Today is the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Widely regarded as the blackest day in British military history, approximately 60,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or missing as Kitchener’s New Army was blooded – quite literally – on the battlefields of France. That’s sixty thousand men…twenty thousand of them killed. Twenty thousand families ruined in a few hours. Think about that for a minute. As a comparison, that was more than 5x more than the combined Allied casualties on D-Day.
Now, popular myth and perception is that the generals and officers that devised this attack were incompetent fools that led their brave new armies to death due to poor decisions, poor planning and a bucket-load of indecisiveness and delays…Well, in my opinion this is not necessarily 100% true. Yes, mistakes were made, however many of these generals and staff officers may not have been quite the bumbling fools that have since been characterised by the likes of General Melchett in the splendid Blackadder Goes Forth.
So were the lions of the Great War really led by donkeys?
No! Let’s blame it on the French.
At the end of 1915, there were considerable tensions rising to the surface between the British and the French governments. The French Commander in Chief – Generale Joffre was demanding strenuously that the British take part in more offensive actions on the Western Front. Up until now, it was his impression that the French were doing most of the fighting. And most of the dying. The 2 million British sailors afloat keeping the high seas safe and free of U-boats were of little consequence to the French who just wanted to get rid of the German invaders. However, the British has a tiny army compared to the French, and wanted more time to recruit, equip and train new conscripts, their argument being you cannot send raw recruits into battle without the proper training and equipment. That would be just madness, right?
The French wanted the Somme to be a battle of attrition – their own attempt at bleeding Germany white. He promised 40 divisions (500,000 men) which would have been double the British representation. Oh and they also said the battle would be in August 1916.
Let’s blame the politicians.
Despite these promises, the British (and specifically Haig) didn’t really fancy a bloodbath on the Somme. He had his attentions turned to those pesky U-boats that were threatening to cut off vital war supplies that were being shipped in from overseas. If the U-boat bases, especially those in Belgium, could be wiped out, that would help everyone. What would winning on the Somme achieve? hmmmm…he had a point. So why did he agree? One word my friends: Politics. He was under enormous pressure by the British government to keep the Frenchies happy, he had no choice really. Merd.
No, Let’s Blame it on the Germans instead.
So, Haig was all set for an August attack with a signficant French army backing him up…then, in February 1916 those ruddy Germans decided to have a go at Verdun. To bleed France white. They almost succeeded too. The battle was ferocious and pretty soon the French army was at breaking point. They demanded help from Britain. And quick. June please. Or July at the very latest. They needed a diversionary attack to draw German troops away from Verdun. Oh, and you know those 40 Divisions of French help? Make that 5.
And so, the scene was set for the Battle of the Somme. An unwanted battle for the British. Fought for the wrong reasons, fought in the wrong place, and fought at the wrong time.
So what about the attack itself. One myth is that the British soldiers were told to stand up and walk slowly across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches. Did this actually happen? Well, yes it did, actually.
Here’s the deal with the ‘walking slowly towards lots of machine guns’ thing. I guess you have 3 options here: walk, run or crawl. The German trenches were at a minimum a quarter of a mile away from the British lines, and in many places more than a mile away. How long would it take to crawl that amount of distance? I suspect too long, so that is the crawling business put to bed. The average Tommy wore kit that weighed about 30-35kg, now, you try running up hill for a mile carrying 30kg on your back and then have a fight with some angry Germans. Chances are you would be exhausted before you got anywhere near the enemy. Oh, and dont forget the terrain would have been annihilated by shell fire and would be very treacherous and uneven. As a result the British attackers were instructed to walk, to take it easy in the first stages of the advance in an effort to save themselves for a short, sharp rush when they got near the oppositions trenches. Kinda makes sense I guess, and it may have worked if it wasn’t for those darned machine guns.
