A Retrospective of the Somme 1916

Progress of the Battle of the Somme between 1 July and 18 November 1916.

Although further attacks were planned, the weather again intervened and on 19 November it unexpectedly turned milder, which heralded a rapid thaw that soon turned the entire battlefield into an impenetrable quagmire. It was beyond the abilities of man, animal or machine to cross the battlefield, as trenches collapsed wholesale and troops were forced from their meagre shelters into the open. So appalling were the ground conditions that even the British Official History – not noted for its emotive use of hyperbole – was moved to comment: ‘Our vocabulary is not adapted to describe such an existence, because it is outside experience for which words are normally required.’ Private W. Wells, who went on to serve in the Passchendaele battles of the following year, commented of that Somme winter:

‘The conditions were impossible – no one could live in it. We couldn’t get hot drinks as the ration parties couldn’t get up. Most of us were soaked through and it was too wet to light fires even if we had something to cook. We heard that some men had shot themselves rather than go through anymore of it. Passchendaele was bad, but by then they [GHQ] knew how much a man could stand of those conditions. I think the Somme was worse, much worse.’

The Losses

So what had all the sacrifice achieved? In total the battle had advanced the British lines a little over 6 miles (9.6km) and in the course of the fighting some important objectives had been captured, such as Beaucourt, Beaumont Hamel, Eaucourt L’Abbaye, Lesboeufs, Le Sars, St Pierre Divion, and Thiepval Ridge. But at what human cost? Obtaining accurate figures for the casualties of the campaign is easier for the Allied forces, as the gathering of statistical information was generally more organized. The number of casualties from 1 July to 19 November was officially quoted as 498,000 with an additional 20,000 estimated to have subsequently died of wounds. A particularly sobering statistic is that during the battle, British losses averaged 2,943 men a day, the equivalent of about three line battalions. For each division it was 8,026 men over the entire battle. The Commonwealth Divisional losses were proportionately greater, bearing in mind the far smaller number of troops employed: the Australians 8,960, the New Zealanders losing 8,133, and the Canadians 6,329.

German figures are harder to estimate, as they did not include in their casualty returns heavy losses sustained through shelling prior to the 1 July attack. However, all indications are that they suffered considerably both before and during the battle. The figure for losses from June–November is now thought to be probably somewhere between 460,000 and 600,000 men. This should be compared with the casualties at Verdun of some 336,000 men, which at the time the German High Command regarded as unacceptably high. This was only a part of the overall picture, however, for the total losses for Germany in 1916 was over 1 million men, as the fighting on the Eastern Front had also been raging unabated. France did not come out unscathed either, losing some 210,000 men. By any standards, this meant the rate of British, French, and German casualties on the Somme was unsustainable. Like so many men of the old Regular BEF, most of the Germans who were killed or wounded on the Somme were tough, experienced soldiers who could not be readily replaced. Ludendorff was being candid when he stated that after the Somme: ‘The army had been fought to a standstill and was utterly worn out.’ After the campaign there was considerable analysis in Germany about why their superior army had not comprehensively defeated the British at the outset, but the reasons were many and complex. The amateur soldiers of the new BEF proved a far tougher proposition than anyone had expected, and British tactics had improved considerably during the campaign’s five months of fighting. After the Somme, Ludendorff was under no illusions about the ability of Germany to win a decisive victory on the Western Front, and he feared the constantly aggressive behaviour shown by the British High Command would simply prove beyond the ability of even the German Army to contain: ‘even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest.’


For the British, the campaign had highlighted some serious shortcomings in both tactics and planning, as well as underlining the fact that, like Germany, the country was unable to absorb the levels of casualties sustained on the Somme. To attempt to do so would not only put an unbearable strain on the country to provide sufficient men, but would also stretch the ability of industry to produce sufficient war matériel. As it was, conscription had been introduced in January 1916, and by the latter months of that year, it was becoming obvious the standard of men entering the ranks was not the same as it had been in 1915. The ceaseless demand for manpower also meant there was no longer the luxury of retaining men at home until their training was complete. Private Clarrie Jarman had enlisted on the outbreak of war in 1914 and spent almost a year and a half in England training, before embarking for France. While this was exceptional, a year for training was considered normal. By mid-1916 this had dropped to six months, and by 1917 this had further been reduced to four months. In 1918, men were being sent to the front with under three weeks training, some never even having fired their rifles. It was clearly a situation no country could support indefinitely, and embarrassing questions were being asked in Parliament about exactly what General Haig’s long-term strategy was? Some suggested wryly that is was to wait until we had two men left and the Germans one, then declare a British victory.

