First World War Myths Lies and Distortions

Part 4 - The Somme Campaign, a Needless and Futile Slaughter

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

No campaign sums up the nation’s understanding or perception of the First World War as effectively as the campaign and series of battles on the Somme from 1st July until November of 1916. To many it encapsulates all that was wrong with the conduct and leadership of the British forces in the Great War. It is widely perceived as a futile and unnecessary slaughter, whose objectives could never have been achieved and it probably lengthened the war by at least a year. The 60,000 British casualties sustained on the first day, 1st July 1916 said it all, didn’t it? History is always about context and it is unwise to judge events from the safety of distance, time and hindsight.

The French were the ultimate proponents of offensive action. A huge area of their country was occupied by the Germans and not unreasonably, they wanted them out. The British with their much smaller army did not want to engage in mass battles of attrition, to wear down the enemy for little material gain. The British preferred to build up their army both numerically and logistically and strike a quick blow that may win the war, or at least provide an advantage that could be exploited. But whether we liked it or not, Britain was the junior partner and had to accede to French strategic aims.

Plans for operations in 1916 were formulated at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915, where offensive action would be conducted in 1916, the question being where? Sir Douglas Haig had taken over command of the BEF in that December and he was of the opinion that the offensive should be in Flanders, around Ypres, to sever German railway communications and move British forces from the waterlogged and overlooked positions onto the higher ground. The French favoured a British offensive at the Somme, which was closer to their positions and could provide flanking support to the strategically and nationally important town of Verdun. The French implied that the British never made efficient use of its manpower, which the British countered by pointing out that the two million men in the Royal Navy provided freedom of the seas and degraded Germany’s ability to wage total war. The French remained unimpressed. The Aims of the two allies also differed. Joffre saw the planned offensive as a battle of attrition, put bluntly to kill Germans. Haig hoped to penetrate the German lines and mount a breakout. The British army was still a largely volunteer force, which Haig was reluctant to squander in the meat grinder of attrition warfare.

The original plan called for an offensive over a sixty mile stretch, with the French providing the bulk of the troops, but this was thrown into confusion when the Germans mounted an offensive of their own at Verdun, in March 1916. Verdun holds a mystical significance to the French. It was captured by the Germanic tribes in 923 and recaptured in 1552. It was besieged during the Thirty Years War and held by the French Revolutionary Army and in 1870 it was the last fortress to fall to the Prussians. It would have made sense for the French to give up Verdun and its forts in 1914, to shorten their line in more easily defended area, but its symbolic importance should not be underestimated.

The Germans saw an attack on Verdun as a means of knocking Britain out of the war. Germany was not concerned about the small British Army in France, but in the Royal Navy and British money and her empire. The Germans planned to grind the French down, to “bleed them white” to force a collapse of French morale, destroy France’s will to fight, which would inevitably lead to British troops leaving France. As a strategy it nearly succeeded and formed the basis for Germany’s resounding victory over the French and British in 1940.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Verdun Offensives 1915-16

The Somme offensive would still take place, moreover it was now imperative to remove pressure from the French at Verdun. The planned French involvement of forty-two divisions and 356 heavy guns over twenty-two miles of front, had to be scaled back to twenty-two divisions over seven-and-a-half miles. Additionally, the French now had more favourable ground astride the Somme River to attack over, with the British protecting their left flank and the bulk of the French army to their right.

The withdrawal of half the French forces caused the British planning staff a logistical nightmare. British units had to move into the areas of the front that the French had left, some thirty miles of trenches and there was widespread disgust among British units at the state the French had left their trenches in. A major problem for the staff was a shortfall of ammunition for the guns and the need to re-deploy many batteries. Each battery of eighteen-pounder guns would need 1,000 rounds at the battery with a battery reserve of 250 rounds per gun. The six inch howitzers required 650 rounds with a Corps reserve of 200 rounds per gun. The road network was in a poor state of repair and not suitable for military traffic. In one twenty-four hour period, 26,536 men, seventy-six guns and carriages, 1,806 motor vehicles, 3,756 horse drawn vehicles, 5,404 men on horseback and 1,043 bicycles passed down a rural side road. New roads were built and others widened to allow for the vast logistical train for the offensive.

