The politicians of Britain and France would not consider a negotiated end to hostilities so the only option left to the generals was to try for a decisive victory on the Western Front. This decision was made even though it was known that a war of attrition would be costly in terms of resources and human life – thousands of men were being killed every month by simply ‘holding the line’.
The loss of so many soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force – the regular army – meant that volunteers from among the civilian population were desperately needed to sign up. These volunteers were often made up of men who worked together, many of them coming from the industrial centres of the North of England. They became known as ‘Pals’ battalions.
By the summer of 1916, Kitchener’s Army of volunteers had been trained and equipped and were ready to take their place on the front line. The battle was to take place on a 14-mile front that straddled the River Somme. When fighting commenced on 1 July 1916, twenty-eight divisions of the British Army were in place, nineteen of them Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ divisions.
On the first day of the battle 19,240 British soldiers had been killed and nearly 40,000 injured. By the time fighting petered out in late autumn, over 1 million men on all sides had been killed or injured. The British army had advanced just 7 miles into land that had been previously held by the Germans.
History has made much of the walking soldiers at the Somme, but part of the reason was the need to keep heavily laden men together in coherent units, something difficult to achieve in the days before mobile communications.