The Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916
The Battle of the Somme was a significant event in the First World War as it brought about changes in Military tactics, types of warfare and general views of War. Even today, the Battle remains one of the most horrific tragedies in military history. The overwhelming loss of life left a permanent mark on all the nations involved.
The Battle was originally planned by the French commander-in-chief as an attack in which the French played a large and vital role. However, many French troops were drafted to give aid to their comrades at Verdun, so frantic appeals were sent to the new British commander Sir Douglas Haig to hasten the Somme offensive. Because of the increase in numbers of British troops, Britain now had to assume full responsibility.
One of the principal objectives of the battle was to relieve pressure on Verdun and on Russia by forcing German troops away from those areas to the Somme. Beyond this there does not seem to be any strategic planning. The only other limited goals were to deflate German morale by killing as many Germans as possible whilst sacrificing few British lives and to destroy German trenches and fortified positions in a massive artillery barrage. If this was achieved the generals planned to advance and capture those positions giving way for Haig’s cavalry to charge through and travel North, capturing and rounding up German troops.
The British theory was to use aircraft to spot German artillery so the soldiers on the ground would know their whereabouts and could destroy them during a heavy barrage. This would also eliminate German soldiers and trenches and cut up the barbed wire that protected the enemy lines so the British soldiers would have no problem in advancing and killing the few German survivors. They were so confident of its success that the generals planning the attack described that it would be a ‘walkover’. The reality was somewhat different.
Low-lying cloud caused limited visibility for the aircraft, resulting in German targets not being destroyed. The bombardment began on June 24th 1916 and was originally planned to last for five days. This was later changed and extended by two days so the attack would begin on July 1st.
The Barrage artillery was not as heavy as it first appeared. Some shells were ‘blank’ to make the barrage seem heavier and simply made a noise, inflicting no damage whatsoever on the enemy lines. The British troops had no idea that this was the case and marvelled at such an impressive display. Also the mass production of artillery for the war meant that one third of all shells failed to explode and there was not enough heavy guns to destroy the German dugouts which were deep and reinforced.
This information was not communicated to the Front line troops who were oblivious to these major drawbacks. On 1st July at 7:30am, zero hour, the barrage that had been going on for days stopped and the soldiers were ordered to go over the top.
The so-called ‘walkover’ turned out to be an horrendous massacre of allied troops due to the tactics adopted by General Rawlinson. He decided that instead of using previous methods of lightly laden men rushing in bursts towards the enemy, his troops would walk shoulder to shoulder in orderly, regular lines. Rawlinson believed that because his army had received very quick and basic training they were too raw and did not possess the discipline that fully trained soldiers had. It was also considered that the German positions would have been completely destroyed so the soldiers were weighed down with 60-70lbs equipment per man. These men were called the ‘Kitchener’s Men’.
The few French troops however, had adopted slightly different tactics, using their knowledge from Verdun. They did not attempt to go towards the frontline in lines that were easy targets for German gunners, instead they charged towards the enemy trenches in small groups and were therefore more successful in crossing No Man’s Land.
The Germans emerged, unscathed from their dugouts and used their machine guns to slaughter the advancing troops. One German who was a machinegunner at the Somme recalled that once he had started firing, ‘they (British troops) went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them’
Many British soldiers were gunned down before reaching sight of the enemy lines. Those who managed to avoid gunfire long enough were faced with another dilemma. The barbed wire had not been destroyed during the barrage as had been predicted by the generals. Instead it had tangled it into an even worse mess, becoming another deadly obstruction.
George Copard, an English soldier at the time, records his amazement at the generals’ ignorance. ‘How did our planners imagine that Tommies (British soldiers) would get through the German wire. Any Tommy could have told them shell fire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before’. The next day he described the sights that could be seen across No Man’s Land: ‘As many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in a net. They hung in grotesque postures… They had died on their knees and the wire prevented their fall… It was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack’.
The Allied forces were divided into divisions, each with their own objectives and targets to overcome. Communication between divisions was poor and often the success on one division relied strongly on the success of another. An example of this is the men of the 36th Ulster division who managed to capture the Schwaben Redoubt but were forced to withdraw by nightfall because the 32nd division to their right had been unable to capture the Thiepval village and silence the German guns there.
By nightfall of the first day, the few divisions that had made any headway were running out of ammunition and were eventually forced to retreat. Men stumbled back into the safety of their trenches as long as the darkness lasted, calling out the names of their units and friends in the hope that one of them had survived. Soldiers sat, weeping on the broken fire steps while doctors and medical workers attended to the wounded and dying.
When daylight came, the following morning, the Germans in some parts of the front where casualties were at their heaviest, raised white flags into the air, gesturing an informal and temporary truce. They then aided the British soldiers in attending to the wounded, the sheer butchery of the first day had had a dreadful impact on every soldier present.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme remains numerically the worst military disaster ever to have befallen the British army with a record casualty list of 57,470: 19,240 killed, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 taken prisoner. Eighty-four battalions had attacked in the first hour, a total of about 66,000. Of these an estimated 50% were casualties within the first hour! Despite this enormous loss of life General Haig was still convinced the battle would be a success. The day was seen by the commanding generals as a ‘setback’ rather than a disaster.