Whether the Somme was the ‘ghastly failure’ that David Lloyd George had declared it to be is a moot point, for it had undoubtedly sharpened the High Command’s perception of how to wage efficient warfare on a massive scale. The tactics of early 1916 were essentially the same as had been used at the start of the war and were about as effective. Sending masses of men into machine-guns, uncut wire, and shellfire was not a recipe for military success. But the lessons of the Somme meant even those most remotely situated from the fighting had seen graphic examples of how well-planned attacks could work (as evidenced by the 27 July assaults): yet these lessons were not applied wholesale: some of the more traditional commanders remaining unconvinced. So the question must be asked, by what methods could things have been improved?


If there was one area in which technology could have radically altered the course of not just of the battle, but the entire war, it was communications. The methods employed had not materially improved since the days of the Greeks. Runners were still used by commanders to carry messages to units in the field: but by 1916 the chances of them reaching their destinations unscathed were slim indeed. During the battle for High Wood, one commanding officer sent six runners simultaneously to take a vital message back to GHQ and not one arrived. Not for nothing were runners among the most frequently decorated soldiers in the field. Wireless telegraphy was employed, but relied on a network of cables that were vulnerable to shellfire and passing traffic. Wires could even be snapped unwary infantrymen moving to and fro. Thus repairs were a constant nightmare for the linesmen of the Royal Engineers. The invention of the short wave radio came too late for the war. It would revolutionize battlefield communications, enabling instant decisions to be made and passed to combat units. Until then, semaphore and signalling lamps were the most commonly used means of communicating. Not unfairly has it been said that the availability of just one pair of walkie-talkies could well have altered the course of the war.

The Tanks

There is also little doubt the properly coordinated use of tanks and infantry, over suitable ground, could have achieved major success. But hindsight, while interesting, does not alter the facts of history, and it must be appreciated that no one in 1916 – not Haig, his generals, line commanders, or even the enthusiastic officers and men of the Heavy Branch, Motor Machine Gun Corps – had any real idea of what the tanks could do in battle. It is to Haig’s credit that he believed in this new technology, and was prepared to use it: though there was doubtless an element of desperation behind the decision. However, the tactical knowledge of the tank officers was minimal. Sent prematurely into battle over poor ground, with half-trained crews, it was remarkable the Heavy Branch achieved anything worthwhile at all. When tanks were used properly the results spoke for themselves, but it would be some time before they were trusted by the infantry. By 1917 annual tank production was almost 1,300, and it was the adoption of coordinated tank and infantry attacks, with proper artillery backup, which achieved success in the latter part of the war. The Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917 was a textbook example of how to plan and wage a successful campaign. There were treble the number of artillery pieces compared to the Somme, and high priority was given to silencing enemy artillery and demolishing strongpoints. In a remarkable break with tradition, attacking troops were even shown scale models of the ground over which they were to attack, and the result was the capture of the ridge with minimal casualties.

The Artillery

The Royal Artillery too, were to benefit from the lessons learned on the Somme. The increased use of Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) in the front line, who were in direct contact with their batteries quickly enabled corrections to be made for inaccurate shellfire, and drastically cut the number of casualties caused by ‘friendly fire’. Initially, artillery units had done exactly as they were ordered, plastering German lines with shells and using ineffective shrapnel to try to clear the wire. The increased awareness of the necessity for using the correct fuzes to destroy wire was a small but significant step forward in assisting attacks. These had not only to be manufactured in vast numbers, but sent to shell factories, fitted to shells, and then shipped to the front. Needless to say, this took time to organize. Gas and smoke shells were also to become much more widely used, assisting infantry assaults of the future. The same may be said of more effective counter-battery work, aided by the watchful eyes of the Royal Flying Corps. In fact, the RFC lost 782 aircraft and 578 pilots during the Somme campaign: testimony to the high level of involvement they had in the progress of the battle. The use of the creeping barrage was effective when executed correctly, but difficult to coordinate in an era when speedy battlefield communications were virtually non-existent. This meant that precise staff work – often sadly lacking – could make the difference between success and failure. The broader tactical use of machine-guns to lay down barrage fire, would also become commonplace after 1916.


