World War One Sources Question

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Question 1:

Source A describes the optimism and confidence shown by General Rawlinson. He thought that at the main attack there would be minimal losses to his men if the artillery worked to plan. He thought that the Somme would remind the men of Salisbury plain, a place where the men trained, therefore it would boost the morale of the troops. Rawlinson says ” it is a great improvement on the flat muddy plains of Flanders.”

This was a place destroyed to a quagmire during previous attacks. The weather and conditions would be perfect for a decent attack. The observation points would provide good hit rates for the artillery, whereas at Flanders this was not the case. Rawlinson quoted ” it is excellent country on which to undertake an offensive when we get enough artillery, for the observation is excellent.”

The battle, according to Rawlinson, would be very easy for the infantry advance. This would be the case only if there had been good artillery attack and good conditions for the advance. The flat land would provide perfect advancing and infantry positions. These factors and points made by Rawlinson show us the way he perceived the battle to be like. This idea of an infantry ‘cake-walk’ and an ‘artillery barrage’ were seen as the tactics that would result in a break-through on the front lines. This is illustrated when he said ” and we ought to avoid heavy losses which infantry have suffered on previous occassions.”

Rawlinson ignored the results of previous battles and their failure because of the poor tactics used. He thought that the better conditions of the Somme would help them defeat the Germans.


Sources A, B and C show why the allied forces, especially the British, suffered such losses on previous occassions. The tactics used were based upon the discipline and pride shown during the years of the British army. This discipline is shown when Haig said to his troops “in the advance of infantry, we should aim uniformity as will ensure mutual support.”

The wave theory was the basis of all tactics for the infantry advance. It involved a slow advance in lines towards the enemy in long lines, like a series of waves. Sources B and C are extracts from the British army manual and from Sir Douglas Haig. These sources illustrate the blind attention and discipline expected, “the men must learn to obey by instinct without thinking.”

This can illustrate the way in which Haig had not learned from previous losses. Rawlinson had blamed the losses on all factors but the wave theory. He said “a great improvement upon the muddy plains of Flanders.”

This arrogance and ignorance marked the attitude that the High-Command had adopted. This attitude was a reason for the high losses of life in the Somme. Even though many lives had been lost, the High Command remained steadfastly confident to the tactics no matter what the outcome was. Other excuses such as the conditions, weather and poor observation point became a prominent answer. This is all described in source A, as General Rawlinson describes the Somme and its differences with other battles. He believed that the good observation point and extensive artillery would win the battle. The strength and development of the German defences were never taken in to account. Their use of machine-guns upon slowly marching men were never examined. They ignored evidence from other wars in which the machine gun was used in trench warfare, e.g. US Civil war, Boer War.


Sources D, E and F all give different accounts of the Somme. Source D is an optimistic picture of the fist of the British Army punching a German on the nose, where the Somme is placed. This was published in a wartime newspaper. The Government censored the press during wartime. They did this in order to keep morale high for the public. They did not show the poor conditions, only positive points of the war. The source was published in July, after the attack. The results were not known by then so an optimistic view was given. This cartoon was used to promote confidence to those who had seen it. The person who drew it would not have known the true results. This explains why it is drawn in an optimistic way, if it had been a disaster it could not have been drawn.

Source E is an extract from A E Ellis, an ordinary soldier who took part in the offensive. The source is his diary, which he kept at the time of the war. He did not anticipate the censorship a newspaper would have to adhere to. The extract describes the way in which the offensive failed. Leigh’s platoon nearly reached the Germans but were pushed back. Ellis was taking part in the 2nd wave but as the 1st wave did not succeed he was never sent. The 46th Division was a battalion that followed the ‘wave-theory’. They were all slaughtered. The extract describes finely how the attack failed.

Source F is an extract from an officer writing to the author of the Official British History of the war in the 1920’s. It is offering an opinion to someone writing a book about the World War One. In the 1920’s there was a considerable outrage to the numbers of young men that were killed on the Western Front. They became known as the ‘lost-generation’. This produced an atmosphere of recrimination within Britain at the time towards the ‘top-brass’ of the high-command. The source describes the way in which the initial waves had got through to their objectives but were ambushed by machine-guns. The initial attacks were said to have been successful, “everything seemed to go well to a point.”

The extract supports the idea that the attacks had been ambushed by the machine-guns. These had caught the support and reserve waves once the 1st had got through.

Sources E and F contradict each other in the way they describe the offensive. They both agree on the outcome of the battle, a failure. They do not, however, agree on the reasons why it failed. This could have been because of their difference in ranks. Source E is written by a soldier and source F is written by an officer.

A soldier would be more bitter to the attack, as he and his fellow men were seen to be sent to the deaths by the High-Command. An officer would usually have been strictly confident to the tactics and so would not blame them. He would look for some unforeseen factor, such as camouflaged machine-guns. The two sources may have been written in two different places. Ellis talks about the 46th division, who were based in the North of the offensive. Source F may have been written in a different place where the original offensives had worked to a point.

This is not described in the sources so the reasons ofor differences are unknown. Source D is a typical picture during the time. It represents the optimism and confidence of the High-Command. Though as the results of the attack were unknown it was unable to depict the actual results. However they would never have been shown, as this would bring the morale down within Britain. Source D does not describe the way in which Ellis felt about the attacks. They are different in their views of the war and so do not hold the same purpose.

The provenances of the sources are all different. Source D is an artificial description of the war, published to the public, without correct knowledge of the attack. Source E is an account after a failed and bloody-battle. It depicts the way in which a soldier would feel after witnessing such a failure of tactics in the British Army. Source F is an extract from an officer after the war in a time of recrimination. He may have just been keen to exonerate the blame from his fellow men or he may have been recounting what had happened.

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