The Battle of the Somme, 1916

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Across the battlefields of France on 1st July 1916 dawn broke early, for, even during the night at that time of year, there was little darkness. In the area of the River Somme the arrival of the first pale glimmerings of light brought with it a little drizzly rain. However, this was soon to pass, and the battle of this tragic, harrowing day was destined to be fought under a blue, cloudless sky, and a hot pitiless sun.

At the beginning of 1916 the Great War had reached a stalemate. The movement of the war's early weeks was replaced by static lines of trenches, and the lives of the soldiers who occupied them were totally governed by the terrible ascendancy of machine guns and artillery.

Battle Lines: 1 July 1916

In August and September 1914, the German armies had, in a few weeks, swiftly conquered most of Belgium and overrun large tracts of northern and north eastern France. For the duration of the War - apart from a small area in the Vosges - the Allied Armies never fought in or near Germany itself. This fact was to determine much of the strategy and tactics in the future conduct of the War. The French, especially, would never contemplate giving up another yard of their Country - even to obtain a tactical advantage. On the other hand and since it was not their homeland, the German High Command could, and did, make alterations to its line when there was a local superiority or benefit to be gained.

On the Somme in 1916, for the whole length of the line, British soldiers would have to attack uphill, very often cross open land, and into the teeth of very well planned German defensive positions of trenches, redoubts, and fortified villages. Also, since the British positions were everywhere overlooked, the Germans had plenty of time to range their artillery and site their machine gun emplacements to the most deadly advantage.

When war had broken out in August 1914 the British Army was a small force of well-trained and professional soldiers supplemented by Territorial regiments. It was thought then that the War would be short-lasting - perhaps for a few weeks or months. It was planned that the Regular Army would fight in France and, if necessary, be supported by the Territorials. However, as the War dragged on, the Regulars and then many of the Territorials were lost in such battles as Mons, the Marne, 1st Ypres (1914), 2nd Ypres (1915) and Loos in 1915.

Towards the end of 1914, Lord Kitchener - the Minister of War - foresaw that the War would not soon end. Faced with this fact and with so many Regular and Territorial soldiers already in France, he decided on a new and bold remedy. He would build a "New Army" composed of civilian volunteers raised from all areas of the British Isles. While it was being trained the Regulars and Territorials would hold the enemy in France. Thus it came about that the New Army of "Kitchener's Men" was created. By the end of the year nearly 1,200,000 men had enlisted and it was these Volunteers who formed a very extensive part or the army which fought at the Somme. Large numbers saw no fighting before the battle and many died within minutes of it starting.

Both the German and British Generals considered that, because of the short time involved, the men of the New Army were sufficiently trained in the soldiers' skills of warfare. Consequently, the battle tactics which they were ordered to follow by their commanders were more strict and regimented than those which would normally have been issued to men of the Regular Army. This was to have a serious effect upon the outcome of the battle.

British Rail Howitzer

In December 1915 Sir Douglas Haig was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in France and he found himself responsible for an army greater in size than any other British General had ever led. He had to decide how to make use of them. With the closing down of the Dardanelles campaign it was agreed amongst the British Generals that the War could only be brought to victory through success in battle on the Western Front. Consequently, in early 1916, it was decided to make an attack during the summer in the region of the Somme.

This district seems to have been chosen by default. Other areas on the British Front had been tried unsuccessfully before - so why not, this time, seek victory at the Somme? However, before plans could be finalised, the Germans played with fate and on 21st February 1916 they attacked the French at Verdun - about 150 miles to the south east. The attack was massive and destined to continue its bloody course until nearly the end of the year. The Germans had intended it to be overwhelming and hoped either for a breakthrough there or to inflict so many casualties on the French that their will to continue the War would be broken. In the end the breakthrough did not materialise, and, although severely tested, the French will did not break. Verdun developed into a battle of attrition, and, by December, each side had suffered about 350,000 casualties.

15 inch howitzer

By June the French were in a desperate situation. As a result they pressed the British strongly to attack on the Somme by the end of the month and help relieve the pressure at Verdun. The British agreed and Haig and Sir Henry Rawlinson (the British Commander of the battle itself) laid their plans.

