CBC Digital Archives

Battle of the Somme

They called it "The Great War" and "The War to End All Wars" – though of course it didn't. When hostilities erupted in Europe in 1914, Canadians rushed to Britain's side. But the cost was terrible: more than 60,000 were killed, 172,000 wounded. There are no more Canadian combat veterans alive to recall the horrors of the First World War, but their voices and memories live on in the archives of the CBC. Lest we forget, here are some of their stories.

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By 1916, the First World War has become a stalemate. The battlefields of Europe have been dug into 800 kilometres of trenches. Men are dying, but no ground is being won or lost. On July 1, 1916, 150,000 Allied troops - including thousands of Canadians and Newfoundlanders - go over the top in an attempt to open up the western front. The result is a bloodbath. In this clip from the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, historian Martin Gilbert describes the futility of "The Big Push." 
• The Somme is a region of Picardie in northern France. It was the site of three battles during the First World War.

• The Battle of the Somme was the main Allied attack on the Western Front in 1916. The Allies attempted to break through German lines and draw them away from the French at the Battle of Verdun. Though that goal succeeded, the fighting at the Somme dragged on into the fall, becoming a war of attrition.

• On the first day of combat alone (July 1, 1916) more than 57,000 British troops were injured or killed, a one-day record that still stands. The German defenders lost just 8,000 that day.

• One assault in September earned the Allies only one kilometre, at a cost of 82,000 casualties.

• The September battle in Flers-Courcelette also marked the debut of the tank, which the British hoped would break the stalemate of trench warfare. Though they were impervious to barbed wire and rifle fire, the tanks proved unreliable and most broke down or got bogged down in trenches or shell holes.

• With tank assistance, the Canadian Second Division captured the village of Courcelette and advanced a kilometre from there. Despite hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides (25,000 were Canadians, and 2,000 were from Newfoundland) little was achieved. The Allied forces lost as many as 600,000 men to capture a mere five kilometres of land.

• Two more battles were fought at the Somme toward the end of the war, in March-April 1918 and in August 1918.

• One of Canada's most interesting heroes of the Somme was piper James Richardson of Chilliwack, B.C. When his company went over the top, they were pinned down by enemy fire and barbed wire. Richardson marched the length of the wire playing his pipes, inspiring the troops to push forward. He then put his bagpipes down to help a wounded soldier, and was killed when he went back to retrieve them. He won a Victoria Cross.

• A military chaplain later picked up the pipes and took them to Scotland, where they were stored at a school. Ninety years later, a piper from Richardson's Canadian Scottish battalion identified the tartan on the bagpipes and they were returned to Canada. You can watch this story in our additional clip Canada's most famous bagpipes come home.
Medium: Television
Program: Canada Now
Broadcast Date: June 30, 2006
Guest(s): Martin Gilbert
Reporter: Danny Globerman
Duration: 6:14
Photo: W.I. Castle/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000832

Last updated: September 2, 2014

Page consulted on February 27, 2015

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