The Battle of the Somme

 

Written by Peter Simkins as the Introduction for 

Chris McCarthy, The Somme : The Day-by-Day Account (Brockhampton Press, 1993) ISBN 1 86019 8732.

(temporary file for Greenfield pupils to do their homework)

 

  

Significance of the Somme,    Haig's Aims,   Collective Tragedy,   

After the First Day   1: 'Siege-type operations',   2. 'Wearing out' phase,   3. 'Set-piece assaults',  

Over-optimism,   4. Final Phase,   Haig's Mistakes,   German errors,   Effects on the German Army,   Improvements in the British Army

          

           

The Somme offensive of 1916 is implanted deeper in the folk-memory of the British people than any other First World War battle – with the possible exception of Passchendaele. The reasons are not far to seek. It was the first major offensive of the war against the main enemy, the Germans, in which British troops played the leading part instead of a supporting or diversionary role. It was also the first great battle to involve the bulk of Britain ’s first-ever mass citizen army. Unique among the principal armies on the Western Front in being composed of volunteers, the British Expeditionary Force of the summer and autumn of 1916 was drawn from all levels of society in Britain and the Dominions and, moreover, had been recruited on a peculiarly parochial basis.

The character of the 1916 army was symbolized by its ‘Pals’ battalions, units raised by local civilian committees rather than the War Office and made up of workmates, friends or men with a shared geographical or social background, who had enlisted together on the understanding that they would be permitted to train and fight together. Precisely because so many formations were closely identified with particular communities at home in Britain or the Dominions, the psychological impact of the lengthening casualty lists was all the more marked during that summer and autumn.

   

Significance of the Somme

          It was the intention of General Sir Douglas Haig, the Commander-in­Chief of the BEF, that on the opening day of the offensive – 1 July 1916 – Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army should take the German front-line defences from Montauban in the south to Serre in the north. In addition, the attacking troops were to secure the German second position on the ridge stretching from Pozieres to the River Ancre and on the slopes before Miraumont. After that, if all went well, Haig hoped to break through the second position on the right, on the high ground between Pozieres and Ginchy. This might, in turn, facilitate the capture of the German third position in the Morval-Flers-Le Sars sector, uncovering Bapaume and allowing the Reserve Army, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Hubert Gough, to wheel northwards and roll up the German lines in the direction of Arras .

  

Haig's Aims

 

In the event, the results of the offensive – at least in terms of ‘break­throughs’ or ground gained – fell far short of hopes and expectations. Of the 142 days of the Battle of the Somme , none was more traumatic than the opening day, the bloodiest twenty-four hours in the entire history of the British Army. By nightfall on 1 July the only real British successes had been on the right flank, where Montauban and Mametz were captured and the Fourth Army had managed to advance about a mile on a sector some 3½ miles wide. On other sectors, from Mametz northwards, the gains were negligible. The 36th (Ulster) Division, part of X Corps, succeeded initially in overrunning the formidable Schwaben Redoubt on the Thiepval plateau – one of the toughest German strongholds on the Western Front – but were compelled to pull back in the afternoon and evening, partly because of the failure of the divisions on their flanks. A similar fate befell 56th ( London ) Division in the diversionary attack on the Gommecourt Salient by VII Corps of General Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army. The modest first-day gains cost 57,470 British casualties, including 19,240 killed and 35,493 wounded.

The scale of the collective tragedy and of the personal and family grief represented by this appalling total is still mind-numbing more than 75 years later. Yet it could be argued that the story of 1 July currently exerts too powerful a hold upon our emotions and imagination, leading many students of the First World War to pay less attention than they should to the remaining 141 days of the battle. One of the most obvious benefits of Chris McCarthy’s painstaking summaries of each day’s operations is that they help to correct this imbalance and remind us of what John Terraine has called the true texture of the Somme ’.

