History of war: Verdun and the Somme 1916 – Research Paper

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Verdun and the Somme 1916.
In 1916 attention turned to the Somme, again. Manpower was 139 Divisions for the Allies and 117 for the Germans. This time the Allies: Britain, France, Italy, Belgium and Russia co-ordinated their efforts with a general assault against the Germans in the summer of 1916. Once again the Germans got in first attacking the French at Verdun.

At 0715 hours on 21 February 1916 an artillery shell exploded in the archbishops’ palace in Verdun which commenced an unprecedented bombardments and a battle of great length. A million shells were fired on day one. For three days French defences crumbled into a mass of mud, shell holes, destroyed wire entanglements and broken concrete. German soldiers advanced with a new weapon, the flamethrower! Another nasty weapon developed for fighting in trenches, towns and fortifications. The German advance quickly captured Douaumont one of two huge fortresses guarding Verdun. The French were informed of the loss of the Fortress by the Germans dropping leaflets from the air. This caused some panic among the French people and the roads became clogged with refugees and wounded soldiers.
At this time General Petain took over command at Verdun and eventually fought the Germans to a standstill. Artillery was a big player in this battle. The Germans started with a huge bombardment of the French lines followed by an infantry assault which was retaliated against by the French artillery pounding the Infantry, followed by the German artillery pounding the French Infantry. Despite the terrible conditions of winter, the French managed to match the Germans for supply of munitions which enabled a stalemate at Verdun. The battle ended 18 December 1916. At any one time there were over one million men facing each other along 8 miles (13Km) of the Western Front. For Ten months these men lived a nightmare of whistling shells and explosions and shattered bodies. Around 40 million artillery shells were fired, contributing to 160,000 French and 130,000 German deaths and, between them, 600,000 wounded.

In the last week of June 1916 the British commenced a massive artillery barrage along an 18 mile front. They fired over 1 million rounds dropping 20,000 tons of explosives and metal on the German lines. The noise created by this bombardment could be heard over 100 miles away on the Downs over the Channel. At the beginning of this battle over 2,000,000 men faced each other in what was to be the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. In 142 days between July and November 1916 1.2 million men were killed or wounded.

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On July 1 the British attacked with 11 divisions against the German line north of the Somme and the French with Five divisions to the south. The British objective was Pozieres Ridge some 4 miles (6kms) away. Some 120,000 men went “over the top” at 0730hours in waves 100 yards (90m) apart they advanced. Ahead the artillery barrage lifted, to flatten more distant German trenches. The front line Germans, sheltering in their dugouts now faced the oncoming British Infantry and cut them down with their machine guns. At the same time undamaged German Artillery rained down shells upon the attacking Infantry. Those 120,000 men never stood a chance. Along the whole front, every assault led to a bloodbath and the British managed to take 2000 prisoners.

After a couple of weeks General Sir Henry Rawlinson suggested renewing the attack along a four mile(6km) front aiming at spots on the ridge called Deville Wood and High Wood. Over a five day period a South African Brigade attacked, often being involved in hand to hand combat. When the Brigade was relieved there were only 758 survivors.

As this attempted breakthrough had failed, General Haig decided that with “methodical progress” he would provide the “Big Victory” he had promised.
He continually attacked Poziers Ridge with the usual results. No area gained and lots of casualties. The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps lost 23000 men killed or wounded.

The last attack on the Somme was in Mid November 1916. The usual story of lots of men wounded or killed. The British had advanced about 5 miles(8km) so slowly that the Germans were able to repair any damage caused during the attack so that their line was just as strong as ever. The British suffered 420,000 casualties, the French 200,000 and the Germans about 450,000. In the words of A.J.P. Taylor: “The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War: Brave helpless soldiers, obstinate Generals and nothing achieved”.