From 1st July to 18th November 1916, the French Army was actively involved in the Battle of the Somme. The French suffered heavy losses - as did the British - during this battle; 190,000 soldiers of the French Army were killed, wounded or lost in just four and a half months of fighting. After the war, however, the French collective memory was almost entirely focused on Verdun, a battle which also took place in 1916.
With additional warfare on the Western Front leading to a bloody stalemate in 1915, French and British military staff began to plan a joint operation, at the junction of their armies, on the Somme. This dual command complicated the organisation and preparations for the battle.
As General Foch was commanding the battle on the French side, he thus established headquarters at Dury, to the south of Amiens, from autumn 1915 to September 1916. He did not dispose of as many troops as at first planned because many of the French units were deployed farther south when the Germans unleashed an offensive on Verdun in early 1916. The units that would fight on the Somme were composed of soldiers not only from mainland France, but also from the former French colonial empire and men from various countries who had chosen to fight for France with the French Foreign Legion.
Villages forever scarred
Just as for the British, the Battle of the Somme began on 1st July 1916 for the French. They bravely fought in the southern sector of the Somme, from the village of Maricourt to the region of Chaulnes. Fighting was intense and violent, and despite the French Army advancing farther than its British Ally in the first few days, the offensive soon settled into a battle of attrition.
Certain areas will be forever scarred by the fighting; the village of Faÿ, for example, was captured on the first day of the battle, but remains in ruins as it could not be rebuilt upon its original emplacement. The French Foreign Legion distinguished itself at Belloy-en-Santerre, on 4th July, but lost many men, including the talented American poet, Alan Seeger. Wailleux Wood, at Soyécourt, was taken at this time and trenches, shell holes and dugouts are still visible amongst the trees. In September, the French Army – which was to encircle Combles and meet up with the British – experienced violent fighting in the Rancourt, Bouchavesnes and Sailly-Saillisel sector.
These villages attest to the unquestionable French advances made during the battle, and are symbolic of the French involvement on the Somme. Rancourt, in particular, is an importance site of French remembrance with its vast military cemetery, containing the graves of 8566 Frenchmen, and the Remembrance Chapel, dedicated to the men who fell in the area. Twenty-one other French military cemeteries recall the sacrifice that was made by the French in the Somme in 1916.