces would be the major force in the planned offensive with support from the British Empire, including a mix of British professionals, reserves, and an army of poorly trained volunteers. However, on February 21, 1916, the German army launched a colossal assault on the symbolically important French town of Verdun, planning to exhaust the French army there.
This led to the British support army needing to act as the main force in the planned assault while the French would provide a smaller yet still significant support army.
The intensity of the fighting at the Battle of Verdun (which would rage until December 18, 1916, and claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of men) also placed pressure on the Allies for a British assault to relieve some of the stress on the French and force German troops away from Verdun.
The Battle of the Somme
To prepare for the offensive, the British launched a week-long artillery bombardment of the German lines beginning on June 24, 1916, aiming to obliterate the barbed wire in the no man’s land between the Allied and German lines, as well as destroying their positions. Around 1.75 million shells were fired in preparation for the assault (although an estimated 30% did not detonate).
However, the well-built German defenses withstood the intense shelling, as did German artillery, and the barbed wire was mostly intact. On July 1, 1916, the order was given for the British Fourth Army (featuring many inexperienced volunteers) to advance on a 15-mile front north of the River Somme while five French forces advanced to the south to attack a weaker German force.
With many inexperienced soldiers advancing against German machine gunners in heavily shelled land, this would be the deadliest day in British military history, with 19,240 British soldiers killed and 38,000 wounded. The French reported 1,590 casualties and the Germans had an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 casualties, with the Allied assault failing to advance as planned.
Despite the failure of the offensive, the Allied command believed that they had to continue the assault to take the pressure off the French or they would risk a defeat in Verdun and a potential German breakthrough.
Battles would continue as part of the offensive until November 18, 1916, with fighting being marked by determined German resistance and counterattacks and limited Allied advancement. The Allied offensive was called off due to the arrival of winter and worsening weather conditions, taking six miles of occupied territory and failing to win the desired breakthrough.
In March 1917, the Germans would pull back to the so-called Hindenburg Line, ceding a large amount of territory to the French and British.
Deaths and Legacy
The Battle of the Somme remains a controversial topic due to the colossal number of casualties and the perception of incompetence as British command continued to advance regardless of the losses, with apparently little gain.
While the offensive failed to make any significant ground, three miles short of its objective, it did manage to take some pressure off the French in Verdun and saw the introduction of new British technology like tanks, while also helping to force the German retreat in March 1917. It also provided experience to the Allied command in a new style of warfare that would eventually lead to the end of the war in 1918.
Out of three million men fighting in the Battle of the Somme, over a million were casualties. Over 300,000 soldiers died.