Troops had to be briefed, trained and equipped, moved into position and sustained. The Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service aircraft flew countless missions to try and prevent German reconnaissance aircraft from photographing the scale of the preparations. The only bomb that fell anywhere near the British build up was dropped accidently by a British aircraft. Between August 1914 and June 1916, the BEF increased from four infantry divisions to fifty-eight. All this was planned and organised by what has become perceived as the hated, effete, trench-dodging staff officers. In 1914 the BEF’s General Staff consisted of twenty-two staff officers. In 1916 there were just thirty.

On the 16th June 1916 the orders to British units were issued. Any ideas of a breakout were shelved due to the changed circumstances, and the orders clearly stated: The Third and Fourth Armies will undertake offensive operations on the front Maricourt to Gommecourt in conjunction with the French Sixth Army astride the Somme, with the object of relieving pressure on the French at Verdun and inflicting losses on the enemy. (My italics)

Phase One was to seize positions along the Pozieres Ridge and between Serre and Ancre. This would get the British onto higher ground with better observation. The second phase would be entirely dependent on the success or otherwise of Phase One, with a possible breakout should conditions be favourable. The orders for the subsequent phases of the offensive may seem to be vague, but did make tactical sense in as much as they allowed the divisional commanders freedom of action with the ability to amend plans according to the situation. The tragedy was that in 1916, events moved faster than communications and intelligence and they were unable to keep up with, or get inside the enemy’s OODA Loop.  This resulted in the British being unable to exploit the gains they had made in the initial stages of the battle.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Boyd OODA Loop

The main British assault units were from the Forth Army, consisting of sixteen divisions and nearly half a million men. Eleven divisions would attack on the first day. Three were regular divisions (4, 8 and 29), five were New Army formations (18, 31, 32, 34 and 36) and three (7, 21 and 30) were a mix of Territorial and New Army formations. The Territorial and New Army formations were undertrained and the regular divisions were brought up to strength by men fresh out of training. It was an inexperienced force and soldiering had become much more sophisticated as the war progressed. The real weakness was at the NCO/junior officer levels and leadership at this level is vital in the confusion, noise and general hellishness of battle.

General Haig was well aware of the limitations of his troops, but hoped that the overwhelming preliminary bombardment would shake the German defences, destroy dugouts and bunkers and cut swathes in the wire, which in places was up to forty feet thick. The engineers and gunners calculated that a four-day preliminary bombardment would be sufficient to collapse the German dugouts and blast paths through the wire. Before Zero-hour there would be a final eighty minutes of intense bombardment, which it was hoped would force the surviving Germans back into the support trenches while the British infantry were moving forward. The British air component would attempt keep German observation aircraft and balloons on the ground during the offensive.

The bombardment commenced at 06:00 on 24th June 1916, but low cloud and mist hampered attempts by Allied observation aircraft to ascertain the effectiveness of the barrage and counter-battery fire. Because of this the offensive was postponed for forty-eight hours and would commence at 07:30 hours on 1st July. The British Infantry would have preferred to go in as dawn was breaking, but General Foche and the British artillery preferred a daylight offensive so that the guns’ observers could make their final adjustments. During the bombardment, the British fired 1,508,652 rounds, seven shells for every yard of the front. Trench raids were conducted during lulls in the bombardment, so that the effectiveness of the barrage could be gauged. Reports were sketchy and VIII Corps reported the barrage was not particularly effective. Haig was sceptical of these reports as VIII Corps was new to the Western Front. However, it had previously served in Gallipoli. All other signs seemed promising and fires were burning in the German rear areas.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Somme Offensive 1916

Communication trenches or saps were dug out into no-mans’-land as jumping off points, the first waves went into their positions, lay down and waited, surrounded by their comrades but alone with their thoughts and fears. The initial attack would consist of four waves, each following the previous wave at a distance of 100 yards. At Zero-hour the barrage would be lifted from the German first line and move back to the second line of trenches. The agreed safety distance between advancing own troops and the barrage was set at 100 yards. At 06:30 hours the troops moved out of the forward and communications trenches into no-mans’-land and lay down.

