10 Fascinating Facts About the Battle of the Somme

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The Battle of the Somme is rarely talked about, and not often the subject of movies, but it was one of the most important battles of WWI and much more significant for the history of warfare than many realize. This battle was one of the bloodiest in recorded history, and forced the Germans to fight on an extra front in a last ditch effort to divert their forces from their battle against the French at Verdun.

While the battle was planned out carefully by the British leadership, the new technology of the time, and how the Germans would utilize it, was something they were not prepared for. As the battle slogged on for months, both sides succeeded and failed at many different innovations, and helped shape the strategies of war for many years to come.

10. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Work Was Greatly Inspired By His Experience In The Bloody Battle Of The Somme

J.R.R. Tolkien is known for writing the epic Lord of the Rings series, as well as all accompanying material. He translated Beowulf, was fluent in multiple languages, and was so fond of language that he created several of his own. However, what most people don’t realize is that he fought in the Great War, and saw many horrible things that would go on to impact his future writings. In a sense, without Tolkien’s harrowing experience at the Battle of the Somme, he may never have had the inspiration for the epic we all know and love.

He worked as a communications specialist, which is probably unsurprising to most, considering his skill at language. This doesn’t mean he got to sit around with a radio though; he was often physically going from place to place to make sure communications were delivered, and saw more than his fair share of the worst of the battle. Near the end of the Battle of the Somme, he got sick and ended up in the hospital, unable to fight any longer. During that time his fevered imaginings from the battle formed the beginning of much of what would one day become Middle Earth. It is also fascinating to think about how our own personal experiences always come through beyond all else. As someone who spent much of his time as a courier of information, the focal point of his trilogy involves a couple clever individuals sneaking behind enemy lines for one desperate act of sabotage.

9. The Battle Of The Somme Saw The First Use Of Primitive Tanks (Although They Didn’t Perform Well)

Tanks are considered a necessary part of the battlefield today, but back in the early days of World War I, they weren’t a thing at all. They saw their first introduction during the Battle of the Somme, during one of the later attempts to push through the entrenched German position. The plan was that the tanks would slowly move forward deflecting enemy fire, take out trenches, and allow allied soldiers to use them as cover while they advanced. As far as plans go, it was fairly solid, but the problem was that the technology was very new. The British brought in fifty tanks to make another push at the Germans, and the results were mostly disastrous.

Only 35 of them even managed to make it onto the battlefield, and from the beginning, the tanks were plagued with problems. At one point one tank got confused and started going after an allied trench. Another tank lost its locomotion, and after the soldiers got out and realized they weren’t going anywhere, they allegedly stopped to make tea. Overall, the tanks fired up the imagination of commanders all over the world, and spurred future development. But in terms of their effectiveness at the Battle of the Somme, they were more of a fascination than anything else.

8. The First Day Of The Battle Was The Biggest Single Day Loss For The British Army In History

The first day of the Battle of the Somme was a day that will forever be remembered as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, as well as one of the bloodiest single days in any battle in the history of the world. The British began an advance on July 1, 1916 in order to divert German forces from the Battle of Verdun, where the French were getting severely battered and were in sore need of some relief. The British command believed that the way to attack was relatively clear and that things would go smoothly – if they had imagined the bloodbath that would occur, they likely would have considered a different strategy.

The advance toward German lines was brought up short before long by Germans who were firmly entrenched in absurdly well dug out trench systems, waiting with machine gun nests to take down British forces in droves. However, this does not mean that the Germans got out of the first day without incredible losses of their own. By the end of the first bloody day, during which the British only gained a very small amount of ground, the British had lost over twenty thousand men, and the Germans had lost close to ten thousand themselves. On top of that, tens of thousands more were wounded. However, this was sadly only the beginning of an incredibly bloody conflict that lasted months.

