The Somme: The French Artillery Experience




With the carnage at Verdun, the French were initially able to assign only the Sixth Army to the planned offensive on the Somme, although by the end of the battle they had made a far more substantial contribution than is often assumed by British historians. Most of the units on the right flank of the British assault had recent experience at Verdun and were familiar with many of the latest innovations in artillery tactics. Even without surprise, the Allies expected to effect a rupture in the Somme sector by wearing down German reserves and creating an opportunity to break through the defensive system. General Marie-Émile Fayolle, previously professor of artillery tactics at the École de Guerre, was one of the supporters of the new methodical approach, but suspected that a battle of attrition on the Somme would merely lead to another 200, 000 casualties. His patience bore fruit in the relatively impressive gains made by the French divisions assigned to the battle on the first day. ‘Some officers seem to fear that the method [methodically fighting from objective to objective] may break the dash of the infantry. In reality, what breaks the dash of the infantry is the presence of intact wire and or the opening up of flanking machine guns. That is why the purpose to be accomplished is to destroy them before each attack. Not a slow preparation, but one to which all time necessary is devoted to make sure that it is certain, then rapid execution; such is the formula for the attack.’

The French fire-plan for the assault on 1 July was organised to batter the first position, enable initial registration on the second and support the infantry with ‘an impressive and precisely regulated [creeping] barrage’. The objectives were selected on the basis of their influence on the next phase of the battle rather than the British approach of making a general advance, and ‘the artillery preparations determined what the infantry could achieve’. The German lines south of the Somme were closer, easier to observe and relatively weakly held, and this gave the French a crucial advantage over the British gunners. Trench artillery was used to eliminate key positions in the first line and the huge guns of the Artillerie Lourde à Grande Puissance were targeted on German positions deep within the defensive system. The Germans were horrified by the destruction and the crapouillots of the artillerie de tranchée, organised in grand batteries, proved far more effective than their sceptics expected. Counter-battery plans continued to use the French system of corps-level analysis, with air and forward observers updating trench maps and reporting on the locations of enemy batteries.

The French committed 1, 200 heavy guns and 1, 200 mortars to the assault in September – probably the maximum that could be targeted on the assigned objectives. From this point onwards the French concentrated on technical improvements to their guns and further improvements to artillery planning and liaison. As with the British, gaining dominance of the air was seen as an essential precursor for success, while improved gas projectiles promised to shorten the bombardment and ensure that the defending batteries were neutralised and the enemy reserves unable to intervene in the battle. The French recognised that lengthy bombardments gave the Germans vital time to prepare and an increasing number of commanders were alert to any technology – such as the tank – that could shatter the deadlock and ensure that the attack retained enough momentum to achieve its objectives.

The French were unimpressed by the initial performance of the British on the Somme, Joffre noting that ‘the British suffered from the fact that their artillerymen were less successful than ours and their infantry less experienced’. Joffre recognised that the Germans had not expected a French attack in the Somme sector but credited the success of the initial offensive to ‘the excellent work of the artillery’. French officers, including Foch, believed that the British had not grasped either how to concentrate fire effectively (it was ‘dispersed and wasted’), or how to conserve men until the Battle of Morval in September, while Fayolle, rather less generously, dismissed the British failures as the result of using ‘infantile’ tactics. Liaison between the two forces was close where the French artillery was available to assist the British infantry but this did not stop misunderstandings from occurring and certainly did not prevent both sides blaming the other if mistakes led to casualties – creating bitterness that obscured the more successful aspects of their collaboration.

The attacks in September faced more difficult objectives and the French soon discovered that a methodical battle that went awry in the first phase made succeeding attacks more difficult as German reinforcements fought doggedly to prevent the assault units from supporting each other. When the plan succeeded, German counter-attacks were relatively easy to repulse.

Although the French were operationally far more successful than the British during the first phase of the offensive, their tactical dependence on the methodical artillery fire-plan was seen by some as undermining the instinctive élan of the infantry. A report submitted by a division fresh from the carnage of Verdun noted: ‘It is the infantry that conquers ground and holds it. Even when the artillery has laid a perfect preparation, if the infantry does not function then nothing is accomplished.’ The terrible power of modern weaponry had shattered the theory of the offensive à l’outrance but surviving the modern horrors of war still required an equally impressive form of bravery and final victory continued to depend on the morale and élan of the front-line infantry soldier. In August Fayolle, usually famed for his caution, noted acidly:

There has been noticeable lately, in a number of infantry officers, a deplorable mentality which, if it persists, will tend to rob the infantry of all of its offensive power [and] make of it nothing more than a passive agency for the occupation of terrain that the artillery has previously cleared of all obstacles and even of all the enemy … [The infantry] often demand complete destruction … The cannon prepares attacks by opening the way, by overthrowing the material obstacles which oppose the infantry, but only the latter can exploit these destructions by progressing into the enemy’s lines [and] exploiting local conditions to the utmost. In a word, the infantry must fight and fighting consists of will and intelligence …

