The beginning of Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme began on July 1st, 1916. 21,000 men were killed on the first day. In this article, Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior reassess the campaign.
This month marks a noteworthy anniversary in British military history. Seventy-five years ago, the campaign on the Somme dragged to its close. The battle, extending from July 1st to November 19th 1916, constituted the first major operation launched by the British Army on the Western Front. Ever since, argument has raged over its significance. Was the Somme campaign a catastrophe for the British Army? Or, on the contrary, did it help to speed Germany to defeat? It suggests the complexity of the struggle that these matters remain undecided.
The Somme battle lasted for 141 days which can be marshalled into six fairly distinct episodes. There were three periods of intense fighting on a broad front – on July 1st, on July 14th and from September 15th to the 25th. Separating these were two periods of continuous but less extensive fighting – July 2nd-13th and July 15th to September 14th. Finally, there was the period in the mud from later September to the end of the battle.
For many the battle is known only by the fighting on the first day. On July 1st 1916, fourteen British divisions (approximately 120,000 men) attacked the German lines on a 20,000 yard front. At the end of the day 19,000 of the attackers lay dead and another 38,000 were missing or wounded. For these enormous losses all the British had gained was a section of the German front line in the south. Nothing at all had been secured in the north.
This meagre achievement fell far short of the intentions of the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. He had anticipated bursting right through the German defences, sending his cavalry on to Bapaume, and rolling up the entire German position on the Western Front. It was in fact this grand design that sowed the seeds of disaster on the first day. To clear the way for the cavalry, Haig had given the artillery the task of crushing the successive lines of German defences. Thereby he spread his artillery resources so thin that a goodly number of German machine-guns and heavier weapons survived the bombardment unscathed. These were able to exact a fearful toll on the massed British infantry when it advanced to the attack.
In spite of this setback Haig determined to continue with the offensive. In this he was encouraged by the French, who to the south of the British had done comparatively well. His aim was to get within striking distance of the German second line in the southern sector where the attack on the first day had enjoyed its only success. This plan led to the second period of the battle. During these days attacks were made incessantly. But they were quite unlike that of July 1st. Then three-quarters of Haig's forces on the Somme had been committed on a continuous front. The second period was characterised by small-scale, piecemeal, narrow-front attacks using on average only about 14 per cent of the available battalions. So between July 2nd and July 13th, no single co-ordinated attack was made. Apparently neither Haig nor his Army commanders, Rawlinson and Gough, saw a need for such an operation. Yet the method of proceeding piecemeal was bound to prove costly. It allowed the Germans to direct artillery and machine-gun fire from those sections of their front not being attacked upon the narrow sections that were. This second period cost the British 25,000 casualties. Five of the attacking divisions suffered losses of the same order as those hardest hit on July 1st.
On July 14th the intense, broad-front attack returned to the Somme. Five divisions went forward at night on a front of 9,000 yards. In its immediate purpose the attack was a complete success. The success, as Rawlinson (who commanded the operation) noted, was due less to the device of attacking at night than to the crushing intensity of the bombardment, which eliminated most of the German defenders before the infantry went in.
Yet even this success was marred. As on the first day a force of cavalry and infantry were concentrated behind the British line to exploit the victory. On this occasion, because of the initial success, some units of horsed-soldiers and infantry were actually pushed through. They were shot down in great numbers by German machine-guns and artillery operating from rearward positions not subjected to the initial bombardment.
There followed the long period of the battle between July 15th and September 14th. Historians have not dealt with this phase in any detail – indeed it is usually absent from the history books. The reason is plain. During this period there was no major offensive, and no single objective. Instead a number of positions, often strongly defended, were assailed repeatedly. The names Pozieres, Longueval, Delville Wood, and Guillemont will be familiar to any reader with an interest in the First World War. The manner in which they fit into the Somme campaign may be less familiar. Each of the above objectives, be it wood or village, was attacked by the British on over twenty occasions in the period under review. These operations were always carried out on narrow fronts, employing comparatively few troops. Indeed in this respect the period is on all fours with that of July 2nd-13th, with the exception that the average number of battalions sent into action on a given day was smaller and the positions they attacked were stronger.
