World War One: Battle of the Somme; saving Verdun (Part 1)

At 7:30 A.M. on 1st of July of 1916, 14 British divisions climbed out of their trenches along an 18-mile front north of the Somme and marched slowly forward, each man carrying 66 pounds of kit, in wave after wave of extended lines; steadily on towards the German defenses. They expected to find the enemy barbed wire, trenches systems, artillery and defenders all annihilated by the week-long preliminary bombardment by 1,350 guns. Instead they massacred by German artillery and machine guns, first as they plodded across no-man’s land and then as they bunched to struggle through such gaps as existed in the often uncut barbed wire. By the end of the day no fewer than 57,000 men had fallen, 19,000 of them killed, and without gaining a lodgment in the German defenses, except on the right of the line next to the five French divisions also taking part in the offensive.

A catastrophe without parallel in British history, this first day on the Somme still continues to provoke ferocious indictments of Sir Douglas Haig and his subordinates. Undoubtedly they committed errors of judgement tragic in their consequences, even if the errors are more easily perceived with hindsight. But the causes of the catastrophe are to be found as much in iron circumstance as in the mistakes of the British high command.

The location of the Allied offensive for 1916 on the sector astride the Somme, opposite an immensely strong part of the German line, was chosen by Joffre, for little better strategic reason than that this was the junction point between the French and British armies. Since France was still the senior military partner in the alliance, Haig deferred to Joffre’s wishes even though he would have preferred to attack in Flanders, where the German defenses were as yet not so elaborate. It was Joffre’s urgent appeals to Haig to relieve the German pressure on Verdun that also determined the premature launching of the offensive, six weeks before Haig himself thought his green formations could be ready for battle.

Green they were: consequence of Britain, unlike other belligerents, having to create a mass army from scratch after the outbreak of the war and, further handicap, deploy it and maintain it across the sea. The task had been accomplished in less than two years; an astounding achievement. The original BEF of 4 infantry divisions and 1 of cavalry had grown by July 1916 into 58 divisions organized in 4 armies, soon to be 5. The number of heavy artillery batteries was five times greater than at the beginning of 1915, while the number of squadrons in the Royal Flying Corps had more than doubled in a year. The administrative feat of installing and supplying a force of nearly one and half million men in the bare down-lands of Picardy and the plains of Flanders was itself gigantic. A mass of soldiers as numerous as the population of a great city had to be given shelter, water supplies, sanitation, medical services, daily hot food, clothing workshops, building and construction, a transport network and a telephone system of immense complication. All this had been done with complete success, even though the British army, in peacetime merely a small imperial garrison force, began with nothing like the resources in equipment and trained specialist enjoyed by mass European armies.

On 27 January 1916, with the army in France below establishment, Britain had finally introduced conscription; in May it was extended to married men as well as single. Here was another radical change in British life forced by the demands of total war. Although over a million men had volunteered before the end of 1914, the rate of enlistment fell off steadily during 1915, despite vigorous propaganda campaigns conducted by leading public figures, and despite the white feathers handed by women to men of military age in civilian clothes. By the summer of 1916 the ‘New Army’ or ‘Kitcherner’s Army’ recruits who had begun to learn drill with broomsticks in 1914-15 felt themselves to be fully fledged soldiers; many had taken their turn in the quiet sectors of the line. Their spirit and self-confidence were high. Yet compared with the German army with its abundant, highly trained professional officers and non-commissioned officers, Haig’s army was little more than a militia. At every level, from divisional commanders down to subalterns, there were officers recently promoted to new responsibilities. The staffs of formation headquarters, crammed on wartime short courses, could not compare with their German opposite numbers. By July 1916 even ‘regular’ fighting units rarely equaled the standard of the old B.E.F. destroyed in the battles of 1914. One commander of a regular battalion confided to his dairy on 4 June that his soldiers ‘are still not PROPERLY TRAINED, although full of courage….’

