The Somme: The bloody Summer of 1916, Pt 3

(For preceding posts on the summer of 1916, click here for the background, and here for Verdun)

When we started to fire, we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.

~German Machine-Gunner

“If it had been possible to win the war in the west by sheer force, by overpowering the enemy with manpower and firepower, the Battle of the Somme would have done the job. The British and French attacked a German army that they outnumbered by an enormous margin. They had an equal advantage in artillery and total control of the air. They were backed by all the resources that modern industrial economies could put at the disposal of their soldiers.”

~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (New York: Bantam Dell, 2007), 435.

Like Falkenhayn, their German counterpart, the Allied military planners had used the winter of 1915-1916 to strategize the best way to attack their enemy. The solution seemed easy enough: to apply simultaneous pressure on the Germans and Austro-Hungarian armies on the Eastern, Western, and Russian fronts. Even if none of these attacks proved successful, they could at least ensure that each attack would keep German resources from being funneled to the other attacks, and thereby create a predictable enemy. These plans were upset, however, when the Germans launched a major offensive at Verdun in early 1916.

The supreme French commander, Joseph Joffre, had no idea whether the Germans could maintain the strength of their offensive against Verdun. What was important, instead, was to insure that the Germans did NOT capture Verdun, and he thus demanded that the British launch an offensive somewhere else in an attempt to draw German strength away from the vicinity of Verdun.

Joseph Joffre

As with Falkenhayn’s decision to attack the well-fortified region of Verdun, we may certainly critique Joffre’s selection of the Somme for the offensive. The Germans had not been attacked in that region for nearly two years, and had worked feverishly to build up their defenses in that region. Even so, these defenses did have one weakness: The Germans were so confident in the strength of their defensive works in the Somme that their lines there were proportionately less populated than in other areas.

With Joffre’s French armies preoccupied at Verdun, the Somme offensive became the responsibility of the supreme British commander, Douglas Haig, and he could scarcely be accused of failing to plan the offensive. He moved over a 500,000 men to the Somme front, alternating them in turns to the rear, where they trained in mock assaults. Combined with the French pieces, over 1,600 units of field artillery, 1,000 medium and over 400 pieces of heavy artillery were moved to the area, creating a saturation of artillery that amounted to about 1 piece of artillery for every 8 yards of battlefront. To protect against being cut by German artillery, 7 miles of telephone wire were buried. 120 miles of pipe were laid in order to maintain a supply of fresh water to the troops. 10 squadrons (185 planes) were moved to the area to suddenly dominate the air war in the area, allowing for un-hampered artillery spotting. Preparation and planning for the attack on the Somme was very thorough, and Haig was responsible for every bit of it.

Douglas Haig

The rub, however, was in the tactical preparation within the high-command system: there was none. Haig had come through the military as a cavalryman, and therefore intended to smash the German lines, achieving a breakthrough to be exploited by tens of thousands of cavalry waiting in reserve. However, Haig’s primary infantry commander, Sir Henry Rawlinson, was a career infantryman, and had drawn the lesson from the first two years of war that breakthrough was impossible. Instead, he favored attacks with more localized objectives: to seize just enough ground as to lure the enemy into a counterattack, during which both infantry and artillery could obliterate them. Thus, Haig sought a quick victory, destroying an entire German army and collapsing their defenses in the region, whereas Rawlinson sought a long victory of attrition, where success would be measured by the number of enemy soldiers killed. The Battle of the Somme opened with the two major British commanders having different tactical strategies and expectations, and neither attempted to discuss them with the other.

Henry Rawlinson

Even so, the Allies’s advantage in numbers were almost laughable: combined with the French troops, they would send over 750,000 men into battle. The Germans would oppose them (initially) with barely half that number. Given the number of artillery pieces involved, Haig was confident than the artillery barrage alone would blow the Germans apart, as over 1.5 million shells fell on the German lines over the course of a 5 day bombardment. On the evening of June 30, Germans on high observation points noted the numbers of troops and cavalry being marched up to the front lines. Clearly, the day of attack was at hand.

Allied artillery bombardment began at 6:25am on July 1, the same as the 5 days preceding it. At 7:20am, they detonated a mine underneath the German lines at Hawthorne ridge. Yet for the limited destruction which this explosion rendered upon German defenses, it seemed the trigger for German artillery, which suddenly opened up, falling with stunning accuracy upon the Allied lines. Ten other British mines were detonated at 7:28 am, and at 7:30, whistles blew, and the attack began.

Empty shells casings from artillery fired on the first day of The Somme, July 1, 1916.
The explosion at Hawthorne Ridge, the planned detonation of a mine beneath German lines.

The men who went forward quickly learned two stunning truths: First, almost a full third of the Allied artillery shells had failed to explode (due to a collapse of quality control as British factories rushed to manufacture as many shells as possible), leaving German dugouts and barbed wire intact, and forcing the troops into deadly funnels of kill-zones in front of German machine guns. Second, the Germans had not been obliterated by the artillery barrage. Assuming that the barrage would indeed wipe out the Germans and their defenses, Rawlinson had ordered his troops to advance slowly, shoulder to shoulder, to give the inexperienced men courage. Instead, they made astoundingly easy targets for the German gunners. Of the 66,000 men of the first British wave, fully half of them became casualties. The Germans became so repulsed by the carnage that they became unwilling to continue firing when they saw the British falling back. By the end of the day, over 60,000 British troops had become casualties. The bloodiest day in the history of British warfare.

On the Northern and Southern ends of the line, however, the French had been surprisingly successful. To the South, the Germans were surprised by the attack, having seen no preparatory buildup of troops. To the North, an effective creeping barrage paved the way for the French to advance easily past their first day’s objective. As opposed to the British, forced to march with over 70 pounds of equipment, shoulder to shoulder,  French troops were told to leave behind everything unnecessary for the day’s fight, and encouraged to run, duck, and doge their war forward. In the South, however, the swampy marshlands of the Somme river blocked further advance, and in the North, Rawlinson had given orders to advance only as far as the day’s limited objectives allowed, and he thus sent no troops to exploit the breakthrough achieved there. By the end of July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme was already deadlocked, though the slaughter would continue for almost another 5 months, with very limited gains.

The allies made a slow, painful advance over the course of the Battle of the Somme.

As the losses from the Somme continued to pile up, Englishmen became more and more horrified, looking to the 23 men on the British war-cabinet for an explanation. Placards, printed by an English newspaper, began to appear on the streets bearing bold, black print:


(A summary and conclusion of the events of the summer of 1916 will be forthcoming in my 4th and final post of this series.)


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