TROOPS LEAVING TRENCHES DURING THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME(photo: Library and Archives Canada)

TROOPS LEAVING TRENCHES DURING THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME(photo: Library and Archives Canada)

100 YEARS AGO ~ The Battle of the Somme began in northern France on July 1, 1916.  “It would be a tragic beginning to a costly battle where more than 57,000 Commonwealth soldiers would become casualties on the opening day of the fighting alone.  The brave members of the Newfoundland Regiment who went into action near Beaumont-Hamel were hit especially hard, with only 68 of the more than 800 men who had taken part being able to answer the roll call the next morning.  (Veterans Affairs Canada)

 

 

PRELUDE TO THE SOMME ~ 1916:  In spring, the newly appointed Commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was determined to win back two vantage points that had been taken by the Germans, Mount Sorrel and Hill 62.  “He gave orders for a carefully planned attack, well supported by artillery, to be carried out by the 1st Canadian Division under the command of Major-General Currie.  Preceded by a vicious bombardment, the Canadian infantry  attacked on June 13 at 1:30 a.m. in the darkness, wind and rain.  Careful planning paid off, and the heights lost on June 2 were re-taken.  The cost was high.  At Mount Sorrel Canadian troops suffered 8,430 casualties, including General Mercer, who was killed by shrapnel while visiting the front line at the opening of the German assault.

Still, both sides felt that “brutal frontal assaults were needed to break the enemy defences.  The Allied plan for 1916 was to launch simultaneous offensives on the Western, Eastern, and Italian fronts.  In the West, the region of Somme was chosen for a joint French and British assault about mid-year…  Because of the casualties on both sides, resulting from the battle for Verdun (totalling 680,000, of whom some quarter of a million were killed) the French sent frantic appeals to Sir Douglas Haig, the new British commander, to hasten the Somme offensive and take pressure off Verdun.  With French forces being so thoroughly decimated at Verdun, the British now had to assume a far greater burden of the attack, so what was planned as a French dominated offensive in terms of manpower became a British dominated one.

The campaign was planned well in advance with a massive build-up of men and munitions.  By the end of June all was ready for the ‘Big Push’, and Haig was quietly confident  that his planned assault would destroy the enemy lines and open the way for the cavalry to ride into open countryside and attack the German rear areas, battery positions, headquarters and communications… the German Army, long forewarned of the attack, had engaged in a massive restructuring of their defences, most especially in the northern area of the British attack.  They were firmly entrenched along the ridges and the villages of the northern Somme countryside…” (Veterans Affairs Canada)

SCENE IN MAPLE COPSE - BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY 1916 (Photo: Canadian Department of National Defence)

SCENE IN MAPLE COPSE – BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY 1916 (Photo: Canadian Department of National Defence)

THE OPENING OF THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME ~ 1916:  “The Battle of the Somme was one of the war’s most significant campaigns and Canadian soldiers from coast to coast would see heavy action in the fighting there in the summer and fall of 1916… the Battle of the Somme began with a massive attack by hundreds of thousands of British and French troops on the morning of July 1, 1916.  It would be a disastrous start for the Allies as their forces were pounded by heavy enemy fire when they climbed out of their trenches and advanced across No Man’s Land (the area separating the Germans and their opposing forces, a space of barbed wire and shell craters).  Tragically, more than 57,000 British Commonwealth troops would be killed, wounded, taken prisoner or go missing – the highest single day losses in the British Army’s long history.  This shocking total included more than 700 soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment (who were not fighting as part of the Canadian

Corps as Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until decades later in 1949).

The Battle of the Somme was not a one-day affair, however, and the offensive would continue for more than four and a half months.  While the Allies did have some battlefield successes later in July, a major breakthrough never materialized and the bloody fighting dragged on.” (Veterans Affairs Canada)

CANADIANS OF THE SOMME:  “For most of the summer of 1916, the Canadian Corps had been manning a section of the Western Front in Belgium.  In late August, however, they began to shift to the Somme front near the French village of Courcelette.  The Canadians immediately encountered some stiff action there and suffered some 2600 casualties before the major new offensive they had been tasked with had even gotten underway.

On September 15, our soldiers took part in a large-scale attack that was launched at dawn and pushed forward on a 2000-metre wide front.  Make use of a newly developed tactic called the creeping barrage, the Canadians advanced behind a carefully aimed wave of Allied artillery fire that moved ahead on a set schedule.  This heavy bombardment forced the enemy defenders to stay under cover for protection and prevented them from cutting down the advancing troops with their rifle and machine gun fire.  For this tactic to work, though, the soldiers had to stay perilously close to the heavy shellfire and many were wounded by the Allies’ own artillery explosions.

CANADIAN SOLDIERS RETURNING FROM TRENCHES DURING THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME (Photo: Library and Archives, Canada)

CANADIAN SOLDIERS RETURNING FROM TRENCHES DURING THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME (Photo: Library and Archives, Canada)

 

 

The Courcelette battlefield also saw another Allied innovation – the first use of the tank in warfare.  They were primitive, few in number and mechanically unreliable, but the tanks’ shock value alone was enough to throw the enemy into confusion.  The attack went well and by 8:00 a.m., the shattered German defensive position known as the Sugar Factory was taken.  The Canadians then pushed ahead to Courcelette itself which was captured later that day.  The Germans did not relent, however, and launched numerous counterattacks which our soldiers repulsed as they consolidated their newly won positions.  As was often the pattern during attacks on the Western Front, however, the enemy soon brought up major reinforcements, the defences solidified and any further gains became incredibly hard.

CAPTURED GERMAN TRENCH AT BEAUMONT-HAMEL (photo: Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador)

CAPTURED GERMAN TRENCH AT BEAUMONT-HAMEL (photo: Public Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The fighting would not yet come to an end on the Somme, though.  In the weeks that followed, soldiers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Canadian Divisions would be repeatedly flung against a series of German entrenchments.  The final Canadian objective was a defensive line that had been dubbed Regina Trench, but it repeatedly defied capture… When the newly arrived 4th Division took its place in the line it faced an almost unbelievable ordeal of knee-deep mud and violent, tenacious, enemy resistance  However, despite the almost impenetrable curtain of fire, on November 11 the Division captured Regina Trench – to find it reduced to a mere depression in the chalk.  A week later, in the final attack of the Somme, the Canadians advanced to Desire Trench – a remarkable feat of courage and endurance.  The 4th Division then rejoined the Corps opposite Vimy Ridge.

There were no further advances that year.  The autumn rains turned the battlefield into a bog and the offensive staggered to a halt.  The line had been moved forward only ten kilometres, though ground of itself was not particularly important except in terms of morale.  The Allies had suffered some 650,000 casualties, and both sides had about 200,000 killed.  The Germans refer to the Battle of the Somme as das Blutbad – the blood bath.  One German officer described the Somme as ‘the muddy graveyard of the German Army’.  For the British, it turned an army of eager, inexperienced recruits into a fighting machine on a par with those of France and Germany, but at a terrible cost in human life.

BURIAL GROUND OF MANY SOLDIERS WHO DIED IN THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME IN 1916 (Photo: Canadian Department of National Defence)

BURIAL GROUND OF MANY SOLDIERS WHO DIED IN THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME IN 1916 (Photo: Canadian Department of National Defence)

The Somme had cost Canada 24, 029 casualties, but it was here that the Canadians confirmed their reputation as hard-hitting shock troops. ‘The Canadians,’ wrote Lloyd George, ‘played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another.  Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst.'” (Veterans Affairs Canada)