   

Collective Tragedy

          It is possible for the historian, luxuriating in the comfort of hindsight, to divide the rest of the British offensive into a number of distinct phases while recognizing, of course, that the pattern of operations would have seemed much less neat and clear-cut to the ‘poor bloody infantry’ who actually fought on the Somme. From 2 to 13 July 1916, as Gough’s Reserve Army started to assume responsibility for the battle north (or left) of the Albert-Bapaume road, the principal thrust of operations was on Rawlinson’s Fourth Army front, with the British trying to exploit their rare first-day successes on the right. During this period Fourth Army strove to secure Mametz Wood, Contalmaison and Trones Wood so that the flanks of an assault on the German second main position would be covered. The assault took place early on 14 July. Following a potentially difficult but skillfully accomplished night assembly in no man’s land, and a sudden intensification of the three-day preliminary bombardment in the five minutes before zero hour, the infantry attacked at dawn under a creeping barrage, swiftly capturing some 6,000 yards of the German second position between Longueval and Bazentin-le­Petit. Compared to 1 July the attack was, in several respects, a more accurate reflection of the capabilities of the New Army formations, given imaginative operational planning. However, opportunities to exploit the initial gains were missed and the overall result of the 14 July assault was less impressive than it might have been. Delville Wood, immediately adjacent to Longueval, was not completely in British hands until 27 August, and High Wood, to the north-west, defied capture until 15 September.

   

After the First Day

1. 'Siege-type operations'

The British official historian describes the period from 15 July to 14 September as one of ‘heavy losses, great hardships, and tremendous physical and moral strain’ for troops of all armies. The siege-type operations of early July began to give way to semi-open warfare, with the Germans often holding lines of shell-holes rather than continuous trenches. Although, in essence, he had little real choice in the matter, Haig himself, for a time, cast aside thoughts of an imminent break­through, acknowledging to an increasing extent that the BET was engaged in a dour battle of attrition. Haig correspondingly came to regard the operations of late July and August as part of a ‘wearing-out’ phase of the battle in preparation for another big set-piece assault in mid-September, an attack which he hoped would indeed prove decisive. During this ‘wearing-out’ phase, Rawlinson’s Fourth Army continued to play the leading role. Besides repeated efforts to take High Wood and Delville Wood, Rawlinson also tried to ease the progress of the French Sixth Army on his right by seizing Guillemont and Ginchy, but neither of these objectives was in his grasp before early September. Meanwhile the Reserve Army’s operations were growing in importance. From 23 July to 5 August the Australians of I Anzac Corps were involved in a bitter fight for Pozieres on the Albert-Bapaume road and for the ruined mill on the crest of the ridge beyond the eastern end of the village. The Australian success here, bought at a high price in casualties, gave the BEF good observation over the surrounding terrain. Nevertheless it was merely a curtain-raiser to the long, hard slog which the Reserve Army had still to face in order to overcome the various German trench lines and strongpoints north-west of the Albert-Bapaume road, on the slopes and spurs of the Morval-Grandcourt ridge, thereby threatening the defences of Thiepval from the rear. In the ensuing operations the names of these trenches and strongpoints – Fabeck Graben, Mouquet Farm, Zollern Graben, Stuff Trench, Stuff Redoubt, Regina Ridge – would become depressingly familiar to Gough’s divisions.

Many of the relatively small-scale attacks delivered in July, August and early September were intended to push forward the British line at different points, win local tactical advantages and so improve the jumping-off positions for the next major assault. The less convoluted the start-line, the greater were the chances of ensuring an accurate preliminary bombardment or supporting barrage, but the broader tactical benefits were not always instantly apparent to the officers and men who saw the strength of their battalions progressively eroded by minor yet costly ‘line straightening’ operations. As Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have shown in their recent study of Rawlinson’s generalship, Command on the Western Front (Blackwell, 1992), Fourth Army advanced barely 1,000 yards on a five­mile front in the 62 days between 15 July and 14 September, incurring approximately 82,000 casualties in the process. Only on some five occasions out of some ninety operations during these weeks did Fourth Army employ twenty or more battalions and only four attacks were launched across the whole of its front.