Fire-planning appears to have achieved the status of a truly scientific approach to warfare, with a level of predictability that arguably only existed when Vauban himself conducted sieges. The infantry, although re-organised into assault teams of light machine-gunners, grenadiers and riflemen, wedded to the mathematical fire-plan, often stuck like glue to the rolling barrage set for each successive objective and the process of making an assault became increasingly formalised. German reports from the Somme noted that the first French infantrymen aimed to enter their defensive system just as the creeping barrage passed over the trenches. A number of officers recognised the weakness in this approach and supported the infantry’s need to adapt to changes on the battlefield. Mangin was among those who was dubious of the efficacy of planning for everything, noting after the war about the lessons of 1916 that ‘the establishment of various plans that regulated everybody’s part in the attack was still considered necessary, as if it were a question of taking a position which had been leisurely organised … Methods can be learned, but only practice develops the sense of improvisation, when such sense is not inbred.’ A contemporary divisional report made the point even more succinctly: ‘the automatic attack, where every detail up to the final culmination has been arranged for beforehand, is a utopia.’ The French focus on liaison enabled them to plan methodically but now appeared to be undermining their ability to seize opportunities on the battlefield. With classical ambiguity the GQG note of 27 August 1916 contradicted itself by requiring officers to show dash and initiative but sternly reminded them to be mindful of the artillery fire-plan: ‘exploitation of success is not accomplished by the infantry alone’.

The French artillery made a number of technical improvements in late 1916. Counter-battery methods were improving and heavier quick-firing guns were becoming available. Fire-plans now included targets deep within the enemy defensive system and GQG reminded planners that ‘the objective assigned to an attack constitutes a minimum line which must be reached with certainty, but beyond which progress may and should be made’. In December 1916 improved plans for the operational displacement of artillery were introduced so that the attack could proceed in successive stages without giving the Germans time to consolidate their defences or commit reserves; progress was assumed to depend on enemy resistance but both the communication and liaison system still required radical improve-ments before genuine tactical flexibility could be reintroduced to the battlefield. Communications in defence were rightly seen as having equal importance since a prolonged bombardment often destroyed telephone wires, obscured visual signals and slaughtered runners.

Counter-battery precision substantially improved during 1916, and the Service du Renseignements d’Artillerie was created to collate and disseminate intelligence on the locations of enemy batteries. Von Bülow, who commanded the Second Army in the July battles, was particularly impressed, noting after the Somme that ‘it is striking to observe that the guns of our enemies also seem to have far less dispersion than our own. Our enemies also seem to understand map-firing much better than we do. In fact, in weather that precludes any direct observation and which requires considerable corrections of the moment, they succeed in making precision fire upon objectives of very limited dimensions.’ Some modern historians have tended to denigrate the ability of the French army to take the lead in technical matters, but the Germans could not afford to underestimate their opponents so casually, and studied emerging French and British tactics and technologies with great interest. The success of French and British artillery in breaking up counter-attacks was duly noted and the artillery was given an increased role in the defensive system. The German Regulations for the Defence in Position Warfare of late 1916 noted:

In the conduct of the battle, the defence should not give up the initiative. By its activity, particularly the activity of the artillery, and by the mobility of its forces, it should check the advancing power of the attacker, force him to thicken his first lines, break up his plans, harass his troops in their assembly positions, prevent movement and inflict on him the maximum losses … It is of exceptional importance to over-come the hostile artillery … by conducting well adjusted fire for destruction against a definite objective until that objective has been annihilated.

The French were equally interested in studying and emulating the defensive improvements they had encountered on the Somme. They surmised that negating an attacker’s artillery preparation required moving the reserves much further back and out of the conventional linear system and into bunkers, underground tunnels and strong-points. In all cases the new positions were to be carefully camouflaged. Where necessary, the infantry were to utilise available shell-holes so that the true defensive system was deepened and the enemy bombardment would be less effective. The French recognised that any isolated strong-points could be bombarded by heavy guns and then outflanked by enemy assault parties; thus, although the French infantry continued to contemplate digging trenches with Gallic disdain, their new defensive systems were planned with both adequate support from machine-gun nests and forward observation posts and they were echeloned in depth. Most importantly, devising an effective counter-preparation could reduce the devastation created by the barrage and enable the defending artillery to both tear apart the attacking infantry and support counter-attacks. The main lesson of the battle of Verdun, noted by GQG as early as April 1916, had been that ‘the artillery has been able to reduce the material means of the defence and to wear down its morale, but it has not been able to destroy it’.

Surprise had played a key role at Verdun but the continuing preponderance of obsolete artillery pieces demanded prolonged bombardment. Tactical utility still had to take precedence over strategic surprise until the French artillery acquired the tools they needed to achieve their objectives before the German reserves were committed but some commanders – Foch in particular – were beginning to understand how a sequence of limited operations, based upon objectives the artillery could adequately cover, might lead to a strategic fracturing of the German defensive system. Success was assumed to emerge out of the ‘methodical artillery struggle’. While French planners still struggled with the problem of matching technology to aspirations, the gunners focused on finding the best way to support the infantry without access to substantial numbers of modern heavy guns; the main objective of the artillery remained the precise destruction of enemy assets and defensive positions but gradual improvements in neutralisation being demonstrated by the enemy batteries were carefully monitored. Gas shells appeared to present an important alternative to precise targeting of enemy batteries and strongholds but combining them into the main fire-plan still presented problems. The French even began studying captured documents on tactical methods, although they often found it difficult to admit where the information had originated from when it was disseminated.

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