Somme Offensive was a Disaster for British, French Forces

A collection of 175 photographs relating to the ground campaigns of World War I went to auction in February 2016.

By Jim O’Neal

The Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, in the Civil War was the bloodiest day in American history, with more than 22,700 killed or wounded.

However, it pales in comparison to the Battle of the Somme in WWI. The Somme is a river in northern France that travels through a gentle valley to the Bay of Somme in the English Channel. “Somme” is a Celtic word for tranquility.

The Battle of Somme was anything but.

In 1916, northern France was a prime battleground where French and English armies ran headlong into the Second German Army. With superiority in numbers, the French planned a battle of attrition. But, a massive attack by the Germans at Verdun shifted the planning to the British.

The British launched an offensive with 20 Divisions of English plus seven Divisions of French troops attacking along a 10-mile-wide front, expecting an overwhelming triumph. A critical flaw in their strategy was an over-reliance on their artillery.

From June 24 to July 1, 1916, over 3,000 British and French guns bombarded the Germans with such ferocity that the 750,000 allied troops in the trenches facing west were confident that there would be little opposition when they “went over the top” to attack.

The only issue was that the shelling warned the Germans what to expect next and, critically, the damage to their forces had been amazingly minimal.

When the Allies did attack, it only took a few minutes for the slaughter to begin. But, when it did, it changed British history and attitudes about war forever.

The Germans had not only built just trenches, but heavy dirt and concrete bunkers so deep that no amount of shelling could damage them! So when the Allies finally charged, in tight lines, German machineguns methodically mowed them down. “We didn’t even have to aim.”

The casualties were staggering.

From July 1 to Nov. 16, the Somme became the costliest battle in the history of the world. On the first day (alone), the British Army lost 57,450 troops – 20,000 of them dead. The combined total for the British and French was 1,250,000 dead and wounded.

So much for tranquility and English military planning.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].