For the infantry, the Somme was to prove that pre-war tactics had become not only outmoded but downright dangerous. By 1916 most of the old Regular Army soldiers were dead or wounded. The men who replaced them – mostly Territorials – were of a different breed: better educated, less willing to accept an order unquestioningly, and not wedded to the ethics of a pre-war army. They were mindful of the need to adapt their tactics to the situation. And by late 1916 new training manuals were being developed, which owed much to lessons learned by Allied forces on the Somme and at Verdun. Marching forward in line abreast, with rifles at the port, was a recipe for disaster and troops were trained to move in short rushes, using the far more effective ‘diamond’ formation. The old infantry section was deemed too clumsy and was split into four units: riflemen, grenade men, rifle bombers (using rifle propelled grenades), and Lewis gunners. These men had specific tasks to perform and it is from this period that the concept of the infantryman as a battlefield specialist began to emerge.


As to Kitchener’s men, what impact did the Somme battles have on their strength and morale? Of those who entered the Somme campaign in July 1916, few remained to see in the new year of 1917 who had not suffered during those traumatic months. Many were simply worn-out with the fighting, the incessant mud, the monotonous diet, and the constant loss of comrades. They became fatalistic, often outwardly callous and uncaring, in an attempt to provide themselves with an emotional shield that would enable them to continue to function as soldiers. For some this façade was to last a lifetime. Most simply gritted their teeth and tried to survive as best they could. Some sixty years later, one infantryman from a Pals Regiment said that after the Somme, he just concentrated on one day at a time, avoiding anything that involved extra risk:

‘I was going to bloody well get home, all my chums were dead or in Blighty wounded and there were only four of us originals left in the whole battalion. I’d done nearly three years, with only thirteen days leave and I felt it was the turn of those who had been sitting out the war to do their bit. I didn’t care if some other poor sod copped it, if it kept me out of trouble.’

Others proved unable to withstand the stress and they resorted to self-inflicted wounds or faking sickness. Few of their friends blamed them. It was to the great credit of the amateur army that despite the casualties and the appalling fighting conditions, morale generally remained good and a grim determination to ‘see the job through’ pervaded all ranks. So much had been lost, the men believed the sacrifice of the dead could not go unrewarded, and they would continue to fight the Germans until they had been defeated.

For their part, the Germans were also exhausted by the fighting and their spirit of optimism and defiance began to weaken after 1916. Lieutenant Gustav Sack, who survived the Somme campaign to be killed in December 1916, wrote: ‘We, the “good soldiers”, fight because we are here to save our skins and want to survive at all costs. We are not fighting for an aim, not for the Fatherland, nor for a united Germany – that is all stuff and nonsense.’ It is a fact the Somme battles, while they did not become the graveyard of the German Army, were to witness the start of its sickening: an unravelling of a hitherto tightly knit military machine. If Haig’s battle could not be claimed as a heroic victory, neither can its critics justifiably claim it to have been an utter failure, although the price paid was unacceptably high. After the Somme, battles began to be fought on a far more professional footing.


It cannot be disputed that Haig and his generals had initially been found wanting. No one could accuse Haig of being a visionary. Perhaps if generals of the stature of Allenby or Plumer had been given an opportunity to command, things might have been different: but ‘perhaps’ is not a very useful word in history. Haig and his staff, like the unbloodied soldiers under their command, had learned a great deal from the campaign and this was to help the Allies defeat Germany eventually. It surprises many people to learn the level of Allied casualties sustained in the final 100 days of the war was far higher, proportionately, than during the Somme, being some 3,645 men a day. Ironically, the ground fought over was almost the same as that where the war had begun, five years and 11 million casualties earlier.


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