The Bloodiest Battle
Home Radio Television Curio.ca
CAPH banner left CAPH banner centre CAPH banner right
Horror on the Battlefield
The Bloodiest Battle
History Home
The Bloodiest Battle
More than a million soldiers are killed or wounded at the Battle of the Somme
"We were walking on dead soldiers ... I saw poor fellows trying to bandage their wounds... bombs, heavy shells were falling all over them. Poor Angéline, it is the worst sight that a man ever wants to see."
The Battle of the Somme lasted five months in 1916 and placed young men on both sides of the war in the middle of a protracted hell. Pictured here, Canadian soldiers returning from the trenches of the Somme. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, P
The Battle of the Somme lasted five months in 1916 and placed young men on both sides of the war in the middle of a protracted hell. Pictured here, Canadian soldiers returning from the trenches of the Somme. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, PA-000832)

Few battles better epitomize the horror and futility of war than the Battle of the Somme as Canadian soldier Frank Maheux described in a letter to his wife Angéline. The battle lasted five months, maimed or killed more than a million soldiers and placed young men on both sides in the middle of a protracted hell.

In 1916, the British and French planned the attack in part to break through the German lines and end a stalemate that existed in the trenches in Europe. The Somme Valley in northern France was near the junction of the French and British fighting sectors but the location served little other strategic purpose.

The Germans were well forewarned of the attack and ready to defend their line.

On the morning of July 1, 1916, 100,000 British troops came out of their trenches and advanced in broad daylight toward the German lines. The soldiers staggered under the weight of 66 pounds of gear as they walked across a crater-filled field known as "No Man's Land" in long orderly lines.

The slow, massive advance was an outdated military tactic that was no match for the new weapons of war. The British soldiers were easy target for the Germans who mowed them down with machine gun fire. More than 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives that day, the worst in British military history.
Outdated military tactics such as slow, massive troop advances were no match for modern military weapons at the Battle of the Somme. Pictured here, a heavy howitzer at the battle. (National Archives of Canada, PA-000848)
Outdated military tactics such as slow, massive troop advances were no match for modern military weapons at the Battle of the Somme. Pictured here, a heavy howitzer at the battle. (National Archives of Canada, PA-000848)

The Newfoundland Regiment, fighting with the 29th British Division (Newfoundland had not yet joined Canadian Confederation), was nearly annihilated. Of 801 men at the beginning of the battle, only 68 were unwounded. It took days for the survivors to retrieve the bodies of the 301 dead and bury them.

Canada entered the Somme offensive at the end of the summer. On September 15 1916, two Canadian regiments including the Quebeckers of the 22nd Regiment received orders to capture Courcelette, a village in the Somme Valley occupied by Germans.

It would be an improvised and nearly suicidal attack for the inexperienced Quebec regiment as Lieutenant-Colonel Louis-Thomas Tremblay well understood.

"We know very well," he wrote in his diary, "that we are heading to the slaughterhouse. The task seems nearly impossible, considering how ill prepared we are, and how little we know the layout of the front. Even so, morale is wonderfully high and we are determined to show that we Canadians are not quitters."

The Canadian soldiers managed to capture Courcelette. The success earned the Quebec 22nd Regiment a reputation as a stellar fighting force and several officers and soldiers were decorated for their courage. But it was at a bloody cost.

Frank Maheux, a lumberjack from Quebec, described the scene to his wife:

"All my friends have been either killed or wounded ... My dear wife, it is worse than hell here. For miles around, corpses completely cover up the ground. But your Frank didnt get so much as a scratch. I went to battle as if I had to cut wood with my bayonet. When one of my friends was killed at my side, I saw red: some Germans raised their arms in surrender, but it was too late for them. I will remember that all my life."
More than a million soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded during Battle of the Somme in 1916. Pictured here, a burial ground of Canadian soldiers who died in the battle (National Archives of Canada, PA-002145)
More than a million soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded during Battle of the Somme in 1916. Pictured here, a burial ground of Canadian soldiers who died in the battle (National Archives of Canada, PA-002145)

The Somme offensive continued into the fall of 1916 and the numbers of dead and wounded mounted.

Clare Gass, a nurse from Nova Scotia, treated the wounded at the Somme.

"Some terrible cases, oh so much the better dead. One young lad with eyes and nose all gone - one blur of mangled flesh - and body whole and sound ... All are so brave, and yet those who are not badly wounded are so tired of the war, tired in such a hopeless way."

The Battle of the Somme finally ended in late November, when rain, snow and sleet made operations impossible.

It was difficult to tell victor from vanquished, The Germans had 660,000 dead or wounded. The Allies (including Britain, France and Canada) had 623,907 casualties including 24,000 dead or wounded Canadians, representing a quarter of the Canadian contingent.

The Allies had pushed forward only 13 kilometres in the Somme Valley during the bloodiest battle of the war.


top of page


Last Topic:
Dawn of Chemical Warfare

Current Topic:
The Bloodiest Battle

Next Topic:
Pride at Vimy Ridge
Dawn of Chemical Warfare
Canadians soldiers are front and centre during some of the first gas attacks in the First World War
read more ...

Pride at Vimy Ridge
Canadians win a great victory during WWI and help a young country discover its national pride
read more ...

Family of Soldiers
Three brothers leave the farm and head into battle
read more ...

A Soldier's Story
A young man from the Gasp Peninsula witnesses the atrocities of battle
read more ...

When Duty Calls
A native soldier joins the fight and proves his honour
read more ...

"In Flanders Fields"
A Canadian soldier writes a haunting poem about the tragedy of war
read more ...

history home | explore the episodes | biographies | teacher resources | bibliography | games and puzzles | sitemap | contact us
cbc home | tv episode summaries | merchandise | press releases | behind the scenes | audio/video

copyright � 2001 CBC