   

2. 'Wearing out' phase

The set-piece assault against the German third position on 15 September – which began the next phase of the British Somme offensive – marked the battlefield debut of the tank. It also coincided with attacks by French Sixth Army to the south and Allied offensives in Salonika , in Transylvania and on the Italian front, a potent reminder that the struggle on the Somme was but part of a wider coalition war. Fourth Army’s objectives on 15 September included the German third position in front of Flers and the subsequent capture of Morval Lesboeufs and Gueudecourt, while Courcelette was to be seized by the Canadian Corps of the Reserve Army. On the day, the British advanced about 2,500 yards, securing the German third position on a front of 4,500 yards. Flers was captured by XV Corps with the aid of four of the tanks allotted to 41st Division, and Courcelette, Martinpuich and High Wood were also seized. In square miles, the territory won by the BEF on 15 September was about twice that gained on 1 July and at about half the cost in casualties. Even so, it was not the decisive blow which Haig and Rawlinson had sought.

The offensive was renewed on 25 September as Fourth Army fought to secure the objectives that had remained out of reach a few days earlier. In some ways the operations in the last week of September were among the most fruitful since the dawn assault on 14 July. In the Battle of Morval, as Fourth Army’s operations between 25 and 28 September became known, the preliminary bombardment and initial creeping barrage were particularly effective in XIV Corps’ sector on the right. Morval and Lesboeufs were taken on 25 September, Combles and Gueudecourt the following day. At the same time, in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, Gough’s Reserve Army launched the biggest operation it had yet undertaken and attacked on a front extending from the Schwaben Redoubt to Courcelette. The German garrison of Mouquet Farm surrendered to the 11th Division on the first day of Gough’s attack, and Major-General Maxse’s 18th Division took much of Thiepval itself, completing the clearance of the village on 27 September. But, as was so often the case in the middle years of the Great War, the offensive lost momentum. It was not until 14 October that the last German defenders were ejected from the Schwaben Redoubt and the Canadian Corps was still fighting for parts of Regina Trench as late as the second week of November.  

  

3. 'Set-piece' assaults

          The failure to achieve a breakthrough in these large-scale and co-ordinated assaults of the second half of September could, and probably should, have been reason enough for Haig to halt the offensive. That he continued with it was partly a consequence of the over-optimism of his Intelligence chief, Brigadier-General Charteris, who helped to persuade him that, if the BEF kept up the pressure, the Germans would eventually crack. Between 1 and 20 October, as Fourth Army inched towards Le Transloy – capturing Le Sars on 7 October – the weather deteriorated and the battlefield became a morass. Even the protests of a Corps commander, Lord Cavan, that his men were exhausted, did not bring the ordeal of the front-line troops to an end. In the hope that a late British success might create a good impression at a forthcoming inter-Allied conference at Chantilly , Fifth Army (as the Reserve Army was now called) delivered a well-organized attack astride the Ancre, after several postponements, on 13 November.

  

Over-optimism

          This final phase of the Somme offensive saw Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt pass into British possession, but Serre, which had been an objective on the very first day, 4V2 months before, was still occupied by the Germans when the battle petered out on about 19 November 1916. Together, since 1 July, Rawlinson’s and Gough’s formations had wrested from the Germans a strip of territory measuring approximately twenty miles wide by six miles deep, yet Fourth Army remained three miles from Bapaume while the French, farther south, had been stopped short of Peronne. The offensive cost Britain and the Dominions the enormous total of 419,654 casualties. French losses were 204,253 while estimates of German casualties range from 437,000 to 680,000.

