A HUNDRED years ago today, the bloodiest battle the British Army had ever fought was brought to a close. MARTIN WADE tells how the Battle of the Somme was ended.

It was a battle meant to bring victory for the allies and an end to the war, but it quickly became one of the bloodiest battles in history with more than one million men wounded or killed.

The Battle of the Somme began with the confidence that allied attacks would break the German line on the upper reaches of the River Somme in France. Within hours of its opening on the morning of July 1, this confidence quickly unravelled. British soldiers, expecting German positions to have been pulverised by heavy bombardment, were mown down by machine gun fire as the enemy came out from their concrete bunkers, deep underground.

The coming months would see thousands upon thousands join the dead of those first few hours as the Allies tried again and again to achieve their objectives.

By November, the weather was turning against the British and the French and time was running out for them - they had little time for a final push before winter would stop serious offensives until spring.

The Battle of the Ancre, fought between November 13–18, was the last major action of the Battle of the Somme. The earlier Battle of Flers–Courcelette in September, had given the Allies some success and the offensive at Ancre was used to press their advantage with a number of smaller attacks which would not give the German armies time to recover.

The operation went ahead, despite repeated postponements, because it was hoped that a late British success might create a favourable impression at the inter-Allied conference at Chantilly on 15 November.

By now artillery techniques had improved and a 'creeping barrage' or artillery fire which advanced in front of attacking troops was deployed with great success and the British troops stormed the German defences. This technique meant there would be no need for a long pause between the end of the barrage and the infantry's advance. In the first days of the Somme offensive this had given the Germans ample warning of the advance and so they were ready. This time they were not.

The British Fifth Army attacked either side of the River Ancre, north of Thiepval, to squeeze the German salient between the town of Serre and the Albert-Bapaume road.

The 51st Highland Division took Beaumont Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division took Beaucourt, capturing 7,000 German prisoners but the village of Serre stayed in German hands.

But as winter closed in the fighting was stopped. The French halted attempts to capture St Pierre Vast Wood further south as weather worsened.

The British General Haig decided the soldiers had done enough and planned to restart the offensive in February.

Many of the soldiers from Monmouthshire fighting were from the 12th (3rd Gwent) Battalion, South Wales Borderers which was raised at Newport in March 1915. It was a Bantam Battalion, so called because of the small stature of the soldiers who had earlier been rejected for military service and the unit joined the Welsh Bantam Brigade.

Two casualties from the county were not from units normally associated with Gwent. The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division was an infantry division formed at the outbreak of the war from Royal Navy and Royal Marine reservists and volunteers, who were not needed for service at sea. They played a key part in this battle.

One of the seamen serving in the battlefield was Newport man, Ernest Howells. The Able Seaman fell, not in battle on the high seas, but in the mud of Flanders on November 13, aged 19. The son of Charles and Kathleen Howells of 50, Lyne Road Newport, he is buried at Ancre British Cemetery, at Beaumont-Hamel.

Also buried in that cemetery is Tredegar man Serjeant William Thomas of 'A' Company the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He was the son of Robert and Jane Thomas and at 381 King Street Tredegar, Jane Anne Thomas would never see her husband again after he met his end on 18 November, aged 33.

The Argus gave the action a cautious welcome: “Whether we have taken absolutely all the ground we are required to make the new thrust complete and unqualified success we are not in a position to judge. But they were sure that immensely strong positions were rushed, that 6,678 prisoners were taken, that all our gains have been consolidated and that great obstacles to our further progress have been removed.”

South Wales Argus:

CAPTIVE: Some of the 7,000 German prisoners taken by the British

It told how "all the German efforts were broken against the unshakeable resistance of our soldiers and our front could not be pierced". We learnt how those efforts included chemical weapons could not save them from defeat.

Just as the Battle of Somme began in July, so it's final act saw creation of another hell further along the front. The battle began at six o'clock in the morning after an artillery preparation which had lasted "not less than 30 hours" and of which the intensity became "absolutely frightful" during the night. We learnt too that the attack which followed used 'liquid flame', or flame-throwers' and so-called 'tear’ shells. These were known also as lachrymatory mortar bombs and were used alongside phosgene gas.

In the 141 days since July 1, the British had advanced just seven miles and failed to pierce the German defences. Some believe that had the weather been better the Allies could have broken through German lines, while other historians argue the Allies would never have been able to.

South Wales Argus:

HARD-WON GROUND: The area between the solid line line and the broad, dashed line shows the territory won by the Battle of the Somme

The British army had inflicted heavy losses on the German Army and in the spring of the next year, they would stage a retreat to the Hindenburg line rather than face more relentless attacks on the Somme.

There would be more battles, many over the same patch of land. And although many hundreds of thousands more would die before the war came to an end, the slaughter would not be on the scale of the Somme again.