Very murderous episode, the Battle of the Somme (July 1 - November 18, 1916) is a turning point in the British engagement in the First World War. This first major Franco-British combined offensive, under the command of General Foch and Douglas Haig, did not, however, (contrary to what the General Staff expected) lead to the advance of Allied troops on the Western Front.
At the origins of the battle: the failure of the 1915 offensives
In 1915, the offensives led by the Allied armies stumbled, according to the high command, due to a lack of resources. In connection with an increase in the production of cannons and shells, the generals imagined that victory would come from heavy artillery preparations, paving the way for the advance of the troops. It is in this spirit that the allies met on December 6, 7 and 8, 1915 in Chantilly, at the French General Headquarters commanded by General Joffre. The idea of a simultaneous offensive, on several fronts, is shared by the French, the English, the Italians and the Russians: in the east, a general attack by the Russian army is planned; in Italy, an attack on the Isonzo; in the west, the French and the British would launch a vast offensive on the Somme, planned for the end of spring or the beginning of summer 1916. At the same time, the Germans adopted under the influence of Falkenhyan the strategy of usury , plan to "bleed dry" the French army, by leading an assault on a key point: Verdun.
A plan modified by the outbreak of the Battle of Verdun
Planning was greatly disrupted by the outbreak of the Battle of Verdun on February 21, 1916. While the offensive on the Somme was initially conceived as a Franco-British battle in which the two allies had to participate in an equitable manner, the French demanded from February, through the intermediary of the head of the French Military Mission to the British Army, an increase in British participation in the offensive. In addition, the attack front was greatly reduced, going from 70 kilometers to 40 kilometers, the British part reaching 28 kilometers: the Battle of the Somme was to become a predominantly British offensive.
The operation would take place between the Albert region - controlled by the Allies - and the surroundings of Péronne, controlled by the Germans. The objectives were nevertheless relatively vague: according to Jean-Jacques Becker, it was as much a question of using the German army as of seeking the decisive battle which would make it possible to obtain the final victory.
A murderous offensive, for little progress
On July 1, 1916, after several days of intense artillery preparations, the French and British armies launched an assault on the German defenses. If, in the southern part, the French 6th century had some success, the results were catastrophic for the British army: 60,000 men (out of 120,000 men engaged) were put out of action on July 1, including 10,000 dead. Despite numerous preliminary bombardments, the attackers encountered partially intact defenses and German machine gun fire.
The battle, which spread considerably over time, can be divided into three phases: the first offensives from July 1 to 20; a long stagnation from July 20 to September 3; some progress from September 3 to November 18. In total, for a progression of only a few kilometers, the British lost 420,000 men, the French 200,000, including more than 100,000 dead. On the German side, the losses amounted to after 500,000 soldiers.
At the end of 1916, the Somme offensive appeared to be a failure, as the enemy lines could not be broken. Germany still occupies the north-eastern part of France, the balance of power always being favorable to the central powers. Worse, no decisive victory seemed possible on either side.
The Battle of the Somme, a turning point?
In many ways, the Battle of the Somme can be seen as a pivotal episode in the Great War. On the German side, Gerd Krumeich notably showed that if Verdun is not very present in the soldiers' accounts, the Battle of the Somme occupies a central place. In a defensive position in underground shelters, the German soldiers identified this battle as an episode in the defense of the homeland - albeit in French territory - against the British aggressor.
On the French side, the failure of the Somme may have aroused a certain discouragement and fed, according to Pierre Renouvin, a weariness from the end of 1916, expressed with more vigor in 1917. For the British, the Somme marks the decline of an army of volunteers - who constituted the main troops sent and decimated on July 1, 1916 - in favor of an army of conscripts, whose training had begun at the beginning of 1916.
The Somme was also a highlight of Franco-British cooperation during the Great War. Indeed, the French and the British have had to increasingly mobilize liaison officers in order to better articulate relations between the two armies, the methods of liaison slowly tending to be implemented.
The memory of the Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme left a lasting mark on British memory of the Great War. The bloodiest day in British history, the first day of the offensive gave rise to numerous accounts attesting to the very deadly nature of the battle. A lieutenant from a Scottish unit reaching the German lines with only two other men is said to have cried out, "My god, where are the rest of the boys?" ". In a 1984 reissue of Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme - 1 July 1916, the author points out: “The only good that emerges from this day is the debauchery of patriotism, courage and spirit of sacrifice shown by British soldiers ”.
Also the Battle of the Somme was quickly the subject of commemorations. At the initiative of the British government, the Thiepval (Somme) memorial designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens was erected in 1928-1932. 45 meters high and in the form of a triumphal arch, the monument includes the names of 73,367 British and South African soldiers killed on the battlefields of the Somme. Having become a veritable place of pilgrimage for the British - welcoming nearly 160,000 visitors each year - the monument adjoins a military cemetery corresponding to British codes: the names are engraved on uniform stelae, whatever the rank or rank.
In addition, the development of an itinerary, the “memorial circuit” of the Battle of the Somme, makes it possible to visualize the scars of the Great War on the landscapes, and to visit the main monuments erected in memory of the battle: Ulster Tower (Irish Memorial), ANZAC Memorial (Australian and New Zealand), which recently hosted the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme.
- The Battle of the Somme. The forgotten hecatomb, by Marjolaine Boutet and Philippe Nivet. Tallandier, 2016.
- The Battle of the Somme, by Alain Denizot Poche. Tempus, 2006