1. The Somme | Service Eligibility Assistant, Additional Information, Historical Information, Part 1 Military History, Ch 1 World War I, S 3 The Somme 1916

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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The Anzacs, after being withdrawn from Gallipoli, returned to Egypt for rest and retraining.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:

 

Brigade

Battalion

Battalion

Battalion

Battalion

1st Division

1st Brigade

1st

2nd

3rd

4th

2nd Brigade

5th

6th

7th

8th

3rd Brigade

9th

10th

11th

12th

2nd Division

5th Brigade

17th

18th

19th

20th

6th Brigade

21st

22nd

23rd

24th

7th Brigade

25th

26th

27th

28th

3rd Division

9th Brigade

33rd

34th

35th

36th

10th Brigade

37th

38th

39th

40th

11th Brigade

41st

42nd

43rd

44th

4th Division

4th Brigade

13th

14th

15th

16th

12th Brigade

45th

46th

47th

48th

13th Brigade

49th

50th

51st

52nd

5th Division

8th Brigade

29th

30th

31st

32nd

14th Brigade

53rd

54th

55th

56th

15th Brigade

57th

58th

59th

60th

     

 

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.