In its original form the plan had been for a joint Anglo-French attack in which the French would play a major part on the southern flank around the area of the River Somme itself. But, many French troops had been drafted from the Somme to give aid to their comrades at Verdun and the role of those left had necessarily to be very much reduced. In the end the French 6th Army did attack with their allies and it made some of the greatest gains on that fateful day. However, the battle, when it was fought, was a mainly British affair.

As we have seen, one of the main purposes, if not the principal one, was to relieve the French at Verdun. Beyond this it is difficult to find any real strategic planning. If the British did break through the German lines where would they go and which objectives would they seek? Neither of these questions was truly answered. The plan that finally emerged seems to have had only more limited goals and these may be divided into three parts: one, a massive artillery barrage to kill German soldiers and destroy their trenches and fortified positions; two, the advance and capture by British soldiers of these positions; and three, a grand charge through these positions by Haig's beloved cavalry under the command of General Gough. The Cavalry were to sweep northwards attacking the remaining German positions and "roll them up" from the south. It should be said that each of these parts depended upon the successful completion of the one before it. In the event the cavalry sweep never look place.

Haig and Rawlinson especially had considerable doubts about the professional skills of the soldiers of the New Army, and, since they had not been tried on a large scale in battle, also about their courage. As a result they felt that the attack had to be made "easy" for them by preparing the way with a huge artillery bombardment so that when the soldiers went "over the top" they would only have to stroll across no- man's-land and occupy the enemy positions. The attack was set for 29th June and, for about three weeks before this, every available British gun was brought to the Front so that finally there was one gun for every seventeen yards of enemy front line.

Howitzer range finder

Artillery fire began 7 days prior to the Somme offensive. It was thought by most of the officers that there would be little or no resistance on the day of the attack. Many men were order to slope arms (carry their rifles over their shoulders). This proved to be false optimism, however, as the Germans had been alerted by the intelligence patrols and artillery bombardments. They sheltered in their dugouts, 30-40 feet below the ground, and waited.

One of the key elements of the artillery barrage was to cut the enemy wire entanglements. This would allow the men to advance quickly across no mans land. This too proved to be mostly a failure and created a bottleneck of men, making them easy targets.

On 24th June the bombardment opened, and to those at the Front it seemed that nothing could survive this onslaught. However, in reality from the British point of view, there were several, very serious, but as yet undiscovered imperfections in the barrage.

There were not enough heavy guns to destroy the very deep German dug-outs; because of mass production at least one third of all the shells failed to explode; and, most seriously of all, the eighteen-pounders which were supposed to destroy German barbed wire were having only a limited and haphazard success. This final failure was to have awful consequences.

Because it was believed that the German positions would be completely destroyed by the artillery, the soldiers were heavily laden with equipment (about 60 to 70 lbs per man), and ordered to walk across no-man's-land, company by company in line abreast (with about five yards between each man), and with rifles held at the slope across the chest and pointing skyward. (A pack of 60 lbs or so was half a man's weight; pack mules of the time were only expected to carry a third of their body weight). A typical distance over no-man's-land was roughly 500 yards which meant that, at the walking speed ordered, a soldier would he in the open for about five to six minutes.

9.2 inch shell 15 inch howitzer
A 9.2 inch shell explodes on a German trench near Beaumont Hamel One of six 15 inch howitzers on the eighteen mile front. This howitzer is firing on German positions near Thiepval. "Grandmother" had a range of 6 miles and fired a shell weighing 1,450 pounds

From the intensity of the bombardment, their own observations, and lapses in British security, the Germans knew not only that an attack was coming, but also the exact date and time when it was to start. However, the shelling did have its effect on them; but, rather than reply, they sweated it out secure in their dug-outs grimly waiting to respond from their superior positions when the attack finally went in.



7:20 am: 18 tons of explosive goes up under the Hawthorn Redoubt. The photographer is just under half a mile away

On 26th and 27th June there was a series of heavy showers which continued into the 28th. Afterwards, although the sun came out, the land was still very wet and some trenches waterlogged. Consequently, the infantry attack was postponed until 7.30 a.m. on July 1st. Many awkward rearrangements had to be made and men already keyed up became more edgy and nervous. At 7.20 a.m. on the morning of the Somme offensive, the first of 10 huge mines was detonated under part of the German front line; eight mnutes later the other nine mines were exploded. Mines had been dug by sappers and an explosive device placed under the line. This confused and dazed many Germans, however, some of the more industrious and disciplined men saw the new defensive positions created in the crater. Many British solders were killed by machine guns from these positions that were created.

