Few words conjure the futility and the staggering losses of the First World War like the Somme. In the summer of 1916 the British launched a major offensive against German lines. The battle lasted five months, killed or wounded approximately 1.2 million men, and produced little gains. The Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) was only involved in the final three months of fighting. However, on the offensive's first day, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was nearly annihilated at Beaumont-Hamel.
1 July 1916
After two years of stalemate in the vast trench works held by the Allied and German armies on the Western Front, the British launched a massive offensive in the Somme River valley in northern France. It was hoped the assault would not only break the stalemate, but also relieve pressure on beleaguered French forces defending against the long-running German assault further south, at Verdun.
The Somme offensive opened with a massive artillery bombardment, which did little to knock out enemy troops and artillery guns. The Germans simply hid in their deep dugouts until the barrage ended, emerging largely unscathed to face the oncoming attackers. Many British shells had also been poorly manufactured and turned out to be duds; others lacked the fuses necessary to explode on contact with the barbed wire strung across no man's land between the opposing sides.
When British soldiers “went over the top” of their trenches in the wake of the barrage, the result was catastrophe: tens of thousands were mown down by machine-gun fire, or caught up in barbed wire and then killed as they tried to reach the German lines. The British lost more than 57,000 men killed or wounded on only the first day of the battle, with little to show for their sacrifice.
Among the dead, wounded and missing were more than 700 soldiers of the First Newfoundland Regiment, cut down within half an hour at Beaumont-Hamel. Of the regiment's 801 members, only 68 could answer roll call by the end of the opening day.
In 1916, Newfoundland was not part of Canada. The Canadian forces, stationed in Belgium near the city of Ypres, were spared the first few months of fighting on the Somme. By the end of August, however, with manpower on the Somme running low, the first three divisions of the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) were relocated to the battle to help with the offensive, still grinding on under the orders of British generals.
The Canadians entered the battle on August 30, taking part in a number of bloody attacks from September through November, supported by the first tanks used in action on the Western Front. The corps captured a series of strategic objectives including Courcelette, Thiepval and Ancre Heights. In November, the 4th Division of the Canadian Corps, then fighting alongside British troops, helped capture the German stronghold of Regina Trench.
Canadian officer C. G. Barns recalled the heavy losses that were typical of those battles: "We went in about forty strong to a platoon, 160 to a company, and if you brought out 40 or 50 men out of a company of 160, you did well. They weren't all killed, they were wounded, but out of action. . . . (The Germans) had these cement redoubts stuffed with machine guns, and you've got to go over to get them knocked out. You had to circle and come in behind them. Well, 75 per cent of your men are knocked down before you can get in there."
Rain and snow finally brought the Battle of the Somme to an end. After five months' fighting, the Allies had only penetrated about 13 km along a 35 km front. Allied losses were estimated at 623,907, of whom more than 24,700 were Canadians and Newfoundlanders. German losses were estimated at 660,000.
The seemingly pointless slaughter on the Somme led to questions and severe criticism of the Allied leadership, especially General Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, of which both the Canadian Corps and the First Newfoundland Regiment were a part. But the offensive's failures also sparked new thinking about tactics – including the design of shells and the use of artillery, better planning and coordination among attacking forces on the battlefield, and the importance of allowing small groups of ordinary soldiers to exercise leadership and personal initiative during the changing fortunes of an assault.
Some of these ideas were already being experimented with among the Canadian Corps in the final months of fighting on the Somme. They would be successfully refined, contributing to the achievements of the corps in 1917 at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.