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ARCHIVED - Oral Histories of the First World War:
Veterans 1914-1918

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Graphical element: Rendering first aid to a wounded Canadian soldier

The Battle of the Somme

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Images of The Battle of the Somme


Essay on The Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was the major British offensive for 1916. The battle began on July 1, after a long artillery bombardment that eliminated any surprise but failed to destroy the German barbed wire. The assault was a disaster, as the British troops went forward in long lines, only to be mown down by German machine guns that British artillery had failed to suppress. The British suffered an appalling 57,450 casualties on this one day, for almost no gains. Among the devastated units was the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. The regiment was almost annihilated in 30 minutes at the village of Beaumont Hamel, losing almost 700 out of 800 men.

For the next 10 weeks the British continued their attack, for a gain of a few thousand yards of blasted farmers' fields. The Canadians were fortunate not to be involved in this fighting, but high casualties made it inevitable that they would be needed eventually. By this time, there were three Canadian divisions available, formed into a single Canadian Corps.

On September 15, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions launched an assault on the German trenches around the village of Courcelette. Aided by an innovative creeping barrage (whereby artillery fire moved forward in front of the advancing troops and forced the enemy to stay in his dugouts during the assault), and the first use of tanks in the history of warfare, the Canadians quickly seized the village after heavy fighting. It was the single biggest advance since the offensive began. But there was no breakthrough, and the Canadians suffered over 7,000 casualties.

In late September and early October, the Canadian Corps took part in attacks on Thiepval Ridge and a series of German defences known as Regina Trench, northwest of Courcelette. Most of the attacks ended in failure. When the Canadians did manage to capture parts of the enemy trench system, they were often overwhelmed by counterattacks. By mid-October, the Canadian Corps was pulled from the line, having suffered almost 20,000 casualties in six weeks. However, the 4th Canadian Division, newly arrived in Europe, took its place. In a series of attacks in late October, 4th Division finally managed to capture Regina Trench.

When the fighting on the Somme finally ended in November, there had been over 400,000 British casualties, 24,000 of them Canadian. The German army had also been ground down in the attritional battles, but the meagre British advances could not justify the horrendous losses.