World War I: The Battle of the Somme
The Weapon That Transformed Warfare
At the outset of the First World War, military thinkers expected a war of manoeuvre in which cavalry would play its traditional role as a striking arm. At first, something like this actually did happen, and in some areas of the Eastern Front the war retained a nineteenth century character, complete with the odd sabre melee between the opposing cavalry brigades.
In the West, however, it quickly became obvious that the defender had a huge advantage over the attacker. Things had been heading this way for some time. During the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, the long range accurate firepower of infantry rifles made assault by infantry or cavalry a hazardous business. Machine guns helped to tip the balance further, though at this time they were far too heavy, making them difficult to redeploy quickly. The war on the Western Front took on many of the characteristics of a siege, with heavily entrenched forces on both sides fighting from behind barbed wire obstacles.
Between the big offensives, the war became one of raid and counter-raid, usually at night, with artillery pounding away at the opposing trenches. Infantry holding the forward positions were subjected to horrible conditions, huddling in their muddy dugouts and enduring bombardment whilst being unable to reply. Being under fire and unable to fight back is one of the most mortally draining experiences men can suffer and morale, was surprisingly a problem.
Something had to be done, for several reasons. The presence of German troops on Allied soil meant that it was not politically viable to sit on the defensive and hope that a naval blockade of Germany would eventually strangle her into submission. The French fortress of Verdun at that time was under pressure too. In short, the German army had to be attacked and defeated. It would be an expensive undertaking in terms of material and casualties, but in January 1916 when the plan was formulated the Allies believed that it could be done.
The Allied Commanders
The primary exponent of the plan was the French commander Marshal Joseph Joffre. He wanted an offensive in the Somme area for the reasons listed above, and the British commander, General Sir Douglas Haig was willing to consider it. Haig preferred the idea of an attack somewhere else, such as Flanders, where the terrain was better and there were more strategic objectives. He also wanted to wait for the reinforcements that the new conscription would provide, and for fresh troops from around the Empire to arrive. There was also the possibility that the new secret weapon, codenamed ‘tanks,’ might be some help. However, Joffre could not wait.
Haig proposed an assault in mid-August, but Joffre was adamant that the French army would not exist by then. He had originally proposed to use two French armies in the Somme offensive, but the Verdun meatgrinder reduced the French capabilities, and the original offer of 40 divisions was amended to 16. The remainder would have to come from the British. Nevertheless, the attack seemed to be practicable, and it was vital that something was done, so Haig agreed. The opening date for the offensive was set at the 1st July 1916, and a force comprising 21 divisions was allocated to the initial offensive, with three infantry and five cavalry divisions in reserve to follow up a victory.
The Western Front
Instruments Of Terror
The British Plan
Real Footage Of The Battle
Although the Somme sector had been fairly quiet for some time, German defensive preparations had been continuous. The trenches were backed by strong-points and dugouts in an impressive defensive complex that also included medical facilities, kitchens, laundries and electrical generating stations. Many of these installations were concealed by woods or villages, and their existence was not obvious to observers on the Allied side.
The Allied would have to cross low ground and fight their way uphill into the first line of German positions, which was overlooked by the second, and so forth. The defenders enjoyed an excellent view of the battlefield, making concealed preparations and manoeuvres very difficult. The defenders also had vast reserves of ammunition and plenty of heavy weapons. Their high position also had psychological advantages whereas the Allied troops would be slogging uphill into the teeth of heavy resistance.
The Allied preparations for the offensive were not only observed from the enemy positions. Operational security was poor, and comments by British and French officers found their way into German intelligence reports. By the time the Allies opened up with their massive military bombardment on the 24th June, the Germans already knew something was up. They had even guessed the date of the intended assault.
Although 1.75 million artillery shells were fired at German positions in a six day preparatory bombardment, the defences were not seriously disrupted. Artillery fire was supposed to cut enemy wire, but all it tended to do was move it around and tangle it up even more. Muddy shell craters were tough going, and just to add to the misery heavy rain turned the whole area into quagmire.
Although conscription had been introduced in Britain, most of the troops waiting to go over the top were in volunteer units from Kitchener’s New Army. Among the attackers were several notable names, including future military commanders Montgomery and Wavell, as well as Siegfried Sassoon and John Masefield.
On the German side the troops, who included an Austrian volunteer corporal named Adolf Hitler, were ready to receive and repel an assault. Although they did have to deal with a six day bombardment, while huddling like frightened rabbits in their deep bunkers. Overall though, the defenders were in pretty good shape to deal with the coming attack. Their artillery was registered by map grid on the entire battlefield, and fire could be called down quickly on any enemy concentration.
The defenders could see the ground in front of their positions clearly, and were aware of choke points and obvious routes that attackers would be channelled into. Their machine guns were ready to sweep these areas as the enemy passed through them. If, somehow, the first trench line were taken, the defenders could fall back to secondary positions and carry on the fight from there.
The Attack Begins
Helping The Fallen
The First Day
The offensive began at 7:30 a.m. on the 1st July, much as the Germans had predicted. All along the line, the attacking units lurched into motion, and the defenders began firing at them. The British forces went into action in long lines, proceeding at a walk across difficult terrain and stopping to struggle past tangles of wire. Initial reports to Haig were rather optimistic. As the clock struck 8, he was forced to record that everything was going well and the first enemy positions had been overrun. This was somewhat inaccurate. The reality was that British troops were being cut down in their thousands, often just beyond their trenches or gaps in the wire that were becoming choked with bodies. Meanwhile, the French forces were also struggling. Their soldiers were less heavily burdened that the British and used more flexible tactics, rushing from position to position while others covered the advance with rifle fire. Although their casualties were lighter, the French force under General Fayolle did not have the numbers to smash a hole in the German lines.
