The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was a tragic turning point in World War One for British and Empire forces. There are many on-going commemorations from 1 July to 18 November to mark the centenary of the battle.
The Battle of the Somme was launched to try to provide relief for the French Army, which was engaged in a bloody battle against the German forces at Verdun.
The Somme was just one more battle in the seemingly endless engagements in the trenches in World War I. Regularly, one side or another launched an offensive and tried to gain some ground. Generally speaking, weeks or months of terrible human casualties resulted in minimal territorial gains.
But for the British, and their colonial fellow combatants, the Somme has tragic significance. The battle lasted 141 days. But the first day, 1 July 1916, was the bloodiest in British military history: 19,240 men died and 38,230 were injured. Never before, or since, has the British Army suffered such losses.
As if those numbers were not horrific enough, many of the men were part of Pals battalions: groups of men from the same street, village or factory who had volunteered together for the army. Entire communities were devastated by the losses. The Newfoundland Regiment deployed 801 men on 1 July. The next day, only 68 were fit for service. Of their comrades, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 missing. Today, Newfoundland is part of Canada, but at the time it was a small, self-governing colony. The losses at the Somme decimated the male population of the island.
The Accrington Pals Battalion from Lancashire, England, was another tragic example. Of 700 men who attacked on the first day of the Somme, 235 were killed and 350 injured in just twenty minutes.
As a direct result of the losses at the Somme, Britain was forced to introduce conscription. The volunteers who had cheerfully signed up in 1914, believing the war would be "over by Christmas" were no longer sufficient to fight the terrible, never ending war of attrition on the Western Front.
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