It must not be thought because these attacks were small in scale that therefore casualties were slight. Rather, by once more allowing the German defenders to concentrate machine-gun and artillery fire on relatively narrow fronts, the British command was actually increasing the likelihood of sustaining heavy losses on each occasion. The total casualty rate bears this out. In this period the British lost approximately 100,000 men while gaining about five and a half square miles of territory. This places the period on a rough equality with the disastrous opening day, when 57,000 were lost for a gain of two and three-quarter square miles. This second calamity has only gone unremarked because the losses did not fall within a time span of twelve hours and so lacked dramatic impact. Yet the fact remains that the British were paying an enormous price to secure infinitesimal amounts of ground.
The intense, broad-front battle returned to the Somme for a third time in the latter half of September. The reason was simple. A new weapon of war – the tank – was in prospect and Haig was determined to use it to assist a breakthrough. Haig's eagerness deserves to be stressed. So far from being sceptical about the usefulness of the new weapon, Haig was confident that the fifty available machines would cause a panic among the German defenders. As a consequence the cavalry corps was concentrated behind the front to advance into open country when the third German defensive line fell.
Once more Haig willed the end without paying sufficient attention to the means. The tank, unsupported, was of minor value. Only the big guns could crush the defence. Yet even now Haig spread his artillery fire across all three German defensive lines. So once more it proved too feeble to overcome them. British troops were again shot down in large numbers from unsubdued machine-guns and artillery. Casualties, as a proportion of troops used, again approximated those of July 1st.
In one sector, nevertheless, Haig's faith in his new weapon proved justified. A group of tanks caused the Germans in the second line protecting Flers to panic. The attacking infantry followed close behind the machines and secured the village. In the next few days the remainder of the second enemy line was captured. The German third line now stood before the British. On this occasion Haig decided to make it his sole objective. The entire British bombardment fell on this single line. The German defenders were either killed or cowed by the intensity of the shelling. The infantry, attacking without the aid of tanks (most of which were out of order) took the position with relative ease. Casualties were light. The operation of September 25th was the most successful of all British attacks during the Somme campaign.
One lesson seemed obvious from this experience. Limited objective operations, if launched in sufficient strength and on an adequate front, stood some chance of success. This lesson escaped Haig. He declared German resistance to be fatally weakened; their new defensive position hardly an obstacle. The cavalry corps were for the fourth time massed for the breakthrough. Remote objectives were set, some of them five times the distance so far travelled by the British in three months of campaigning.
At this point the rain began to fall. Within four days the battlefield turned into a sea of mud. Observation for the artillery became impossible. Haig was undeterred. The attack went in on October 7th against defences hardly touched by the artillery. The results were predictable. No ground was gained, and heavy losses were incurred.
Continuing bad weather should have ruled out further operations. Haig was not persuaded. In the next few weeks the German defences were assailed on six occasions. Conditions were so bad that troops had to pull each other out of their mud-encompassed trenches to form up for an attack. In some cases the crossing of 'No Man's Land' stalled because the troops were bogged. Hardly an inch of ground was gained in any of these operations. Protests began to reach Haig from Rawlinson and some of the corps commanders. They fell on deaf ears. Haig wished to end the campaign on a winning note. Mercifully for his army this was provided for him by Gough. In a well-planned attack on November 13th, Gough's troops captured Beaumont Hamel and the remainder of the Thiepval Ridge. Haig finally declared himself satisfied and called off the battle. Did anyone remember that Beaumont Hamel and Thiepval had been two of the objectives marked down for capture in the first hours of the first day of the battle on July 1st?
How are we to assess this four-and-a-half-months of bloodshed and grim endeavour? For British forces, were they a sustained exercise in futility? Or is a more positive view warranted? Can it be argued that by November 1916 the British and French were markedly closer to defeating Germany than they had been on July 1st?
In the general estimation, the latter question hardly deserves notice. All that Haig had accomplished on the Somme was to wipe out the eager hopes, and many of the promising lives, of the young Britons who had flocked to the recruiting stations in the early months of the war.
But a contrary view does exist. In the estimation of historians sympathetic to Haig, judgements on the Somme campaign have been warped by an obsession with its disastrous opening day. What came after was essentially different. During the grim slogging match from July 2nd to November 19th, Haig's army inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Germans. This transformed the whole operation into a major British triumph.