Scene Of Destruction
The first day of the Somme resulted in some 57,470 British casualties, of whom almost 20,000 were killed. Only 585 were captured, mainly because few of the British troops got close enough to the German lines. Some units, such as the Canadian 1st Newfoundland Regiment, had been effectively wiped out. This horrific slaughter was made worse by the ponderous linear formation used by attacking units, although with such inexperienced troops there may have been no alternative.
The British had attacked with 200 battalions in 17 divisions of about 100,000 men. Of these, only five divisions got any men into the enemy position at all. The rest were halted in no man’s land. It was for not lack of trying though, but the defenders were simply too strong. The Tyneside Irish Regiment, numbering about 3000 men, suffered nearly 100 per cent casualties. The regiment began its advance behind the main start line, in support of the initial attack. Despite the fact that this formation was not an immediate threat to the defenders, it came under such withering fire as it moved up that it never crossed the start line. A total of 500 men were killed or wounded in one battalion and 600 in another. Casualties might have been even higher, but for the fact that many defenders became so sickened by the slaughter that they ceased fire once the attackers in their sector stalled, and allowed the survivors to retreat unmolested.
The Bloody Struggle
Struggle Of Attrition
Despite the fact that fully 20 per cent of the attacking force had been killed, the Allies kept on attacking. Perhaps they had no alternative. Pressure had to be taken off Russia and Verdun somehow and there was no time to build up for an offensive elsewhere. Logistics took too long, and the Allies needed to act now. Men could be fed in, but supplies and ammunition stocks took time to assemble. The Allies had to succeed on the Somme or at least pull in enough German reinforcements to reduce the pressure elsewhere.
At first the slaughter was very much one sided as the Allies threw in new assaults and these were chewed up by the machine guns and artillery, or stalled on the wire. It may have seemed that the Allies were simply throwing away lives, and at first this may have been the case. For example, one German regiment took 180 casualties on the first day of the Somme whereas the British force facing it lost more than 25 times as many men.
For a fortnight little was achieved. Then, on the 14th July a force of French and British troops managed to make some gains along the flanks of the Somme River. Minor gains followed, but the cost was immense, and fresh troops were fed into the battle on a regular basis as shattered formations had to be pulled out. Through July and August the slaughter went on, though now it was less one sided. Forty two German divisions were deployed to the Somme sector in those two months, and the necessity of counter attacking Allied gains resulted in heavy casualties. At the end of July, casualties reached 200,000 for the Allies and 160,000 among German troops. The Allies had only advanced a mere 3 miles, and even by the end of August, very little had changed.
A New Weapon
World War One Tanks In Action
Tactics had been evolving during the long struggle, and the raw British troops had learned from their more experienced French counterparts. Techniques like pre-dawn attacks had achieved some successes. The Allies were becoming more flexible and inventive. It was time to try something new. The main problems facing the Allies were wire and machine guns, and now they, potentially had a means to deal with both. Created specifically as a machine gun destroyer, the monstrous armoured fighting machine known as a ‘tank’ made its first appearance. At this time tanks came in two types. ‘Male’ tanks mounted a main armament of 6 pounder guns derived from naval weapons, whilst ‘female’ tanks carried only machine guns. Both types were slow, prone to mechanical breakdown and required a large crew to operate. They could cross trenches, crush wire and, usually shrug off small arms and machine gun fire, which gave them a fighting chance.
Thirty six tanks were deployed for a renewed assault, despite the fact that their crews were not fully trained. Only 18 went into action as the rest had broken down, but their appearance shocked the defenders into a panic. The Allies gained 3500 yards for a relatively slight cost, easily the biggest success of the offensive to date. However, it was not possible to exploit the breakthrough and several tanks were lost to artillery fire. The rest either broke down or simply got stuck.
Tanks were not a decisive weapon on the Somme, mainly because they were committed in difficult terrain and in small numbers. Their success prompted further experiments, which were locally useful but achieved little on a strategic scale. That would change with the massed tank action at Cambrai in 1917, but for now the tank was simply another factor in a desperate struggle.
Recovering The Wounded
The Offensive Winds Down
As the weather worsened through October and November, the Allies attacked again and again, battering the German positions until the 19th November, when the operation was ceased. At that point the Allies had advanced more than 7 miles along a 20 mile front. In mid-November, the casualty figures came to 419,654 for the British and 194,541 for the French. Remember also that, at the same time the large scale slaughter of human life was on-going at Verdun. These immense losses- just short of 615,000- were sustained in failing to break through the Somme positions. However, the German army took 650,000 casualties in repelling the assault, bringing with it serious repercussions in terms of the overall outcome of the war. The German army in 1914 was a splendid military instrument built on Prussian military traditions and impressive victories in France and Austria. As 1917 began it was a tired and dispirited force whose best men had fallen in the bloodbath that was the Somme. In fact so many good young officers and NCO’s had fallen that the German army never really recovered.
The Somme shook the confidence of the British army in its commanders and political leaders. It finished Joffre’s military career, though Haig was promoted to Field Marshal at the end of the year. The battle is remembered mostly as the worst slaughter in British military history, but in some ways it did manage to achieve its aims. The German army had received a thorough bashing and were utterly dismayed at the sheer doggedness of their attackers. In February 1917 it fell back to the more easily defendable Hindenburg Line.
Casualties Of The Somme
Total British Commonwealth