First Day Somme Part II

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Without the benefit of hindsight, rightly or wrongly, Haig was determined to resist tactical interference from Joffre and decided to reinforce the relative degree of success attained in the south. To this end he reorganised his forces, directing the Fourth Army under Rawlinson to push on in the southern sector, while Gough’s Reserve Army (later recast as the Fifth Army) was given the northern sector.

The Germans, meanwhile, had their own tactical issues to consider. Falkenhayn had a clear and simple dictat: that any lost ground should be recaptured immediately, no matter the cost. In consequence, on 3 July an order was issued by the Second Army commander.

The outcome of the war depends on the Second Army being victorious on the Somme. Despite the current enemy superiority in artillery and infantry we have got to win this battle. The large areas of ground that we have lost in certain places will be attacked and wrested back from the enemy, just as soon as the reinforcements which are on the way arrive. For the time being, we must hold our current positions without fail and improve on them by means of minor counter-attacks. I forbid the voluntary relinquishment of positions. Every commander is responsible for making each man in the Army aware about this determination to fight it out. The enemy must be made to pick his way forward over corpses.

General Fritz von Below, Headquarters, Second Army

This intransigence would cost the Germans dear.

The next few days saw a series of piecemeal British attacks intended to improve the tactical position prior to the next ‘Big Push’ by the Fourth Army against the German Second Line System on Bazentin Ridge. Many of these attacks were hopeless affairs, characterised by a lack of artillery co-ordination, and with foolishly staggered start times which allowed the Germans to destroy the attacks in sequence. The corps and divisional commanders were fighting each small battle in isolation and no one was fusing their efforts to positive effect. The losses in some fifty or more of these attacks came to 25,000 casualties. What the British had been working towards was the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, which began on the night of 14 July. This marked an overdue lurch forward for the British tactical roller coaster. The instigator of the new plans was Rawlinson, who was determined to concentrate sufficient artillery tailored to the basic requirements to cut the German wire, smash the trench lines and disable their batteries by means of a three-day preliminary barrage followed by a massive hurricane bombardment of just five minutes. It was also proposed that the attack should be made at night, with the attacking troops creeping out under cover of darkness into No Man’s Land to take up positions closer to the German lines. At first this was seen as overly bold by Haig, who insisted that Rawlinson redouble his efforts in order to secure effective counter-battery fire to suppress the German artillery should this surreptitious move be detected.

When the barrage began it was far more concentrated than that before 1 July. This time there were 1,000 guns, of which 311 were the all-important heavy artillery. It was also concentrated on a frontage of just 6,000 yards and against trenches which were far less developed than the original German front line. Without sufficient cover, the German garrison was vulnerable to the shells that crashed all around when the barrage proper opened up at 03.20. Meanwhile, behind the bursting shells the British infantry moved forward ready to close with the Germans a few seconds after the barrage lifted. When they reached the Germans trenches there were varying degrees of resistance but they managed to breach the German Second Line System and capture the villages of Longueval, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand.

I shouted at the gunner of a heavy machine gun of the 6th Company that he should bring down fire on the British soldiers who were heading for Longueval, but he did not respond. So I dashed from the trench to the gun – my men meanwhile kept the heads down of the British in front of the obstacle with heavy small arms fire. I threw myself down by the gunner and saw that he was dead, shot through the temples. Hardly had I prised his cramped grip off the handles of the gun, pushed him to one side and tried to fire at the British platoon in the hollow road, than the weapon jammed. It had been hit in the breech by a rifle bullet. I yanked the belt out of the gun, grabbed another from the ammunition box, wrapped them around me and raced back to the trench through the fire of the British infantrymen, who were only 25 to 30 metres away. Meanwhile the British were firing at us from windows and holes in the roofs of Longueval. Then things got very serious. I was standing behind a parapet when simultaneously British grenades landed on the parapet and the edge of the trench and fell down into the trench next to me. I only escaped from this hopeless position by instinctively grabbing the grenades which had fallen in the trench and hurling them out. They were still in the air when they exploded.

Lieutenant E. Gerhardinger, 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment

In most places the German resistance was fairly short-lived as they found themselves outflanked or even surrounded. Yet British attempts to exploit partial breakthrough proved stillborn. The cavalry, the only available rapid exploitation force, were stymied by a combination of broken ground and stiffening German resistance. When the German counter-attacks developed later in the day it was clear that the British had succeeded in breaking in to the German system but not in breaking through it.

During this first phase on the Somme the cumulative developments and experimentation that pushed forward the boundaries of air warfare severely disadvantaged the Germans, whose air force was found wanting at this crucial moment. This did not go unnoticed by elements of the German High Command, who were appalled at the consequences of this inability to contest for dominance of the skies on behalf of their troops on the ground.

The beginning and the first weeks of the Somme battle were marked by a complete inferiority of our own air forces. The enemy’s aeroplanes enjoyed complete freedom in carrying out distant reconnaissances. With the aid of aeroplane observation, the hostile artillery neutralised our guns and was able to range with the most extreme accuracy on the trenches occupied by our infantry; the required data for this was provided by undisturbed trench reconnaissance and photography. By means of bombing and machine-gun attacks from a low height against infantry, battery positions and marching columns, the enemy’s aircraft inspired our troops with a feeling of defencelessness against the enemy’s mastery of the air. On the other hand, our own aeroplanes only succeeded in quite exceptional cases in breaking through the hostile patrol barrage and carrying out distant reconnaissances; our artillery machines were driven off whenever they attempted to carry out registration for their own batteries. Photographic reconnaissance could not fulfil the demands made upon it. Thus, at decisive moments, the infantry frequently lacked the support of the German artillery either in counter-battery work or in barrage on the enemy’s infantry massing for attack.