Haig's achievements on the Somme, in this view, were five-fold. Firstly, between July 2nd and November 19th, 1916, his army demonstrated to friend and foe alike that Britain was now a major military power. Secondly, Britain's forces, aided by the French, proved capable of driving the enemy from the most formidable defensive system so far assailed on the Western Front. Thirdly, Haig's army repelled a succession of devoted German counter-attacks. Fourthly, the unrelenting Allied pressure forced the Germans to abandon the raised ground on which they had started the campaign and to retreat to less advantageous positions. Finally, the Somme offensive inflicted upon the Germans such heavy casualties that their powers of resistance were fatally impaired. After the Somme, the defeat of Germany was only a matter of time.
These arguments have largely been ignored by critics of the Somme operation. A recent book called Haig's Command belies its title by devoting a beggarly two and a half pages to the weeks from July 2nd to November 19th, 1916. Yet at least some of the points made by Haig's advocates contain an element of truth. The issue that needs to be decided is whether, all told, they add up to a convincing case.
The first point in the pro-Haig argument is, in a measure, incontrovertible. Before mid-1916, Britain had lacked the weapons and trained troops to be anything but a junior partner to the French. On July 1st, 1916, Haig's army became the major fighting force of the Entente powers on the Western Front. This transformation occurred not a moment too soon. The fighting forces of France, on account of their major offensives in 1914 and 1915 and costly stand at Verdun in the first half of 1916, were now decisively worn down. The situation on the Eastern Front was even worse. The momentary success of the Russian forces against Austria-Hungary in mid-1916 would soon cease. And before long the entire command structure of the Russian Empire would disintegrate. The burden which Haig's army shouldered in the course of 1916 would continue to the end of the war.
Yet this leaves a large matter unexplored. If the armies of France and Russia were crumbling, it was not just because military operations in this war were bound to be costly. It was also because French and Russian commanders had been squandering their soldiers' lives in ill-conceived offensives. The actions of the British command on the Somme in 1916 too often mirrored the unproductive attacks of the French command in 1914 and 1915. Was Haig, in assuming for Britain the main burden of fighting in the West, also proceeding by methods which threatened to destroy his own army? That possibility calls into question what Haig's advocates see as the first of his Somme achievements.
Yet the proponents of Haig would respond that it was not the British Army he was bringing to destruction but the army of his adversaries. And they would proffer as evidence the other four of the accomplishments they claim for him: that his army overran formidable defences, beat off ferocious counter-attacks, occupied advantageously-placed high ground, and imposed on the enemy disproportionately heavy casualties.
How substantial are these claims? That the German positions attacked on the Somme were truly formidable is not to be doubted. Along the Somme battlefront the enemy had constructed dug-outs of such depth and complexity that no British bombardment could penetrate into them. And supporting these dug-outs was an array of barbed wire, machine-guns, and heavy artillery.
In the course of the Somme campaign, all of the defences facing the British at the outset were eventually overrun. It was no small achievement. But it was an achievement subject to pronounced limitations. The object in forcing the Germans out of their defensive positions was to drive them back in disarray, so giving the opening to Haig's ever-expectant cavalry. Nothing of the sort occurred. At the end of the campaign as at the beginning, coherent lines of defence stood between Haig and open country.
Indeed the Somme operations demonstrated that, to ward off British attacks, the Germans did not need such complex defences as they possessed on July 1st. As became plain at Guillemont in August and during the tank attack in September, a flexible system of defences spread out in chequer-board fashion was every bit as effective, and every bit as lethal, as the linear defences of July 1st. In short, spending British lives prodigally to wrest from the Germans their initial defensive system did not amount to a major victory. Indeed, if the cost to the attacker was disproportionately heavy, it did not amount to a victory at all.
Nevertheless, to turn to the third element in the case put forward by Haig's apologists, the Germans at the outset fought desperately hard to recapture every yard of lost ground. They suffered many casualties in the process, so diminishing the advantage in the balance of casualties which they had secured on the opening days.
Once more, however, this point cannot be pressed too far. It is true that at first the German high command, having sought to render the commanding ridge impregnable, threw away lives in the attempt to regain it. But before long they abandoned this proceeding. In August the control of German strategy passed to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had enjoyed great success in the East. They did not believe that every inch of German-held territory in the West must be retained or recaptured, and hereafter only counter-attacked to regain positions of tactical importance.