At 7.30 a.m. the bombardment stopped and an eerie silence fell across the Front. A few seconds later bugles and whistles sounded and the first of the 120,000 soldiers rose from their trenches and went over the top - Rawlinson's plan was to be put to the test. For the assault itself new tactics were to be used. Instead of the previous methods of lightly laden men taking advantage of any shelter and then rushing in bursts towards the enemy, Rawlinson decided that, because of the rawness of his soldiers, they were to advance in orderly and regular lines - like regimented ninepins.



Advancing at the walk, as ordered, toward the enemy

At first all went well for the British soldiers. The German wire had been cut in many places, and in their eagerness, the soldiers forgot their orders to attack in ordered waves, but rushed to the first line of enemy trenches.

1 July 1916

1 July 1916

The whole Front was "L" shaped and stretched from just above the River Somme itself at the village of Montauban to the village of Gommecourt in the north. In total the Front was about fourteen miles long. Apart from the Ulster Division's advance the only other gains made that day were in the south - along the foot of the "L". Here, with a mixture of luck, courage, and dash, a few hundred yards of ground were taken.

Supporting fire Machine gun crew
Giving supporting fire, British machine gunners often fired through advancing soldiers Also taken at the Somme, this crew wears an example of the primitive gas masks supplied to the men

Everywhere casualties were fearful. At Gommecourt the assault had been planned only as a diversion to take the enemy's mind off the attack further south. One of the two divisions which made the attack here was the 56th (London) Division. Of the seven battalions involved (a little over 5,000 men); 1,700 were killed, 2,300 were wounded, and 200 (mainly wounded) were made prisoners.

Wounded British Soldiers

"British Red Cross Society and Order of St John workers attending Wounded on their arrival at Boulogne"
Haydn Reynolds Mackey (Official War Artist)

Located just inside the German lines and just north of the bend in the "L" stood the hamlet of La Boisselle. Although small, it held an important tactical position on the road between the towns of Albert and Bapaume. It was hoped that here the cavalry would charge through. The Tyneside Irish Brigade had been allocated the task of capturing the village and the heavily fortified defences near to it. Exactly on time the 3,000 men of the Brigade rose and advanced the 3,000 yards to the enemy trenches. They were cut down like autumn wheat and finally, when they reached their objective, they had been reduced to only fifty effective men.

As the day wore on no-man's-land which, before the assault, had been generally untouched by shelling, became, first of all an area of death to many who tried to cross it, and then, later on, as German shells pounded in, a haven of isolated shelters for the wounded. The shell holes became places of refuge for the injured and graves for the dead. Injured men who lay in the open had to lie completely still or risk being shot again by German rifles and machine guns which continued their deadly work all day.

Because of the savagery of the German defence, further British attacks faltered and died away. Local commanders were reluctant to send more men forward to die in places where their comrades had already fallen. Gaps in both the British and German barbed wire became places of even greater danger. Enemy machine guns had ranged in onto these spaces and they soon became areas where wounded, dying, and dead lay in great heaps.

At a rough estimate, by midday 50,000 British soldiers had been killed or wounded.

All along the British trenches chaos was the master. They were filled with the wounded and the dead, fresh soldiers who had come up to continue the battle but who could go no further forward, and with the shattered remnants of the troops who had attacked but who had now retreated back to supposed safety.

With darkness the cries of the wounded and frightened continued. Men walked, crawled, or were carried back to their own lines. Stretcher bearers who had laboured heroically under fire through the day continued with their errands of mercy during the night.

9th Field Ambulance

"Humanity - Stretcher-Bearer Post, 9th Field Ambulance"
Gilbert Rogers (Official War Artist)

To the Generals some miles behind the Front it was thought, at first, that the day had been more of a set-back rather than the greatest disaster ever to befall the British Army. The extent of the tragedy was not immediately apparent. At home, to start with, the newspapers printed vaguely hopeful stories about the attack; but gradually as news and reports filtered back the truth was realised. The General Staff and politicians - ever keen to keep up civilian morale - tried to understate the defeat which had been inflicted. But with the delivery of the dreaded War Office telegrams and the return of the wounded, the public learned the truth.

