World War One: Battle of the Somme (Part 2)

On 20 July it was the turn of the Australians to make their début on the Somme, assaulting north-eastwards toward the ruins of Pozières, a village on the crest of the down-land between Albert and Bapaume; ‘the heaviest, bloodiest, rottenest stunt that ever the Australians were caught up in’, according to one Australian recollection. The Australian soldier reflected the Australian’s free-and-easy, egalitarian society, sometimes to the disquiet of British commanders, used to British army discipline and hierarchical deference to one’s ‘betters’ found in British society. Their aggressiveness and high spirit were unsurpassed. Pozières fell to them on 23 July and its windmill, just beyond, on 5 August. The remains of the mill can still be seen there today, a low grassy mound bedside the road; left as a memorial to Australian courage.

In August the Battle of the Somme entered a grimmer phase, for Haig gave up hope of an early breakthrough and resorted to Falkenhayn-like mincing machine tactics. Germany now lay under the fearful strain, her army remorselessly gripped on the Somme and at Verdun, her Austrian ally falling back before the Russians in Galicia and the Italians north of Trieste. On 27 August Romania entered the war on the Allied side, so adding to the strain, next day the Kaiser sought an answer to Germany’s deepening plight by replacing Falkenhayn with that victourious team Hindenburg and Ludendorff. For the first time sice 1914 the German leadership contemplated retreating on the Western Front, for as Ludendorff wrote later, they ‘ had to face the danger that “Somme fighting” would soon break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely…Accordingly, the construction had been begun as early September of powerful rear positions in the West…’
The Allies were therefore not unjustified in thinking that the continued offensives on all fronts might make the enemy crack, and so bring peace in 1916. Haig decided that the British contribution to this climatic effort should be a renewed attempt finally to break through on the Somme. This time British inventiveness had provided him with a revolutionary new instrument for smashing a path through the enemy wire and trenches-the tank.

The idea of armoured landships was not in itself new, for they had featured in Jules Verne’s and H.G.Wells science fiction, and Leonardo da Vinci had designed on in the fifteenth century. It was mooted afresh once in British during the winter of 1814-15 as the answer to the trench stalemate. When the War Office under Kitchener abandoned the idea after some unsuccessful trials with adapted tractors, the Admiralty took it up instead, thanks to the imagination and enthusiastic drive of Winston Churchill, the First Lord. On 26 March 1915 Churchill ordered the building of several prototype designs. Not until 26 January 1916, however, was a really practical ‘tank’ ( code name for the land-ship project) evolved and demonstrated in field tests. On hearing the reports of the demonstration, GHQ in France ordered 40 tanks, later increased to 100. Henceforward, Haig counted on the tank to spearhead his Somme offensive. In the event technical and production bottlenecks meant that the first tanks did not reach France until mid-August, and by mid-September there were still only 49 available. Nevertheless Haig decided to launch them into battle. With the advantage of hindsight critics have blamed him for not waiting until he could employ them en masse, which in fact would have meant waiting for another whole year. But the Allies were hoping that they might win the war in 1916. Haig therefore told the Chief of the Imperial General Staff in August: ‘Even if I do not get so many as I hope, I shall use what I have got, as I cannot wait any longer for them, and it would be folly not to use any means at my disposal in what is likely to be our crowning effort for this year.’

On 15 September 1916 the weapon that was eventually to transform land warfare made its début on a 7-1/2-mile front on the Somme. Owing to mechanical troubles, only 32 tanks actually took part in the offensive, clanking and grinding forward over the battlefield at a mere half a mile an hour, their interiors a hell of noise and heat; vehicles so clumsy that each needed a steering crew of four, and with armoured hull so crudely made that the point of impact of small-arms fire cloud flake splinters from the inside surface.

Haig’s instructions to his army commanders, Rawlinson of the Fourth Army, and Sir Hubert Gough of the Fifth, called for ‘bold action’ and the maximum use of surprise. He wanted the tanks to be used in a concentrated punch in order to open a path right through the enemy defenses for the infantry and cavalry. But Gough and Rawlinson bungled his purpose by ordering the customary preliminary bombardment, so both alerting the enemy and breaking up the ground, and by spreading the tanks out thinly along the fronts of their infantry divisions. Although the tanks enabled the British to make the deepest single advance of the whole battle and capture the fortified villages of Flers and Courcelette, the enemy quickly blocked the gap, and once again Haig was denied his grand breakthrough. Nevertheless he was so impressed with the potential of the tank that he immediately asked the War Office to place an order for 1,000.

In response to urgent appeals from Joffre, the British army continued to attack grimly on through the rest of September, through October and into November. On 27 September the fortress-village of Thiepval on the left flank, one of the objectives for 1 July, fell at last; Baumont-Hamel, another 1 July Objective, not until 13 November. One by one regiments from every part of the United Kingdom-Scots, English, Irish, and Welsh-had taken their turn in the battle; the rifle regiments the Foot Guards; and the Royal Marines. The Somme was a British Empire battle too. On the first day the Royal Newfoundland Regiment had lost 700 men out of 800. In July the South Africans fell thickly in Delville Wood; in September and October the Canadians, who relieved the Australians round Pozières, fought their way two miles on towards Bapaume, while over to their right the New Zealanders attacked beyond the village of Flers. In November the Australians were back in the line for the last heave forward of all.

It was the final phase of the battle, in a slough of clinging, caramel-coloured mud, which fixed the lasting image of the Somme in British memory. Henry Williamson in his novel Patriot’s Progress describes the wounded coming back as he and his comrade mover up to the line:…men, single and in couples, shuffling past them, answering no questions. Tin hats on the backs of heads, no tin hats, tin hats with splinter-ragged, sandbagged coverings; men without rifles, haggard, blood-shot eyes, slouching past in loose file, slouching on anyhow, staggering under rifles and equipment, some jaws sagging, puttees coiled mud-balled around ankles, feet in shapeless mud boots swelled beyond feeling, men slouching beyond fatigue and hope, on and on and on. G.S. [General Service] wagons with loads of sleeping bodies. Stretcher-bearers plodding desperate-faced. Men slavering and rolling their bared-teeth heads, slobbering and blowing, blasting brightness behind their eye-balls, supported by listless cripples.

The British Empire was not fighting alone in the West. Throughout the battle a French army had been advancing on Haig’s right flank. And the Battle of Verdun was still going on. On 22 October after a 3-day bombardment by artillery, the French launched a counter-stroke that led to the recapture of forts Vaux and Douamont.

Haig finally closed down his offensive on 18 November. On 15 December the French attacked for the last time at Verdun, winning back another section of battlefield, which wrote a French corporal, ‘resembled a rubbish dump in which there had accumulated shreds of clothing, smashed weapons, shattered helmets, rotting rations, bleached bones and putrescent flesh.’

So the great killing of 1916 came at last to its end. The cost to both sides of 10 months of battle at Verdun amounted to some 700,000 killed and wounded, the French share of this total being some 30-40,00 more than the Germans. The cost of 4 months of battle on the Somme amounted to 415,000 British Empire casualties and 195,000 French, and the German casualties at least equaled the combined Allied total. Excluding lightly wounded, the German losses for the year on all fronts came to 1,400,000 killed, wounded and missing.
And still there was stalemate.


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