Today marks the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and the darkest day ever recorded by the British Army. Haig’s great offensive was hoped defeat the Germans in the field, open up the route to the undefended rear and pave the way to the end of the war.
The artillery bombardment had started on the 24th of June, expending huge amounts of shells against the German lines. Some 1,732,873 shells were fired over the following week, rising to a crescendo of 3500 shells a minute, the sound of which could be heard in London.
Despite its weight, the bombardment failed in its primary purpose, that of destroying the German trenches and defences so that the advancing men could simple walk over the lines. The artillery fire, despite its intensity, failed to destroy the defences for a number of reasons.
The bombardment neglected counter-battery fire and was directed at local targets, such as wire and trenchworks, using a higher proportion of shrapnel shells than high explosive; the small balls of lead neither cut wire or killed men hiding in underground bunkers. Meanwhile the neglect of suppressive fire against German batteries was to expose British troops to counter fire as they concentrated and left their trenches.
The German underground defences were far superior to the British equivalent. Indeed, the German strategy was much more defensive than that of the Allies; confronted with a war on two fronts and not enough troops to go around, the chalk-land terrain lent itself to the construction of deep defensive bunkers that were proof against all but the heaviest explosions. The British war correspondent Phillips Gibbs wrote that he “went down flights of steps into German dug-outs astonished by their depth and strength.” In contrast, French and British trenches tended to be less developed, intended as they were as temporary staging points for remorseless offensive action to drive the Germans off French soil and back to Berlin.
Secondly, the shell shortage crisis of the winter, when armaments production had been ramped up to produce the unprecedented quantities of shells needed by the insatiable demands of the front, had resulted in inevitable production issues. On the Somme, these production issues manifested in both guns and ammunition. Up to 25% of guns allocated to the bombardment were put out of action by manufacturing defects and mechanical failure. In addition, the ammunition contained a high proportion of dud shells, perhaps as high as one third, that failed to explode. These shells buried themselves harmlessly into the ground for French farmers to unearth in future years as a part of the “iron harvest”.
In both these cases, it seems that the massive expansion of the artillery arm and the demands placed upon it had outstripped the development of the science and disciplines that would underpin the use of these weapons in future years.
Tactically, the British have been criticised for advancing in rigid lines and at walking pace. In reality, burdened down by 60lb of kit (such as ammunition, water, sandbags, gas capes and masks, wire cutters and entrenching tools) the soldiers had little choice but to walk over the broken ground. In addition, the lines of men walking forward together was a deliberate acknowledgement that the soldiers, mainly the civilian recruits of Kitchener’s new army, were not as highly trained as the troops who had sailed two years earlier with the British Expeditionary Force. Put simply, these men were neither equipped to, nor expected to, manoeuvre.
The commanders, not least of all Haig, come in for their share of criticism, however, it must be remembered that the Western Front was a new experience for all of them. Differing opinions on the goal of the great offensive, whether it was to be a limited offensive, a breakthrough battle or a battle of attrition in support of an ally must have hardly helped in the development and execution of the plan. Under pressure from the French who were hard pressed by the German offensive around Verdun, Haig had brought the offensive forward despite his misgivings.
In the run up to the beginning of the offensive, there were some indications that all was not well. A series of trench raids along the front, designed to probe the enemy lines, all reported that the wire had not been cut. Tragically, as well as deficiencies in cutting the enemy wire, the gaps opened up in the British wire were often smaller than expected, causing men to bunch up and present a simple target to un-silenced German machine guns.
However, reading various accounts, there was a genuine belief that everything that could be done in preparation had been done by men who cared deeply for the outcome of the battle. Once the battle was underway, difficulties in communications, not least the inability to maintain telephone lines or get messages back from newly captured ground, contributed to the fog of war that descended over the early days.
On the first day of the Somme, the British army lost suffered 57,470 casualties, of which 19,240 men were killed. About a thousand officers were killed leading their men. The battle was to continue for another four months and a half months as various attempts were made to break through. By the 18th of November, around 420,000 British soldiers, 200,000 French and some 465,000 Germans had become casualties along the fifteen-twenty mile front. Ultimately, the Germans were pushed back just seven miles.
However, the immediate effect of the pressure at the Somme was to divert both German heavy guns and troops from their offensive at Verdun, which was well into its fourth month of grinding horror as Germans attempted to defeat the French army. Perhaps the legacy of the Somme should be more than just the persisting legend of senseless slaughter of a civilian army and actually the relief of the French in their hour of need. If the French had continued to suffer at Verdun, it is likely that their army would have collapsed and the course of history would have changed.
One of the most powerful reminders in the war cemeteries is the simple plaque that records the gift of the land in which the graves stand to the British people, or more accurately, to the men who now rest there. This is, perhaps, the reward for the price paid on the Somme.