The Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, is generally said to have concluded on November 18 of that year.
In a dispatch on December 29, 1916, General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Armies in France, summed up the battle’s accomplishments:
“…The three main objects with which we had commenced our offensive in July had already been achieved at the date when this account closes [November 18]…Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the western front; and the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down. Any one of these three results is in itself sufficient to justify the Somme battle. The attainment of all three of them affords ample compensation for the splendid efforts of our troops and for the sacrifices made by ourselves and our Allies. They have brought us a long step forward towards the final victory of the Allied cause….”
In his 1920 memoir, German General Eric Ludendorff credits Allied resources and German shortcomings:
“On the Somme the enemy’s powerful artillery, assisted by excellent aeroplane observation and fed with enormous supplies of ammunition, had kept down our own fire and destroyed our artillery. The defence of our Infantry had become so flabby that the massed attacks of the enemy always succeeded. Not only did our morale suffer, but in addition to fearful wastage in killed and wounded, we lost a large number of prisoners and much material.
“…The equipment of the [Allied] armies with war material had been carried out on a scale hitherto unknown. The Battle of the Somme showed us every day how great was the advantage of the enemy in this respect….”
Many decades later, three British historians offer their perspectives on the battle’s conclusion:
“On the night of November 17 the first snow fell on the Somme battlefield. On the following night the final assault of the campaign took place, an advance of a thousand yards along the Ancre [river, tributary of the Somme]. It was much hampered by mist and snow…After four-and-a-half months of struggle, suffering, and advance there was no concluding victory, or even coda: one divisional history recorded that two companies that had taken part in the assault on November 18 had disappeared ‘entirely, being overwhelmed by machine-gun fire.’….”—Martin Gilbert, The First World War (1994), p. 299.
“To the British, it was and would remain their greatest military tragedy of the twentieth century, indeed of their national military history.”—John Keegan, The First World War (1998), pp. 298-299.
“[After September], as the weather worsened and the mud hampered operations, the battle was again explained in terms of attrition. In truth it should have been closed down.”—Hew Strachan, The First World War (2003), p. 193.
A British lieutenant’s diary entry from the Somme trenches, as the battle concluded:
“[November 16:] Coy is badly knocked out. Lauder and Young both badly wounded. Sergeant-Major Dell wounded. Farrington killed. Sgt Brown not expected to live. Sgt Baker wounded. Westle, poor fellow, killed. Foley – the last of his family – killed, a lot of other good men, too many to speak of…800 Englishmen and forty Germans were buried yesterday – evidence of what price the assaulting parties must pay for some few yards of ground. Damn Germany!”—Guy Chapman (1889-1972)
A German soldier, a former law student, had written home on October 1, about a British attack a few weeks earlier:
“Suddenly the barrage lifts … and there, close in front, is the first wave of the enemy!…Everyone who is not wounded, everyone who can raise an arm, is up, and like a shower of hailstones our bombs [hand-grenades] pelt upon the attacking foe! The first [enemy] wave lies prone in front of our holes, and already the second is upon us, and behind the English are coming on in a dense mass. Anyone who reaches our line is at once polished off in a hand-to-hand bayonet fight, and now our bombs fly with redoubled force into the enemy’s ranks. They do their gruesome work there, and like ripe ears of corn before the reaper the English attacking columns fall. Only a few escape in full flight…
“Such is the battle of the Somme – Germany’s bloody struggle for victory.
This week represents the utmost limits of human endurance – it was hell!”—Karl Gorzel (born 1895, Breslau; killed in action, March 21, 1918)
In the battle’s final weeks, a French infantryman and his squad wander through the labyrinth of trenches and shelters of the Somme battlefield:
“This ravine must have been the scene of fierce combats: blasted tree trunks pulled out by their root, shattered wagons and carts, all sorts of debris rifles, bayonets, grenades, German shells, scattered around or piled up. We marched past in silence, seemingly indifferent, under ceaseless rain which soaked us through and through but which didn’t stop the cannonade. It seemed to grow more violent, the farther along we got….”—Louis Barthas (1879-1952)
Barthas then participates in the storming of a German trench:
“October 23, 1916 is a memorable day in the annals of the 296th [Infantry Regiment]. The previous night the officers were advised that, the next day, the regiment had to attack, with the objective of taking the first German line.
“During the night, the men were kept busy digging parallels – trenches extending ahead of our own front line, and we had to be especially careful that they not discover the work being done right under their noses.
“When, the next day, the fog lifted, the Germans were astounded to see the French a few steps away from them.
“Since those folks waged war like we did – constrained and forced into it – they judged it useless to defend themselves, and unanimously raised their arms, crying ‘Comrades! Comrades!’
“However, some of them were scared stiff, and profited from the lingering fog and reigning confusion by taking off. As a result there were only fifty-two in our hands….
“In the area around the trench, they found the body of an enemy officer, his head bashed in, and beside him a shovel covered with blood. It seemed clear that , when he didn’t want to surrender, his men had gotten rid of him….”
Even after November 18, Barthas and his unit are rotated between the rear and the front line of trenches, in worsening weather, under enemy shellfire:
“During these five days the torrential rain and snow never let up. The walls of the trench were sagging; the precarious shelters which men had dug for themselves collapsed at certain places. Trenches filled with water.
“It’s useless to try to describe the sufferings of the men, without shelter, soaked, pierced by cold, badly fed – no pen could tell their tale. You had to have lived through these hours, these days, these nights, to know how interminable they were in weather like this.
“Proceeding in nightly work details to and from the front lines, men slipped and fell into shell holes filled with water and weren’t able to climb out; they drowned or froze to death, their hands grasping at the edges of the craters in an effort to pull themselves out….”
Edward Strauss is the translator of Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. He is a fundraising director in higher education and former publisher of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He lives in New York City.