A service of remembrance is being held today at Thiepval in northern France to commemorate the last day of the Battle of the Somme. (Though the historian Martin Gilbert in his Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War, puts the final action on November 19.) Thiepval’s Memorial to the Missing lists the names of more than 72,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.
I wrote about the Somme in my book Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters, noting that every other battle I featured was clearly a defeat, while the Somme is sometimes seen as a victory.
The ground gained was negligible. Nowhere did the Allied line advance more than six miles, and many objectives due to be taken on the first day were never captured, nor did the Allies liberate a single town or gain a single strategically significant point. But it is said that the bloody attrition fatally drained German resources and paved the way for the Allied victory two years later.
The offensive involving British, British Empire and French soldiers had begun on 1 July, 1916. By the end of that day, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were dead, and 36,000 wounded – the worst toll for a single day in the history of the British Army.
When rotten weather and cloying mud finally brought an end to the battle, Britain and the British Empire had suffered an almost unimaginable 400,000 casualties, the French had lost about 200,000, and the Germans perhaps 450,000.