7. Hitler Fought In The Battle Of The Somme, And Received An Injury That Haunted Him For Life

Adolf Hitler needs no introduction He’s such a recent arch-villain of history that he has become the go-to comparison anytime we want to suggest that someone is evil. Many people like to speculate what could have happened if Hitler had gone to art school, or turned out differently in some other way. Some may be surprised to know that as a young man he fought for Germany during the famous Battle of the Somme, and had his own traumatic experience that could have shaped his thinking for many years to come. He sustained an injury to his thigh which took him out of combat, and it’s rumored that the injury did even more than that.

There are legends that claim that the injury also caused Hitler to lose one of his testicles, which led to him developing insecurities for the rest of his life. However, this story doesn’t need to be true in order for Hitler’s leg injury to have changed who he was. While he was recovering – whether from just a thigh wound, or also a testicle injury – he thought about all the horrible things on the battlefield, and thought that someone should be held accountable for everything that had happened. Sadly, as we all know from history, he chose to take his anger out on the wrong people, and killed millions of innocent Jewish people – along with anyone else that he deemed impure, or who disagreed too much with his regime.

6. The British Made A Strategic Mistake, Thinking Their Shelling Had Destroyed The German Trenches

One of the first things that may come to mind when you read about just how many people died on the first day is how it happened in the first place. After all, it would seem that in such an enlightened time, it would be strange to simply throw your men at a fortified position and watch them die off en masse. The truth is that the British had carefully planned their attack, and thought that they were in a much better position than they actually were. They had carefully barraged the enemy’s position with heavy artillery for days before the first day of the battle, and thought they had taken out the majority of the enemy’s positions, as well as many of their soldiers.

Hence, it was to their great surprise when they tried to break – almost casually – through enemy lines on the first day, that they quickly found enemy machine gun nests tearing through their well lined up men, who had not been at all coached to expect such heavy resistance. The problem was that the British had done their battle simulations based on the capabilities of their own trenches, but the Germans had spent most of their time perfecting the intricacies of the trenches themselves – they took trench warfare very seriously. They had dug in very deep, and even had some of their trenches reinforced with concrete – when the British came, they were far more ready than the plan had anticipated.

5. The Battle’s Necessity Is Controversial To This Day, And Some People Consider It A Failure

The Battle of the Somme lasted a few months, and was horrifically brutal. While no day ever beat the record of the first bloodbath, the entire battle still cost both sides tens of thousands more lives, and the entire thing eventually just sort of ended with no real resolution. After a few months of brutal fighting, the British Commander, Sir Douglas Haig, called an end to the fighting and brought the Battle of the Somme to a conclusion. After the battle had concluded, Sir Winston Churchill argued that he felt lives had been too carelessly thrown away, for too little of an objective to be gained, beginning the dissent about the battle and whether it had been a good idea in the first place.

It is a fairly common expression in the UK to suggest that the men who fought in the battle were lions being led by donkeys – the suggestion being that the troops were brave, but their leaders were basically idiots. However, many people suggest that this is not necessarily the case, and that history may be judging Sir Haig too harshly. The initial first day was a disaster, but their plan made sense with the intelligence they had. And in order to make a difference in the war, they had to make a large diversionary push before the French forces at Verdun were no longer able to hold the Germans back. This had given them very little time to act. Those who defend Sir Haig would argue that the battle was required to keep the German forces spread thin and distracted, and that while the battle itself may have been a failure, it was a necessary loss in order to win the war.

4. The Creeping Barrage Was Perfected During The Battle Of The Somme

While it was not the first place it was ever used, during the Battle of the Somme, the technique known as the “Creeping Barrage” was first perfected and fairly heavily used as the battle dragged on further and further. During at least one major operation, many Canadian forces joined in to make a push toward the German lines, making use of the Creeping Barrage technique to advance. This technique involved having pre-planned and precisely placed bursts of artillery fire along the route that the allied soldiers were meant to advance. The idea was that as long as the allied soldiers stayed close enough to the bombardment, they would be able to advance to enemy trenches without them being able to properly pop up and take them out with machine gun fire.

