Why a Battle of the Somme

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In 1915, the Allied commanders discussed plans for the offensive of 1916 that would win the war. The British favoured Ypres with its adjacent Belgian seaports and thus access to England. Logistics informed the decision and the area of the River Somme was chosen, for it marked the boundary between the French and British armies and would involve a minimal reorganisation of troops.

The battle was to be a joint British and French affair but when the Germans launched a massive offensive on the French at Verdun on 21 February 1916, all plans were changed. The Germans were pledged to bleed France white at Verdun but the city’s mythical importance to the French could not allow this.

As the French poured more and more resources into keeping the Germans at bay, their ability to participate on the Somme dwindled. In consequence, the planned battle on the Somme acquired even greater importance as a means of forcing the German army to divide and fight on two fronts, thus easing the pressure on the French at Verdun. The French had put so much of their resources into the fight at Verdun that if they were beaten there, the Germans would have swept through enabling them to reach Paris and then the seaports, thereby encircling the British army.

Immediate success or failure on the Somme was unimportant, keeping the Germans split between there and Verdun was crucial to preventing German victory in the war.