General Fritz von Below, Headquarters, First Army

But the Germans were already moving fast to correct the aerial imbalance with a new generation of fighter scouts. Soon the RFC would face a sterner challenge in the skies above the Somme.

The Success of the New Tactics

The success of the new tactics unveiled on 14 July did not set the pattern for subsequent British attacks. Instead, there was a failure to concentrate sufficient artillery during a plethora of narrow front attacks which provoked thousands more casualties and only minor gains. Haig railed from the sidelines, but he seemed unable to get a grip on his subordinates too immersed in the day-to-day complexities of fighting the battle to look at the bigger picture. There was a fear that spending time organising and concentrating British forces would allow the Germans time to do the same. The Germans were indeed sending reinforcements to the Somme area, including many batteries from the Verdun Front. They were also mutating their defensive tactics as they began to occupy improvised defensive positions with machine gun teams lurking in shell holes away from the actual trenches which were being deluged with shells. This massively increased the area of ground that had to be thoroughly covered by the British barrage. Creeping barrages became a necessity not a luxury and they had to be thickened to form a true wall of bursting shells edging forward across the battlefield. The fighting became more and more attritional as the British ground their way forward. Intensive fighting flared first of all around the village of Longueval and Delville Wood. Then High Wood dominated the skyline, while on the right of the line Ginchy and Guillemont became key objectives. The power of the massed guns allowed the British infantry to capture a local objective; but the German guns allowed them to counter-attack successfully. The attack was expanded to the north, where Gough’s Reserve Army began a series of operations designed to capture the German Second Line System on the Pozières Ridge and thereby weaken the German grip on Thiepval Spur. The 1st Australian Division, newly arrived from Gallipoli, was flung into the fight. They would find it a brutal awakening to the grim realities of industrialised warfare.

Down came our barrage on to the enemy lines and Pozières village, the Germans replying with artillery and machine-gun fire. As we lay out among the poppies in No Man’s Land we could see the bullets cutting off the poppies almost against our heads. The flashes of the guns, the bursting of the shells and the Very lights made the night like day and, as I lay as flat to the ground as possible, I was expecting to stop one any time. Jamming my tin helmet down on my head I brought the body of my rifle across my face to stop anything that might happen to drop low. In the tumult it was impossible to hear orders. My ears were ringing with the cracking of bullets. A man alongside me was crying like a baby, and although I tried to reassure him he kept on saying that we would never get out of it. Suddenly, I saw men scrambling to their feet. Taking this to be the signal for the charge I jumped up and dashed across.

Sergeant Harold Preston, 9th (Queensland) Battalion, AIF

After Pozières, the next objective that lay ahead of them was Mouquet Farm, hitherto an insignificant name on the map that was to become the graveyard of thousands of young Australians. One British artillery officer summed up the prevailing mood.

I am afraid we are settling down to siege warfare in earnest and of a most sanguinary kind, very far from our hopes in July. But it’s always the same: Festubert, Loos, and now this. Both sides are too strong for a finish yet. God knows how long it will be at this rate. None of us will ever see its end and children still at school will have to take over.

Captain Philip Pilditch, ‘C’ Battery, 235th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

Pilditch was quite right. This was the wearing-out phase of the battle. Both sides would come to realise that the Somme – when added to the equivalent attritional blood-letting of Verdun – was a crucial battle in the grim process of grinding down the Germany reserves. But it was an inhuman business all the same: this was the pity of war. The German soldiers at the front were suffering just as much as their Allied opponents, with the prevailing mood one of despair.

Because there were no dugouts, we sheltered in shell holes. With the help of a mate, I dug mine down a bit deeper. Lying flat out, we carefully lifted thistles and other shrubby weeds, which we planted around the rim of our shell hole to give us cover from view. We lay in this hole for three and a half hours, unable, because of the heavy fire, to move or be relieved. Frequently we also sheltered in foxholes with our legs drawn up, or we would scrabble our way from shell hole to shell hole, linking them together. The water was green and full of muddy clay but we had to use it to brew coffee, because the ration parties could not get through to us. We were always short of bread. On one occasion the section was able to share a bottle of wine. Once came the shout, ‘Tommy is attacking!’ We waited in painful impatience and looked forward to giving him a warm reception, but not a single Tommy appeared! What a shame, what a bloody shame!

Private Rabe, 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment

The message is clear: Rabe and his comrades were suffering, but as long as they survived and still had ammunition they were dangerous opponents. As such, he symbolised the whole German Army during the long agony of the Somme.

Yet at the level of High Command the Germans were showing the signs of the incredible strain not only of operating on two fronts, but of fighting two major attritional battles at the same time. When the Brusilov Offensive burst upon the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front on 4 June 1916, Falkenhayn’s overall strategy was already unravelling. Although his reasons for launching the Verdun Offensive had been cogent, he had underestimated the French will to resist and they showed no signs of collapse or of being brought to the peace table by their suffering; indeed, they seemed even more determined to carry on the fight. Falkenhayn had also anticipated that the French infantry would be minced by the collective power of the German guns. But here too he had been disappointed. The French had deployed their own massed guns and the attritional fighting had affected both sides equally. These failures had not gone unnoticed among the military and political establishment, so Hindenburg and Ludendorff, sensing their chance, resumed their campaigning for Falkenhayn’s dismissal. When Falkenhayn made the mistake of erroneously assuring the Kaiser that Rumania would not join the Allies – which it promptly did on 27 August 1916 – it proved his undoing. Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg, the most popular general in the country, a man widely seen as a hero of Germany, was his obvious replacement. On 29 August, Falkenhayn was called upon to resign and Hindenburg was appointed Chief of General Staff, with Ludendorff appointed to the new position of Quartermaster General.