Just before 07:30 three huge mines under the German positions were blown, the whistles sounded and the first wave stood up and advanced at a walking pace. The wind blew away the smoke screen and as soon as the British guns moved to the second line, the Germans emerged from their dugouts, set up the machine guns and trench mortars and before the British had advanced fifty yards, the killing started.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Lochnager crater caused by a subterranean explosive mine dug under German positions

On the extreme left of the British line was the 31 Division made up of three Brigades and comprised almost exclusively of “Pals” Battalions. This division was to prevent the Germans from attacking the flanks and after advancing 150 yards, they found the wire was still intact. The left hand brigade consisting of 12 Battalion York and Lancaster Regiment (Sheffield City Pals) had seven officers and 241 men killed that morning. The 11 Battalion East Lancashire Regiment (Accrington Pals) lost five officers and 113 men. The two battalions of West Yorkshire Regiment (Leeds and Bradford Pals lost twenty-three officers and 296 men killed. It would be difficult to pass such losses off as anything other than a slaughter.

On the extreme right flank of the British line was another Pals Division, the 30th which was tasked with capturing the village of Montauban and the German trenches leading up to a redoubt known as the “Dublin Redoubt.” This was to be captured by the French. The British and German positions were over 1,000 yards apart in this section and although saps had been dug, the 30th Division still had to advance some 750 yards. Three battalions of the Liverpool Pals and A territorial battalion, The 2nd Bedfords advanced across the gulf between the front lines. Despite attacking strongly held positions, all of the first day’s objectives were taken for the loss of forty-five killed of all ranks.

In between the results varied considerably, but nobody can deny that the loss of over 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom were killed on the first day alone, was a national catastrophe. Despite the losses of the first day, General Haig continued with the offensive. Some gains were made, but these were limited and German counter attacks recaptured lost ground. Haig was convinced that the Germans were exhausted and on the verge of collapse and as a result of this belief, the offensive was carried on throughout the summer and into November. The reasoning was also political in as much as it was necessary to maintain pressure on the German forces to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun.

Battle of Bazentin Ridge, 14–17 July.

The Fourth Army attacked the German second defensive position from the Somme past Guillemont and Ginchy, north-west along the crest of the ridge to Pozières on the Albert–Bapaume road. The objectives of the attack were the villages of Bazentin le Petit, Bazentin le Grand and Longueval, which was adjacent to Delville Wood, with High Wood on the ridge beyond. The attack was made by four divisions on a front of 6,000 yd at 03:25 a.m. after a five-minute hurricane artillery bombardment. Field artillery fired a creeping barrage and the attacking waves pushed up close behind it in no man’s land, leaving them only a short distance to cross when the barrage lifted from the German front trench. Most of the objective was captured and the German defence south of the Albert–Bapaume road put under great strain but the attack was not followed up due to British communication failures, casualties and disorganisation

Haig renewed attacks in this area again between 25-27 September, in the Battle of Morval and the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. British advances were small but were consolidated upon. Other attacks were launched by the British at the Battles of Transloy Ridges (1-20 October) and the Battle of the Ancre Heights (1-11 October). Similarly French attacks were continued in the south around Chaulnes, and in the centre east of Morval.

In October Joffre urged Haig to continue the offensive. By this time the French forces in Verdun were on the offensive and were gaining ground. Joffre was concerned that Haig should keep up the pressure on the Germans so as to prevent a diversion of German manpower back to Verdun to assist with the German defence there.

On 13 November the BEF made a final effort on the far east of the salient in the Battle of the Ancre, in which they captured the field fortress of Beaumont Hamel. Despite the slow but progressive British advance, poor weather with snow, brought a halt to the Somme offensive on 18 November. During the attack the British and French had advanced the front line by eight miles, the taking of which resulted in 420,000 estimated British casualties, including many of the volunteer ‘pal’s’ battalions, plus a further 200,000 French casualties. German casualties were estimated to run at around 500,000.

The preliminary bombardment

Expansion of the Royal Artillery had resulted with the rush to increase the production of guns and howitzers abandoned higher standards of quality and led to a number of defects. The British stocks of shells consisted of a high number of faulty, or ‘dud’ shells. As many as 30% of shells failed to explode and had no effect.