This lack of training and experience led to the tactics adopted on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Haig, a cavalryman himself, suggested an advance in small groups making use of ground in the German and French style. The commander of the Fourth Army, Sir Henry Rawlinson (an infantry-man) and his staff believed such a flexible tactics to be beyond their troops; they believed that only a deliberate advance in ridged lines could work without confusion. Haig deferred to Rawlinson, as the infantry specialist and the commander responsible for actually conducting the offensive. It was Haig who decided that in order to avoid delays in exploiting initial success experienced in earlier battles, the reserves should go forward from the support trenches at the same time as the assault troops advanced from the front line. By keeping the momentum going he hoped to break clean through all three German positions. These tactical decisions combined together to present the Germans with the magnificent target of a deep zone of slowly advancing infantry.

However, Haig and Rawlinson had been convinced by their artillery experts that the week-long preliminary bombardment would obliterate the enemy defense as effectively as the German bombardment at Verdun. They therefore saw the infantry advance as more in the nature of an occupation than an assault. The event proved their faith in preliminary bombardment to be tragically misplaced. For however abundant the guns and shells might seem to gunners who remembered the famine scarcity of 1815, the weight of fire in proportion to font was well be low German or even French standards-some 1,350 guns to 18 miles of front compared to 1,220 German to barely 8 miles at Verdun in February. Whereas the German artillery there included nearly 550 modern heavy pieces and another 150 heavy trench mortars, there were fewer than 400 British heavies on the Somme, and some of them obsolete. Although the War Office had placed orders for guns and shells back in 1914-15, British and North American industry had failed to live up to its promises of delivery. Moreover, the ammunition produced by firms new to the work often proved defective, and the advancing troops found the ground littered with ‘duds’. Unlike the French defenses at Verdun in February, the German trench system on the Somme was as strong as time and ingenuity could devise, with shell-proof deep shelters for the Infantry.

Such was the anatomy of the disaster of 1 July 1916. It took time for the dimensions of the Fourth Army’s failure to reach Haig across the gulf of smashed telephone lines and dead runners. Even then there could be no question of abandoning the offensive, for the first day on the Somme was the 132nd day of the Battle of Verdun. On 2 July Haig wrote: ‘The enemy had undoubtedly been severely shaken and he has few reserves in hand. Our correct course, therefore, is to press him hard with the least possible delay. In any case, pressure must be maintained both to relieve Verdun and assist the French on our right.’ On the morrow General Fritz von Below, commanding the German Second Army defending the Somme front, issued an order of the day:…We must win this battle in spite of the enemy’s temporary superiority in artillery and infantry. The important ground lost in certain laces will be recaptured by our attack after the arrival of reinforcements. For the present the important thing is to hold on to our present positions at any cost and improve them by local counter-attacks. I forbid the voluntary evacuation of trenches. The will to stand firm must be impressed on every man in the Army. I hold commanding officers responsible for this. The enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses…’

In this collision of stubborn wills and two brave armies was set the pattern of the 140 day Battle of the Somme. Virtually every Allied attack was to be followed by a German counter-attack. The infantry of both sides were to be crushed in turn beneath the anonymous hammer of the guns; to share equally in the terror and suffering.
Until the end of July Haig believed he might yet achieve his original aim of breaking through the German defenses south of Bapaume and, with the cavalry corps in the van, swinging northwards to bring about general collapse of the whole German front between Arras and the Somme. On 14 July, in a remarkable demonstration of how quickly the British could adapt their methods, four divisions launched a dawn attack after a night assembly in no-man’s-land and captured the German second line on a 3-mile front. For a fleeting moment it seemed that the way was clear for the cavalry to go through, and one Indian cavalry brigade actually came into action. But the enemy defense quickly thickened again. The familiar Western Front pattern resumed. The names of obscure patches of French woodland, fought over thicket by thicket and glade by glade until nothing remained but splintered stumps amid the corpses and shellholes, became seared into the memory of a generation-Delville Wood, Trones Wood, High Wood. Nevertheless Haig’s offensive had already achieved one major objective, for on 11 July Falkenhayn finally closed down his Verdun offensive in order to free reserves for the Somme. Yet the battle of Verdun still went on, this time with the French on the attack.

THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®

SOURCE: The Great War
BY: Correlli Barnett
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan

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