The idea worked decently enough; however, it also had its flaws. Many of the brave soldiers who took part in this technique were risking a lot more than just enemy fire. In order to make the whole trick work, they had to stay very close to the path of the planned shelling, and considering how inaccurate shelling could be at that time, many of the advancing soldiers were hit by their own allied artillery fire. This made the technique suicidally dangerous, but it was just one of many things the allies tried in a desperate attempt to put a stop to the German war machine during World War I.

3. One Town Gave Nearly Everything For The War Effort

During the early days of World War I, volunteers were sorely needed, and so the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener, called for people to sign up and do their patriotic duty for the war effort. In the small town of Accrington, nearly 1,000 men volunteered to join the British Army and fight against the Germans. Most of this group ended up in their own battalion, which later became known as the “Accrington Pals”, and would go on to have their first major fight at the Battle of the Somme. On the first day, a huge majority of their number were killed in action, some of them gunned down before they could even make it out of their trenches.

This was a tragedy for the small town, with nearly everyone in the community affected. The town was in nearly constant mourning, and gave up an incredible percentage of their young men, sacrificing dearly for the protection of others. In 1981, Peter Whelan wrote a play about the people of the town and what they sacrificed in order to honor their memory. While it was a very sad event, it did lead to better reforms for the future. The government realized that suggesting people recruit together as a battalion from their own town was a bad idea, because a single battalion being wiped out would have far too much of an impact on that one town. Their plan for the future was to make sure that people from the same town were properly split across different battalions, so such tragedy could not occur again.

2. Machine Guns Allowed For A Level Of Mass Butchery Never Seen Before

As we mentioned earlier, a big part of the reason the British lost so many men on the first day was because they thought the Germans had already been more soundly defeated. However, if the Germans had still been using weapons from years previous, the carnage would probably still have not been nearly as horrific. This was one of the first major engagements between world powers to see serious use of machine guns, and many commanders were not familiar enough with what they could do to be properly prepared for their destructive power.

The Germans were well entrenched, as we went over before, and with machine guns sometimes even set up on rails to quickly bring back to the surface after a shelling bombardment had stopped, they were very ready to take down an advancing horde. The Germans were actually quite surprised at how the British kept trying to advance toward their guns, and found themselves killing large numbers in a very short amount of time. This was not to reflect on the intelligence of the British troops, but simply shows how destructive new weapons of war can be when people haven’t yet figured out how to counter them. The machine guns also made the war drag out very slowly, as machine guns forced both sides to be very defensive, bringing an end to a period of war when battles were often fought much more quickly and decisively.

1. The Battle Of The Somme Was The Beginning Of The Worlds Real Understanding Of Shell Shock

During the Battle of the Somme, doctors were just starting to understand psychology, and they were faced with one of the bloodiest battles ever seen. This meant that they had a plethora of patients who were not physically injured, but always twitching, nervous, and complaining of horrible dreams when they slept, where they kept seeing the horrors of war. This was attributed to shell shock, something that until recently been thought to be the direct effects of a shell itself – hence the name. It should be no surprise to most that thousands of young men would have what we now call PTSD after seeing many of their friends die brutally in an ongoing battle that would seem almost entirely senseless and without merit. At first, the powers that be were removing people from the field with shell shock, mainly because they thought they could be contagious, and affect others.

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However, they quickly felt they had a rather big problem on their hands. Some people, when they realized a friend had been sent home for shell shock, would attempt to be sent home for the same thing. And to make matters worse for the war effort, they were worried that if everyone who had shell shock went home, if you counted those also wounded or dead there would be basically no one left to actually fight the war. At this point, they decided to start disciplining units that showed too many incidents of shell shock, and punished doctors who would report the problem too much in order to keep too many people from being sent home. After the Battle of the Somme’s conclusion, medical officers were told they could no longer even diagnose people with shell shock, and it would be many years before Britain and other world powers started to properly understand psychology and better treat soldiers who have PTSD. Unfortunately, many world powers struggle with this issue even today.


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