   

4. Final phase

          Even if one does not subscribe to the view that all senior commanders were ‘butchers’ and ‘bunglers’, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that British generalship was not at its best on the Somme in 1916. For example, prior to 1 July, the basic divergence of concept between Haig, who envisaged a breakthrough, and Rawlinson, who favoured step-by-step ‘bite and hold’ operations, was never properly resolved. The inevitable outcome was that the final plan for the initial assault was riddled with contradictions and false assumptions, yet these differences in approach re-surfaced before the attack of 15 September. As Prior and Wilson remark in their recent work, Fourth Army managed, on at least two occasions (11-14 July and 24-25 September), to organize artillery bombardments sufficiently intense in terms of weight of shell per yard of trench attacked to ensure success in the subsequent assault. However, having apparently grasped the significance of this factor, Rawlinson did not consistently apply the formula in the late summer and autumn of 1916. Both he and Gough can also be accused of launching too many attacks on narrow fronts, allowing the Germans, in most cases, to concentrate more of their defensive firepower on the threatened sector.

   

Haig's mistakes

          By no means all the mistakes were committed by one side. Shortly after the start of the British offensive, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the Chief of the German General Staff, decreed that any ground lost should be re­taken ‘by immediate counter-attack, even to the use of the last man’. General Fritz von Below, commanding German Second Army, similarly demanded that ‘the enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses’. The self-inflicted policy of stubborn linear defence and relentless counter-attacks only served to increase the rate at which the life blood of the German Army was draining away in the late summer of 1916, given that the Germans were simultaneously embroiled in a titanic attrition battle at Verdun . German troops reaching the Somme front swiftly recognized that the Allies were obviously winning the war of matériel. When Falkenhayn fell from grace and Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to power at the head of the German Army on 29 August, significant changes were made in German strategy and tactics. A fresh doctrine of flexible and mobile defence in depth, with the forward positions held more thinly, began to replace the expensive linear tactics of previous months and years. Work commenced in the early autumn on the construction, 25 miles to the rear, of a major new defensive position – the Siegfried Stellung or Hindenburg Line – which embodied the revised tactical doctrine and enabled the Germans to economize on manpower. On 21 September Hindenburg asserted that the Somme front was ‘all-important’ and must now have first call on available divisions. That the British attacks were hurting was confirmed by those reliable barometers of the state of the German Army, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and his chief of staff General von Kuhl, both of whom noted the decline in the strength and morale of their forces on the Somme and expressed doubts whether they could withstand a similar offensive in 1917. Captain von Hentig, a staff officer with the Guard Reserve Division, graphically described the Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German field army’.

   

German errors

          One should be careful not to exaggerate the deterioration in the Imperial German Army at the end of 1916. The battles of 1917 would reveal only too clearly that it had a great deal of resilience left. It should also be remembered that, although the Allied blockade of Germany was beginning to bite and cause genuine hardship by the second half of 1916, the slack in German industry was only taken up that autumn when the ‘Hindenburg Programme’ was initiated to expand munitions production, and an Auxiliary Service Law was passed to make better use of the country’s human resources. It is therefore extremely doubtful whether the German Army could have been beaten in 1916, wherever the Allies had attacked on the Western Front. The Somme offensive was a necessary if painful stage in the process of weakening a skilful, courageous and highly professional enemy. There was no real alternative to doing it the hard way.

   

Effect on the German Army

Another problem was that the BEF was not yet a properly balanced force in 1916. Its tactical knowledge, experience and ideas – and even, to some extent, its equipment – were still inadequate to achieve the desired breakthrough. Having said that, there were unmistakable signs of improvement. Commanders such as General Maxse of the 18th Division were now urging greater use of Lewis-guns so that infantry battalions could be more self-supporting in firepower in an attack. In the artillery sphere, the creeping barrage was becoming standard; progress in flash-spotting and sound-ranging was helping to make counter-battery work more effective; guns and ammunition were becoming more numerous and reliable; and the development of devices such as the instantaneous ‘106’ fuze would soon increase the ability of the artillery to cut German barbed wire without turning the whole of the neighbouring terrain into a cratered lunar landscape. The results of these improvements were manifest on the first day of the Battle of Arras in April 1917, when the Canadian Corps stormed Vimy Ridge and British XVII Corps advanced some 3½ miles at a comparatively light cost in casualties. The true gains of the BET from the Somme offensive might therefore be best judged by examining the story of 9 April 1917 rather than the bloody assaults of 1916.

Peter Simkins

Improvements in the British Army