This was an artillery war, indeed 58% of all casualties during the first day of the Somme were due to artillery fire. As soon as the British poked their heads above their parapets for the advance the Germans let them have it with a huge artillery bombardment on their trenches and in No Man’s Land. But hang on a minute. This was never meant to happen. The Brits had been shelling the crap out of the Germans, at the rate of 3 shells a second, every second of every minute of every hour of every day, since the 24th June. That’s a lot of shells by the way, about 1.7million. That’s got to hurt. Indeed the entire battle plan was that this bombardment would be so devastating that there would be nothing left of the German lines, and the attack troops would just have to ‘mop up’. But it didn’t work out that way. Why?
As I have already alluded to, the Germans had very good defensive positions. And so they should, they had dug in in 1914 and could pick the best positions at their leisure. The Somme area is very chalky, and chalk is good for deep dugouts that can resist artillery bombardments. Over time the Germans had built a subterranean network of deep dugouts some more than 10m below ground, and were able to hide in relative safety from the guns. Whatsmore, the British artillery failed to cut the German barbed wire defenses, it just didn’t have enough of the correct type of shell to effectively cut wire, this in particular would prove catastrophic. Add to this the fact that around 30% of all shells were duds that failed to explode and the effectiveness of the barrage was significantly reduced.
Can we really blame the Generals in the field for poor quality ammunition and superior enemy defences?
In any walk of life if you buy something to do a specific job you would normally expect it to be tested to ensure it can do what it was designed to do. Unfortunately many of the bits of kit that the Soldiers took into battle in 1916 were not tested properly before being issued. Take wire cutter extensions, a natty little gadget that soldiers placed on their rifles..the idea was that you pushed it against the German wire and it would snip neatly through the wire. It worked great on British wire…just didnt work at all on the Germans stuff. Which was a shame.
When you think about it, you can have the best troops in the world, the best equipment, the best training, the best of everything, but if you cannot move your armies, or feed them, or get them to hospital when they are injured, then they are quite useless. The logistics for the Somme battle were incredible. It was like moving a large city over to the middle of France. Don’t forget, this was a time before helicopters, lorries, mobile phones etc. There were no tyres, wheels were wooden and transport was largely horse or mule powered. All rations, ammunition, guns, clothing, railway tracks, gravel and other equipment were all moved about using equine power. And here is another thing, feeding those horses took huge resources as well, in fact some sources suggest that in weight terms, there was more fodder for horses transported to france, than shells. Hat’s off to those logistics people is what I say.
As the preparations for the attack were being made above ground, preparations underground had been going on for months. Tunnelers were excavating huge mines packed full of explosives directly under the German lines, in a scale never seen before. The British Army was pushing the boundaries of warfare. These tunnels, dug within metres of the enemy It was a master stroke which caused, as intended, massive loss to the enemy.
The First World War was the only war ever where the commanders could not directly affect the flow of battle by his own voice. In previous wars he would be right there with his troops, shouting instructions, in later wars there was radio. On the Somme the commanders were forced to use carrier pigeon, basic telephones (although the wire was cut almost immediately) and runners. The fact is the technology of killing had vastly out stripped the technology of communication. They simply didn’t know what was going on, and thus were almost unable to make decisions on the spot that would perhaps have changed history.
Haig – Prime Donkey or War Hero
Field Marshall Douglas Haig is widely seen as the prime donkey in all of the donkey kingdom that was the British high command. At the end of 1918 he was a hero. It was his army, he had built it, he had deployed it and he had maintained it in such a fighting state that by the end of the war it was the only army fit enough to defeat the Germans militarily. He won the war. The politicians loved him, his soldiers loved him, the people of Britain loved him. He was a very popular chap.
He was also a champion of technology. He has demanded more than 40 tanks for the opening day of the battle, if they had been delivered on time who knows what would have happened.
On July 12th the Germans pulled out of Verdun, so I suppose in a funny kind of way the early days of the Somme were a strategic success in that it relieved the pressure on our French friends and allowed them to regroup and recover. And another thing, after the Battle had ended in November 1916, the German High Command conceded that it couldn’t take another Somme battle. It therefore resumed its U-Boat war, that in the end brought the USA into play, another indirect consequence of the Somme.
Disagree? Post a comment – we love a good bit of banter!