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1 July to 18 November 1916

The pleasant region of Picardy in Northern France is a rolling tableland dotted

with little towns and furrowed by hundreds of streams.The land hardly rises

above 500 feet.The cheerful countryside, through which the River Somme

winds, had been a cockpit of war for centuries but the front there had seen little

activity during the GreatWar until the summer of 1916.

The Allies had planned a summer campaign on three fronts, the Eastern by the

Russians, the Italian by the Italian Army and theWestern by Britain and France,

with the British attacking north of the River Somme and the French astride the

river and to the south. But they were pre-empted by their enemies.

Germany, having focused its attention in the east in 1915, switched its attention

to the west in 1916. In February it attacked the French strong-point of the small

city ofVerdun with its 17th century citadel.The Germans’ plans are not at all

clear, but by crushing the French Army atVerdun, they might have created the

opportunity for manoeuvre and breakthrough elsewhere in the west.

The Austrians, planning in isolation from their German allies, attacked the

Italians in May.They made initial gains, but their offensive was already losing

steam by 4 June, when they themselves were attacked by the Russians on the

eastern front. Germany was forced to come to its ally’s aid. It sent troops from

west to east, and so moved from attack to defence atVerdun.The battle atVerdun

ran on for the rest of the year, but now France – not Germany – was on the

offensive.The French contribution to the Somme battle was gradually cut back

because of the demands ofVerdun and so a proportionately greater burden fell on

the British.

The last week of June 1916 had been cloudy with showers but on the final day

the clouds cleared to leave a beautiful summer’s evening.That night the orders

went out, the attack would be delivered the next morning three hours after


The first day of July 1916 dawned hot and cloudless and every gun along a twenty

five mile front opened up and went on firing until, at half past seven in the

morning, there was a pause and the Allied infantry went over the top into action.