Such flexibility was not evident on the British side. Certainly, Haig did not possess the range of choices open to his German counterparts. They might opt for judicious retreat on the Western Front and offensive measures in the East. The British, by contrast, could only engage the enemy on the Western Front. But the manner of their doing so needed to be reassessed once it became evident that the enemy was not prepared to maintain an inflexible front. Haig went ahead as if no reassessment was called for.
This point detracts from the fourth of the supposed accomplishments of the British campaign on the Somme: that it deprived the enemy of advantageous high ground. Having captured the ridge, Haig did not contemplate stopping there. In deteriorating conditions of weather and terrain, he drove his forces forward into the low-lying territory beyond. Nothing was gained by these grisly operations. The British ended the campaign as they had begun it, occupying territory over which the enemy enjoyed good observation.
Up to this point, it is clear, the arguments put forward by Haig's advocates, though not without substance, do not convert the Somme operations into a major British victory. Only the argument from casualty figures – that the Germans paid far more dearly than the British and French during the Somme battles – would make it so. And there is nothing to be said for this view. Despite the devoted juggling of statistics by the British official historian, it is evident that the Western Allies suffered greater numbers of killed and wounded during the Somme campaign than did the Germans (roughly 620,000 British and French as against 500,000 Germans).
Yet does this end the argument? It might still be the case that the British and French could better afford their heavier losses than the Germans their lighter. Ought we, in short, to stop being squeamish, and see Britain's Somme campaign as a signal contribution to Germany's defeat notwithstanding the terrible losses the British sustained? This question needs to be asked (it rarely is); but it cannot be securely answered in the affirmative. Nothing about the Allies' situation in 1916 suggests that victory lay down a path in which they sustained heavier losses than their adversaries. And there is no certain link between the Somme battles of 1916 and Germany's capitulation two years later. By the time of the latter event, the composition of Germany's opponents had changed markedly, the German high command had squandered huge numbers of men in their ill-starred spring offensive of 1918, and the British army in its climactic battles was employing weaponry and offensive methods far superior to those of 1916.
Yet a lingering doubt remains. After all, 1916 clearly was no comfortable experience for the Germans. The Somme was not the sole reason for this. The evident crumbling of Austria-Hungary, and Germany's own losses at Verdun, were among the year's misfortunes. But the Somme campaign had made a notable contribution to Germany's straitened condition. It had eliminated many German fighting men. And it had revealed – even to 'Easterners' like Hindenburg and Ludendorff – that to win the war they must one day subdue the British. This was a daunting prospect. Monumental acts of folly on the part of the German command, such as the U-boat campaign of 1917 and Ludendorff s 1918 offensive, were in some measure – although by no means wholly – the consequence of the Somme operations.
That being said, we are far from vindicating Haig's actions in 1916. He launched, and persisted in, an offensive which gained too little and cost his army too much. Certainly, Britain had no choice but to prosecute the offensive and this was bound to be costly. Equally, there is no case for claiming that Haig willed the deaths of his own troops as a means of killing an equal number of Germans. He sought a great strategic victory which, if it could have been accomplished, would have eliminated many more of the enemy than of his own side.
The Somme campaign is blameworthy for three reasons. At the outset (and not only then) Haig set his sights on grandiose objectives for whose attainment he possessed neither the guns nor the ammunition: thereby he brought on his forces casualties far in excess of what they needed to sustain. After that he kept up pressure on the enemy in an often disorientated and ill-directed fashion, so once more placing his troops at unnecessary risk. And finally, with all prospect of significant gain departed, he persisted in ordering attacks despite the increasingly abominable conditions of ground and weather.
The outcome of this 75th anniversary survey, then, is almost painfully conventional. It is, nevertheless, more soundly based than the traditional shrill railings against Haig, the battle, the Western Front, and even the First World War. The British Army achieved notable things on the Somme. But the cost was grievously (and unnecessarily) high. Given the resources then at its disposal, the most the British Army could have achieved was a succession of bite and hold operations (to employ Rawlinson's expression). However mundane in appearance, these would – in all probability – have achieved at least as much as was ever accomplished on the Somme, and at a less terrible price. That the campaign which Haig conducted did not take this form was not the result of any inexorable decree of fate. It was the consequence of misjudgements by Britain's military command.
Robin Prior is Senior Lecturer in History at University College, University of New South Wales. Trevor Wilson is Professor of History at the University of Adelaide.
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