Whole towns went into mourning. Few families in the land were not touched by the injury and death suffered by the men of the Somme. The Battle ground on for several more months and finally ended 140 days later on 14th November. Exact and accurate figures are hard to find, but it is certain that for an advance, finally, of six miles at most, the British had suffered 400,000 casualties. Total casualties of the three countries involved - British, French, and German - came to over 1,300,000 which were almost equally divided between the Germans and the Allies. What had been planned as the "Big Push" which might end the War had turned into a horrifying battle of attrition.

Even while the Battle was being fought the Germans had started to build a new defensive position - the Hindenburg Line - same ten miles behind their Front. In February 1917 they made a move which the French and British Generals could never have countenanced and withdrew to this new Line giving up about 1,000 square miles of territory - ten times greater than the Allies had captured in 1916.

The Battle went so disastrously wrong for several reasons.

  1. The plan drawn up by the Generals was seriously flawed in its conception. Haig wished for a breakthrough of the German lines. Joffre (the French commander) and Rawlinson hoped to win by fighting a battle of attrition. Rawlinson paid only superficial regard to Haig's wishes and his plan of attack (e.g. with all the troops attacking in equal strength all along the Line) indicates that he intended to fight in this way. Haig cannot be excused from blame, for, as Commander-in-Chief, he should have insisted that the Battle be fought according to his ideas. Because the plan was basically unsound, and so that no one dare point out its limitations, a spirit of unfounded confidence was generated in it. It became almost like treason for officers to warn of its shortcomings and consequently some attacks were made in impossible situations. Self-delusion had replaced reality.
  2. The deficiencies in the plan led to a lack of concentration in the artillery bombardment. Although greater than ever used before by the British, the barrage was too light when spread out evenly. It would have been of much greater benefit if the guns could have concentrated on the "weaker" areas in the German defences.
  3. The comparative thinness of the bombardment was further compounded by the inadequacies of the guns themselves and the very poor quality of the ammunition which they fired. Ultimately many of the German dug-outs, trenches and machine gun positions; and much of their barbed wire was untouched and undamaged. It was of the utmost blindness for the Generals to claim that the Germans would be completely annihilated by the bombardment and that their own soldiers would simply stroll over and occupy the enemy positions.
  4. Compounding these failings were the strict firing orders which the artillery had to obey once the attack had started. It was instructed to fire ahead of the advancing soldiers at a set and unchangeable rate. Consequently, when the advance slowed and then stopped, the guns continued to increase their ranges, ineffectually getting further in front of the pinned-down infantry. The gunners were not permitted to change their targets and range in, for example, on murderous machine gun positions. On the other hand, it was the duty of the German artillery to fire at targets of opportunity - and this they did with dreadful efficiency.
  5. Throughout the history of warfare one of the most important methods of securing an often winning advantage in battle has been the calculated use of surprise. For the reasons already mentioned, this element was absent at the Somme. The Germans had ample warning and they used this time well in preparing counters to it. Even so, for the first five days, Falkenhayn the German commander, could not believe that the Somme offensive was not a diversion from the real attack which he felt sure would fall further north [See addendum at the end]. Not only had the Enemy ample warning of the attack in general, but the start of the assault was arranged for too late in the morning. At 7.30 it was broad daylight and the Germans could see clearly all that was going on below them. If the troops had been ordered to go over the top at dawn they would have had the advantage of the dim light at that hour and cover from the mists which shrouded the battlefield then.
  6. The request for the half past seven start had been made by the French. They stated that they needed the first two hours of light to complete their artillery bombardment. This was true and they used this time to very good effect. However, they were only attacking on a short front and they had proportionally more, heavier, and more effective guns than the British. Their guns did destroy German defences and consequently, the French troops who attacked achieved significant success. But, when the British assault stopped, the French called their attack to a halt also. Rawlinson and Haig were both aware of the problems which the 7.30 start might have - but they acceded to the request from their more senior allies.
  7. Everywhere along the Line the Germans, from their higher positions, overlooked the British. Not only did this mean that concealment was difficult, but also, when the advance came, heavily burdened infantry had all the disadvantages of attacking uphill. The order to attack in regimented lines only made matters worse, and nowhere during the whole day did any Division of British soldiers who followed these instructions make any real headway.

