The Battle of the Somme began as an Allied offensive against German forces on the Western Front and turned into one of the most bitter and costly battles of WW1.
British forces suffered more than 57,000 casualties—including more than 19,000 soldiers killed—on the first day of the battle alone, making it the single most disastrous day in that nation's military history. By the time the Battle of the Somme (sometimes called the First Battle of the Somme) ended nearly five months later, more than 3 million soldiers on both sides had fought in the battle, and more than 1 million had been killed or wounded.
As October began, bad weather stymied another Allied attack, with soldiers struggling to cross muddy terrain under fierce fire from German artillery and fighter planes. The Allies made their final advance of the battle in mid-November, attacking the German positions in the Ancre River valley. With the arrival of true winter weather, Haig finally called the offensive to a halt on November 18, ending the battle of attrition on the Somme, at least until the following year. Over 141 days, the British had advanced just seven miles, and had failed to break the German line.
More than anything else, the Battle of the Somme—and especially its devastating first day—would be remembered as the epitome of the brutal and seemingly senseless carnage that characterized trench warfare during World War I. British officers, especially Haig, would be criticized for continuing the offensive in spite of such devastating losses.
Many of the British soldiers who fought at the Somme had volunteered for army service in 1914 and 1915 and saw combat for the first time in the battle. Many were members of so-called Pals battalions, or units that were made up of friends, relatives and neighbors in the same community. In one poignant example of a community's loss, some 720 men from the 11th East Lancashire battalion (known as the Accrington Pals) fought on July 1 at the Somme; 584 were killed or wounded.
Despite its failure, the Allied offensive at the Somme did inflict serious damage on German positions in France, spurring the Germans to strategically retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917 rather than continue battling over the same land that spring.
Though the exact number is disputed, German losses by the end of the Battle of the Somme probably exceeded Britain's, with some 450,000 soldiers lost compared with 420,000 on the British side. The surviving British forces had also gained valuable experience, which would later help them achieve victory on the Western Front.