August 22nd 1918: Second Battle of the Somme Begins

Almost everyone has heard of the Battle of the Somme.

Many know when it began - 1st July 1916 - and some will be able to accurately recall it as the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. There were almost 60,000 British casualties on July 1st - 20,000 of whom were either killed or later died of wounds.

A few people might know that what we now know as 'the' Battle of the Somme was actually a larger Allied offensive, lasting 141 days and consisting of a number of smaller battles across a 15-mile front.

Together these battles - or the Somme Offensive - gained a little over five miles of ground across the front. But at a high price. There were 420,000 British casualties; 125,000 British and Empire troops were killed of whom 72,000 have no known grave and are commemorated on the enormous Thiepval memorial.

No wonder the word 'Somme' has become synonymous with slaughter and today symbolises more than any other the horror and waste of the First World War.

But there was another Battle of the Somme. And that was a very different battle.

On August 22nd exactly 100 years ago today, British troops again began to advance over ground that was already notorious: Albert, St Quentin, Peronne.

This was a counterattack to win back gains made by the German's following the spring offensive of 1918. That last ditch enemy effort had itself ground to a halt on the earlier Somme battlefields. As historian John Keegan says, 'The Somme may not have won the war for the British in 1916 but the obstacle zone it left helped to ensure that in 1918 they did not lose it.' (p.433)

Another reason the German spring offensive failed was to become the principal reason this new Allied attack on the Somme began at last to set the Allies on the road to victory. A demoralised and over-stretched enemy now faced a newly revitalised Army galvanised by the arrival of US troops.

Although casualty numbers were still dreadfully high, the gains were significant and the tide of war at last began to turn.


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