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1. The Somme
By the middle of 1916, massive German and French armies had been locked in battle on the Western Front for nearly two years. In August 1914, the British had sent a small expeditionary force to assist France. The British regulars were supplemented by Territorial forces in 1915, but it was not until mid-1916 that the armies raised by Kitchener, after the commencement of hostilities, were ready for battle. In early 1916 the Germans had attacked the French forces at Verdun, not just to gain ground but to grind the French into submission by attrition. The French resisted and held their ground at great cost. However, French forces were so heavily committed to defending Verdun that the French-British summer offensive became a British offensive with some French support.
The 1916 summer offensive was preceded by a week long artillery barrage. The original attack date was put back from 29 June until 1 July because of bad weather and misgivings about the success of the artillery. 1 July 1916 was bright and cloudless, perfect conditions for defenders whose positions had in many cases withstood the artillery barrage. At 7.30 am, 120,000 British infantry commenced their attack across no-mans-land. The attack was repulsed with massive casualties. In the greatest tragedy in British military history, 60,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. The losses on 1 July 1916 have never been forgotten and have eclipsed the remainder of the battle that continued for five months.
The Anzacs, after being withdrawn from Gallipoli, returned to Egypt for rest and retraining. The seven Australian infantry brigades were expanded to twelve and the 4th and 5th Australian Divisions joined the 1st and 2nd Divisions. A fifth Australian division, the 3rd, was formed in Australia and would not see action in 1916. The structure of the AIF after the reorganisation was as follows:
In March 1916, the Australian divisions in Egypt began moving to France and were initially stationed at Armentieres, a quiet sector near the Belgium border. On 7 July, the 1st and 2nd Australian Divisions were ordered to move to the Somme. The Official Australian Historian, C E W Bean, writing after the war, said the fighting on the Somme was the hardest experienced by the Australians in France.