Additionally, much of their stockpile, around two-thirds, consisted of shrapnel shells – ineffective against wire and hardened defences, and the number of high explosive shells was limited. Supply had struggled to keep up with demand, and the problems which caused great political scandal throughout 1915, and partially led to the downfall of Prime Minister Asquith, had not yet been fully rectified. The ambitious goal set by then Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, in January 1916 was that the crisis would be resolved and more than adequate numbers of shells would be produced by April that year, in reality, it was not until spring 1917 the British Army was finally free of the crippling shortages.

As they had planned to destroy defences and suppress the defenders, it becomes easy to criticise the tactical choices of Haig and Rawlinson for the limited value of their bombardment. However, the shell crisis, the increased expectations placed on them by the French, and the vast expansion of the army all placed further pressure on British generals, forcing them to meticulously review plans, in which they wished to strengthen the artillery to reduce the burden on their sub-standard divisions.

By adding two days to the bombardment, it is clear Allied generals recognised the shortfalls and in spite of these pressures, temporarily put the military situation ahead of logistical and political, although bad weather also played a major role. However, no additional shells were allocated, not even the much-needed high explosive varieties.

In subsequent battles, the weight of fire of bombardments increased, and usually it was laid in shorter time periods. This is partly due to the deliberate allocation of more shells in planning and the lessons learned and partly due to better production. The Battle of Messines, 11 months later, utilised twice as many field guns per yard, and three times the heavy artillery, than deployed at the Somme. At least 3.25 million shells were fired in support of the attack at Messines, considerably more than the 1.73 million fired along the Somme, and developments allowed for much more accurate and effective fire.

Defensive positions held by the German army on the Somme after November 1916 were in poor condition; the garrisons were exhausted and censors of correspondence reported tiredness and low morale in front-line soldiers. The situation left the German command doubtful that the army could withstand a resumption of the battle. The German defence of the Ancre began to collapse under British attacks, which on 28 January 1917 caused Rupprecht to urge that the retirement to the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) begin. Ludendorff rejected the proposal the next day, but British attacks on the First Army, particularly the Action of Miraumont, 17–18 February, caused Rupprecht on the night of 22 February to order a preliminary withdrawal of c. 4 mi (6.4 km) to the R. I Stellung (R. I Position). On 24 February the Germans withdrew, protected by rear guards, over roads in relatively good condition, which were then destroyed. The German withdrawal was helped by a thaw, which turned roads behind the British front into bogs and by disruption to the railways which supplied the Somme front. On the night of 12 March, the Germans withdrew from the R. I Stellung between Bapaume and Achiet le Petit and the British reached the R. II Stellung (R. II Position) on 13 March 1917.

Battle of the Some
British, French and German casualties
July–November 1916

Month British French Sub-
German (% of
July 158,786 49,859 208,645 103,000 49.4
August 58,085 18,806 76,891 68,000 88.4
September 101,313 76,147 177,460 140,000 78.9
October 57,722 37,626 95,348 78,500 82.3
November 39,784 20,129 59,913 45,000 75.0
Total 415,690 202,567 618,257 434,500 70.3

Total casualties by month Somme Offensive

It could be said that the Somme Offensive did keep France in the war, but would it really have been such a disaster for the British if the French had collapsed, forcing the BEF out of France? And would the French Army have collapsed for the loss of Verdun whose significance was probably more important to politicians and Chauvinists than the Generals. The Royal Navy was still supreme as was the Empire. Perhaps the U-boat offensive could have cut supplies and trade routes, bringing Britain to her knees and it would have resulted in Germany being the dominant power in Europe. And in the last few years, we’ve all learned just how dangerous that situation is.

So was it all a futile and unnecessary slaughter? The neat rows of white gravestones are a powerful reminder of what industrialised warfare is about and I think the jury’s still out on the answer to necessity and effectiveness of the Somme Offensive. In the final analysis, I find it very difficult to put a positive spin on the battles and grieve for the young lives who could have given our country so much.

© Blown Periphery 2018

Audio file