These are the main reasons for the failure. If any one of them had been absent the attack could have succeeded, for the Men that day fought like lions. As it was, each defect compounded the others and together they combined to turn the day into terrible disaster.

In no war, before or since, on the opening day of a battle, did the British lose so many men as they did on the first day of the Somme. At Waterloo casualties suffered were about 8,500 men. During D-Day, in the Second War, there were only about 4,000 British and Canadian casualties. On 1st July 1917 British men killed and wounded exceeded all the casualties of the Korean, Boer, and Crimean wars combined.

On 3rd January 1917 General Sir Douglas Haig was promoted to the rank of Field-Marshal. After the War, in 1919, Haig was created an earl and given a grant £100,000 from public funds. Rawlinson was made a baron and received £30,000. The ordinary soldiers who had suffered the terror and endured the privations of war for one shilling per day, went home to a less certain and happy future. Many of' the wounded would carry the effects of their injuries for the rest at their lives. Many who survived unwounded or made good recoveries found their original jobs taken by others and became unemployed. All who fought in the trenches would never forget the horror there nor their comrades who had died.

Today the battlefields have reverted to the quiet countryside of rural Picardy. Crops grow in the fields and tall trees in woods have replaced the shattered stumps of eighty years ago. Trenches have been filled in and the barbed wire has gone. The land is at peace.

Dotted here and there are the beautifully kept cemeteries looked after by the devoted men of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who tend the graves with love and care. Unfeeling is the person who can walk amongst the long rows of white headstones and not feel a tightening in the throat or a tear come to the eye. A visitor feels an intruder and walks with steps of reverence for the cemeteries have about them an atmosphere of tranquillity and peace.

The men - or perhaps, more accurately, the boys - who fought in the Great War were not supermen, but ordinary citizens who were caught up in a war they did not really comprehend, but who, nevertheless, fought and died for a cause in which they truly believed - their Country.

Addendum

Falkenhayn fell from supreme command in the autumn of 1916 and was replaced by his rivals Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The accepted reasons for this are the catastrophe suffered by the Germans at Verdun, and his mis-reading of the situation during the opening stages of the Battle of the Somme. While the former is certainly true, it has been argued by some historians in recent years that he may have been at least partly correct in his assessment of the battle.

Denis Winter in his book, Haig's Command (published by Viking in 1991), maintains that from the moment Haig took over command of the British armies on the Western Front his eyes were always set firmly on an attack through Belgium from the Ypres Salient. According to Winter, Haig wished to try this in the late summer of 1916 but, before he could make this attempt, he had to try to draw some of the German forces away from that area first of all. On page 50 of his book he writes:

"The paper (written by Haig in December, 1915) went on to suggest that 'The main lesson of the battle of Loos as of all previous attacks is that, given adequate artillery preparations or some form of surprise like chlorine gas, there is no insuperable difficulty in overwhelming the enemy's troops in front and support lines but there is the greatest difficulty in defeating his reserves who are not subject to the strain of a long bombardment and come up in good order to meet our troops at a time when they are exhausted, in confusion and out of hand'. The solution was obvious. 'The basic principles of the battlefield, which are unaltered' meant that the enemy's reserves had first to be worn down before a decisive attack could be delivered at another point.

The deficiency in guns, divisions and communications suggests that the Somme had been planned as Haig's wearing-out battle. Where then did he propose to launch his breakthrough battle ? His correspondence leaves no doubt.

On 30 December 1915, the new Commander in Chief visited Plumer, who commanded the 2nd Army, in the Ypres Salient and gave orders to continue preparations for a 'serious attack' in 1916. A fortnight later, he was more specific. The big attack was to be at Ypres and directed at the key rail junction of Roulers via the Houlthulst Forest with diversionary thrusts against Lille and the Messines Ridge. In other words, Haig was prepared to fight the battle of Passchendaele a year earlier than it was actually fought and hoping to make the job easier by a feint on the Somme which would pull German reserves away from Flanders in the north."

That the attack on the Somme was a diversion to take German soldiers away from the Salient is certainly not a majority view. However, if it does have validity, then this would go some way in explaining why there does not seem to be any clearly defined strategic plan on the British side behind the Battle of the Somme. Doubtless, the argument will still continue undiminished for many years yet.

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