19/11/1916 Winter brings the Battle of the Somme to an end

British and Canadian troops attacked on the Somme yesterday, taking heavy losses and making minimal gains. Now winter is descending onto the battlefield, with snow and sleet making conditions in the mud-drenched trenches intolerable. Further attacks are nigh impossible. Haig had hoped to keep assaulting the Germans through the winter, but yesterday’s carnage has unnerved him. Rawlinson, the Somme commander, has already warned that the scale of Somme losses means that the British may not have enough men left to mount a large-scale offensive in the spring. The losses suffered yesterday only reinforce the point.

So Haig calls a halt to major operations on the Somme. Raids and skirmishing will continue, to keep the men on their toes (and to maintain some kind of pressure on the Germans), but there will be no more attempts to smash through the enemy lines. After four and a half months the Battle of the Somme is effectively over.

Haig had hoped that the battle would see the British break through the German defensive lines. In this regard the battle has been a failure. The Germans have been pushed back as much as five or six miles in some areas but the British have not made it through to open country. Nor have their French or Commonwealth allies.

These gains have been paid for in prodigious quantities of blood. British and Commonwealth forces have suffered some 420,000 casualties. Half of the men sent to the Somme will never fight again, either because they are dead or else too severely injured to continue serving in the army. The French, meanwhile, have taken some 204,000 casualties in the fighting, a considerable figure when added to the losses they are still taking in the fighting at Verdun.

Total German casualties at the Somme are around 429,000. They have also suffered considerable losses this year at Verdun and elsewhere, making these losses hard to sustain, though their total losses for this year are still likely to be lower than in 1915. Though they never came close to the kind of general collapse dreamed of by Haig, the Germans have felt the psychological strain of the fighting, with increased incidents of shell shock and men surrendering rather than fighting to the end.

For the Allies, the one notable success of the Somme is that the pressure there forced the Germans to halt their attempts to take Verdun. Apart from that the benefits of the battle have been minimal. Despite the pressure of the Somme fighting, the Germans were still able to divert men from the Western Front to counter the Brusilov Offensive in the East.

Haig plans to renew the offensive in the spring. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, meanwhile, are determined not to fight another battle of this kind again. They have their own plans for next year.

image sources:

Australian troops earlier in November (Australian War Memorial)

map (Wikipedia)

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