It’s a century since Britain’s advance on the Somme

A century ago – 1 July 1916 – British soldiers climbed out of their trenches on the Somme front and began advancing towards trenches held by the German Fourth Army.

Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons
Ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles on the Somme, probably 1 July 1916. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

So opened the huge Somme offensive, a combined British-French effort to break the German lines and push through into open country beyond.

The plan seemed simple; with the help of artillery support, British forces under Sir Henry Rawlinson were expected to breach German lines north of Mametz, just east of Albert, giving the British access to the high ground near Pozières, at which point Lieutenant-General Sir Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army would roll up the German positions. On paper it seemed possible. Heavy artillery offered promise, both for destroying fixed defences and for keeping infantry heads down, and by mid 1916 planners theorised that enough artillery fire would destroy or suppress all before it, letting the men advance with impunity. Overall British commander Douglas Haig certainly thought so.

The barrage that began along the Somme front near Albert on 24 June involved 1010 British field guns, 427 heavier pieces and 100 French weapons. Over the next week they fired nearly 2,000,000 rounds into a frontage of just 25,000 yards. Specific targets included wire nests, and at first all seemed to go well. But when the barrage lifted ahead of the infantry advance on 1 July, much of the wire was still uncut – and the Germans were given time to recover before the infantry advanced. Some of the men had slipped forward into no-man’s land; but other gallant Tommies walked into a whirlwind of German machine-gun fire in air heavy with the scent of fresh-cut summer grass – slashed to ruin by the bullets. In this brief era of ‘pals battalions’ – forces raised from complete sections of British society – the youth of whole villages were wiped out in a few tragic hours.

The idea was that they would fight better together. In practice, it meant they died together. It was the worst day in the history of the British army; they suffered 57,470 casualties over the next 24 hours alone, including 19,240 dead.

General map of the Sommer battles. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
General map of the Somme battles. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

This experience – the first Battle of Albert – did much to create the First World War myth of idiot generals sending men to walk slowly forward to their deaths, but as always there was more to it. In 1915, Haig had calculated the forces needed to advance on a 25-mile front; and as one of his biographers has shown, he had half that on the Somme. Transport and logistic support fell short. More to the point, he did not believe that the decisive battle could be fought there. He viewed the Somme as a mechanism for drawing German divisions south from Flanders – opening the way for a British thrust from Ypres. The point perhaps filtered through; at junior command level there was confusion over the intent of the Somme assault. Nobody seemed to know whether the objectives were positional or, as Major-General Archibald Paris put it, simply to ‘kill and capture Boches’.

In the event, Haig’s scheme was derailed by French commander Joseph Joffre’s refusal to allow much French support of the Somme battle. When the first attacks on 1 July failed, Haig tried to cancel the offensive and swing into a new assault from Ypres. Joffre refused. British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir William ‘Wully’ Robertson, backed Joffre and on 4 July told Haig to keep on pushing until he reached Pozières. Under these circumstances, the fact that Britain kept on hammering German lines on the Somme until November – which mythology attributes to Haig’s stupidity – was politically driven.

Tactically, the Somme was a development of the approach used at Loos, taking on board lessons from the German assault on Verdun. Haig was emphatic about the need for infantry to push hard across territory that had been bombarded, and in strength – meaning the infantry had to keep together. The specific tactics, however, fell foul of pre-war debate over how to cross a battlefield defended by modern weapons. Rawlinson favoured line advances and wrote them into his ‘Red Book’ battle instructions. In theory the artillery should have suppressed the defence, but in the event there were not enough heavy guns, and they were not properly directed. Staff-work was lacking, mistakes inevitable – and on the Somme, the British learned the hard way.

Wright_Western Front_200 pxHaig had to use Gough’s army to make good the losses. All this stood in contrast to the French efforts at the Somme, which, though modestly resourced, reached their goals.

For detail of the New Zealand part in the battle, check out my book Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18, available on Amazon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

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