In July 1916, the British and French armies launched an offensive near the River Somme, in Picardy, France. This series of battles, lasting nearly five months, would become one of the bloodiest and most important campaigns of the war.

In late 1915, the military leaders of the Entente discussed a co-ordinated strategy for the following year. With combined attacks on all fronts, they aimed to wear down the Central Powers, preventing the German and Austro-Hungarian armies from sustaining their military efforts. In early February, British and French commanders agreed to a joint offensive around the River Somme, where their lines met.

Only a few days later, the German Army launched its own offensive at Verdun. It would be one of the fiercest battles of the war, lasting until the end of the year. Although the German attack had stalled by the summer, far fewer French divisions were available to fight on the Somme, and the forces of the British Empire would take the leading role.

On 24th June 1916, Allied artillery began a week-long bombardment of the German defences, firing more than 1.5 million shells. Yet the length and depth of the target area, along with manufacturing defects ¡n British shells, meant that many well-constructed German dugouts remained intact and sheltered the defenders. Thiepval, Ovillers and La Boisselle - they suffered terrible losses for little gain. Over the following weeks, British and Empire forces continued the offensive to the south of the Albert-Bapaume road. In mid-July they stormed the German second line of defences along Bazentin Ridge, and heavy fighting began at High Wood and Delville Wood. Later that month, the high ground at Pozieres was captured. Attacks and counter-attacks by both sides continued throughout August, and the villages of Guillemont and Ginchy were secured in early September. On 15 September, the British Army launched its largest attack since 1st July, between Courcelette and Flers. Later that month, the villages around Morval were captured, and Thiepval was taken.

In October, deteriorating Weather transformed the battlefields into a muddy and waterlogged morass, but fighting continued for the Transloy Ridges, the Butte de Warlencourt, and the heights overlooking the River Ancre. In November, amid freezing sleet and snow, the British Army made progress north of the Ancre, before the offensive was halted on 18th November.

Those serving in the British Army came from every part of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Among them were professional soldiers, territorials, and volunteers — some of whom served in ‘Pals’ battalions formed of men drawn from the same communities, clubs, schools, and workplaces. They were joined by servicemen from across the British Empire, including units from Australia, Canada, India, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies.

The battles of the Somme in 1916 had significant military, political, industrial and domestic consequences for all the countries involved. Every village, copse, farmhouse and rise was fiercely contested, and both sides committed huge quantities of manpower and munitions to the struggle.

An estimated 3.5 million men fought on all sides, and over 1 million were wounded or killed. The French army sustained more than 204,000 casualties. German records documented a total of nearly 430,000 killed, wounded or missing, but other estimates using different measures suggest a far greater number. Official figures for British Empire casualties numbered some 420,000 wounded, missing or killed. Precise statistics are impossible to calculate.
Across the Somme battlefields are cemeteries and memorials built and cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They are evocative and permanent monuments to those who fought and died there. Some are vast and dramatic, others small and intimate. Standing sentinel over the battlefields, the Thiepval Memorial is the largest CWGC memorial in the world. Other casualties of the battle lie closer to home. There are war dead buried in villages, towns and cities across the United Kingdom, many of whom had been brought home for medical care, but succumbed to their wounds. Every grave, every name, is an opportunity to reflect on the battle and its human cost.
Dr Glyn Prysor, Commonwealth War Graves


1916 was the tipping point of the Great War. Many influential people, party to the planning of the battle, hoped it would end the war with one massive strike; in fact, the Somme forced the opposite conclusion: the struggle would be long and hard. As many know, 1st July 1916 ranks as the worst day in British military history with some 60,000 casualties suffered. The famous ‘Pals battalions many of them raised ¡n the north of England and the great urban centres of Scotland, as well as Belfast, came to grief on that awful day. By the battle’s end in had suffered some 420,000 casualties. The impact of the battle at home was immense. As people across Britain were plunged into mourning, stories of pride and sorrow poured out in local newspapers. Requiring a focus for their grief, people began erecting simple war memorials recording the names of the dead and those still serving. Such rituals were part of a process of understanding and coming to terms with the battle being fought in France. 


William Orpen, a war artist, was on the Somme in 1916 returning in August 1917. He found the landscape transformed. Writing in 1921, Orpen described the scene. 

“I had left it mud, nothing but water, shell- holes and mud — the most gloomy dreary abomination of desolation the mind could imagine; and now, in the summer of 1917, no words could express the beauty of it.

The dreary, dismal mud was baked white and pure — dazzling white. White daisies, red poppies and a blue flower, great masses of them, stretched for miles and miles. The sky a pure dark blue and the whole air, up to a height of about forty feet, thick with white butterflies: your clothes were covered with butterflies. It was like an enchanted land: but in the place of fairies there were thousands of little white crosses, marked ‘Unknown British Soldier”, for the most part. 

William Orpen, with additional material by Robert Upstone and Angela Weight. From “An Onlooker in France.” 

*William Orpen

Born in 1878 in Stillorgan near Dublin William showed an early interest in drawing and entered the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin at the age of thirteen. In 1908 he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Academy in London. In 1917 he was recruited by the Government to produce paintings of the Western Front and was the most prolific of all the artists sent there. His paintings of the Somme battlefields were haunting recollections of ruined landscapes and torn ground. He produced drawings and paintings of soldiers and German prisoners of war along with portraits of general and politicians. Most of these works are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museums. He died on 29th September 1931 in London.

*Material from the programme for the Somme commemoration service on 1st July in Manchester cathedral.