Today in History: 1 July, 1916 - Battle of the Somme begins
Today in History: 1st July, in 1916, during World War I, Britain and France launched the Somme Offensive against the German army.
THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME
At 7:30 a.m., the British launch a huge offensive against German forces in the Somme River region of France.
During the preceding week, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man’s-land on July 1, expecting to find the way cleared for them.
However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were massacred.
By the end of the day almost 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history.
The disastrous Battle of the Somme stretched on for more than four months, with the Allies advancing a total of just five miles.
When World War I broke out in August 1914, great throngs of British men lined up to enlist in the war effort. At the time, it was generally thought that the war would be over within six months.
However, by the end of 1914 well over a million soldiers of various nationalities had been killed on the battlefields of Europe, and a final victory was not in sight for either the Allies or the Central Powers.
On the Western Front–the battle line that stretched across northern France and Belgium–the combatants had settled down in the trenches for a terrible war of attrition.
Maimed and shell-shocked troops returning to Britain with tales of machine guns, artillery barrages, and poison gas seriously dampened the enthusiasm of potential new volunteers.
With the aim of raising enough men to launch a decisive offensive against Germany, Britain replaced voluntary service with conscription in January 1916, when it passed an act calling for the enlistment of all unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 41.
After Germany launched a massive offensive of its own against Verdun in February, Britain expanded the Military Service Act, calling for the conscription of all men, married and unmarried, between the ages of 18 and 41.
Near the end of June, with the Battle of Verdun still raging, Britain prepared for its major offensive along a 21-mile stretch of the Western Front north of the Somme River.
For a week, the British bombarded the German trenches as a prelude to the attack. British Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, thought the artillery would decimate the German defenses and allow a British breakthrough; in fact, it served primarily to remove the element of surprise.
When the bombardment died down on the morning of July 1, the German machine crews emerged from their fortified trenches and set up their weapons.
At 7:30 a.m., 11 British divisions attacked at once, and the majority of them were gunned down.
The soldiers optimistically carried heavy supplies for a long march, but few made it more than a couple of hundred yards.
Five French divisions that attacked south of the Somme at the same time fared a little better, but without British success little could be done to exploit their gains.
In total, 19,240 British soldiers lost their lives.
It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.
LEST WE FORGET.
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