The Politicians, ever keen to keep up civilian morale, tried to understate the defeat that had been inflicted. Journalists were fed false information to print in their papers on how the day went. A reporter later wrote (when he discovered the truth) ‘I was thoroughly deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue. Almost all the official information was wrong’.
However, with the delivery of the dreaded war office telegram and the return of the wounded the public soon learnt the truth for the first time. Whole towns mourned the losses of their young men, there was hardly a family in the country that was not touched or scarred in some way. The nation was shocked and angry at the deceit of the government.
Meanwhile the battle raged on for months during which time tanks had their debut in battle. The British launched them as their ‘secret weapon’ on 15th September. Only about 40 were used and most got stuck in the mud while others were lost to German attacks.
The battle continued with minimal gains. On September 25th the British again tried a large-scale attack on the German front lines with similar results. By the end of November the Somme front had stabilised and on November 28th the battle was considered over after 140 days. General Haig finally gave into pressure and acknowledged the offensive’s failure.
The Somme offensive had failed for several key reasons:
* The two generals, Rawlinson and Haig had completely different views and objectives for the battle and communication between them was poor resulting in major flaws in their plans and theories.
* The barrage was too light to penetrate the German bunkers and consisted of poor quality ammunition.
* The element of surprise that is usually essential for such attacks was missing. The Germans knew well in advance the full details and times of the attack and were therefore given time to prepare.
* The German trenches were located on higher ground than the allied trenches allowing them to see clearly all the preparations and advances made by the British troops.
Britain had also failed to protect Russia as, even though many of the Germans were sent to the battle of the Somme, they still managed to defeat Russia. However, it can be argued that the Russians were on the verge of being defeated when the Somme offensive was launched and therefore it could have done little to help their situation.
Although a large part of the British objectives for the battle of the Somme failed, some were in fact accomplished.
For instance, the allied forces had succeeded in relieving pressure from the French forces at Verdun because the troops there were victorious. Also, although German loses were very similar in number to allied losses, they were far more damaging as Germany was running out of recruits much faster. Lloyd George, a politician, wrote that ‘The battle of the Somme destroyed the old German army by killing off it’s best officers and men’.
Britain also succeeded in deflating German morale as the constant pounding of the German front line did cause many Germans to lose faith in what they were doing. Many Germans wrote of the hopeless conditions towards the end of the Somme offensive including one soldier in the infantry reserve regiment who wrote ‘There is no longer a trench, let alone a dugout in the first line. The trenches have been smashed up… I am now quite alone in my company…anyone who is not wounded falls ill. This is almost unendurable’. The feeling that they were doomed was common among German soldiers.
The impact that the battle had on the German soldiers was so great that it is said to have contributed to the allied victory in 1918 of the war itself!
The Somme had caused the war to veer away from trench warfare to open warfare rather than siege type operations. A pamphlet, published in 1917 by John Buchan claimed ‘the battle marked the end of trench fighting and the beginning of a campaign in the open’. This was a long-term objective for the British forces.
The war had many consequences, one of which was the rewarding of the two Generals involved in the offensive that had made the errors leading to so many unnecessary deaths. Haig was made an earl and given a grant of ï¿½100,000 while Rawlinson was made a Baron and given ï¿½30,000. However, the ordinary soldier that had witnessed the terror and suffered greatly in the war was given one shilling per day for his services and went home to an uncertain future. Many returning home found their jobs taken by others and became unemployed. All who fought in the war were scarred both physically and emotionally because of the horrors they had endured.
Attitudes towards war also changed because of the Somme, both of soldiers and the public. One soldier’s diary during the Somme records his early optimism, describing July 1st as ‘a lovely day for it’ and ‘so far so good’ as the barrage stops, having appeared to have killed the German troops. Later on, as he realises something has gone terribly wrong he writes ‘our division is hopelessly cut up’. His use of the word hopelessly shows that his optimism has quickly drained as the battle has progressed. After the first day alone, soldiers on all sides realised how bad war could get. They had seen their fellow soldiers die horrendously in front of them and as the battle progressed, saw corpses used as parapets and doorsteps. They saw the rotting remains of their friends ‘so horrible in their discolour that it called for an act of faith to believe that these were once men’ and heard the constant cries of the dying in No Mans Land. With all these horrific images, seen everyday, it is no wonder that the soldier’s attitudes to war drastically changed for the worse.
The public’s views also changed during and after the Somme. Before the Somme, people back in England had no idea of what was really going on on the Western front, all the newspapers and letters sent home had been censored and only included the victories. War was seen as exciting and fun. The Somme changed all this, it was the first battle to have been filmed and when people back home discovered the horrible truth their opinions of war were rapidly altered. The terrible reality of what their fellow countrymen had endured shocked the nation and people were bitter for a long time towards those responsible for covering up the awful truth. Never again would war be seen as a romantic, exciting pursuit.
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