The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered I

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, JULY-NOVEMBER 1916 (CO 204) Men of a battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment resting after an attack in July 1916. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: the battle on the Ancre (13–18 November 1916) was being fought, an Allied High Command conference at Chantilly was considering plans for a co-ordinated offensive on several fronts in the Spring of the following year. A key element in such an offensive would be a renewed Anglo-French drive on the Western Front. 1916 had seen the defeat of the Romanian component of the Entente but there was evidence elsewhere that the continued exertion of pressure on the Central Powers had sown the seeds of a military harvest which could be reaped in the Spring. Such thinking was far from being universally held in the corridors of political power where the perspective was frequently framed by an antipathetic view of the military mind. Ministers of State looking at the Somme through this lens saw their judgement irrefutably confirmed.

Lloyd George, in 1915 a member of the War Council which had approved the Gallipoli operation, was in November 1916 Secretary of State for War. He was deeply convinced that an alternative way had to be found to get into the heart of the Central Powers and bring about their defeat. The continuous battering at a bolted front door, as seemed to him the unimaginative, indifferently callous, even stupid, High Command directive for the Somme, convinced him of the inappropriateness of such methods, re-confirmed his vision of an Eastern approach and determined him on Haig’s unfitness to command. This depth of political/military cleavage was given awesome significance by Lloyd George’s assumption of the Premiership in December under circumstances which make quite as good a story as those which had seen Haig reach his position as Commander-in-Chief BEF twelve months earlier.

Lloyd George’s sudden turnabout as Premier, his temporary conversion to the idea of victory on the Western Front through a new deliverer, Joffre’s replacement as French Commander-in-Chief, General Nivelle, and the direct repercussions this would have for the BEF and its Commander-in-Chief in 1917–18. They are, however, deserving of one’s awareness as it is basically Lloyd George’s and Churchill’s verdict on the Somme, carried forward into the present by some, that we must address in any attempt to evaluate High Command direction of the battle.

The two political Titans, by definition conditioned to be reactive to opinion, trends, shifting ground, disappointments and quite naturally to the search for scapegoats as well as alternative, cheaper, shorter visions of how the war might be won, were to set themselves up against the military men while the war was being waged, most particularly in the case of Lloyd George. In their perception, the ‘Brass Hats’ exercised their authority with a total lack of imagination and a callous disregard for the human material put into their hands to win the war. For their part, military High Command did indeed think differently, being convinced that at this time of great industrialised nations with mass armed forces being locked in struggle, the war had to be fought as they were fighting it, by attritional methods to deplete the strength and will of the enemy.

What irony there is in that while the military men were grimly proved to be right, the politicians, in keeping with the post-war spirit of the times, wrote the more convincing self-justificatory memoirs and histories of the war, identifying the ‘villains’ responsible for its shameful cost and length. A battle won with a pen, casualties limited to reputations and a proper understanding of the war.

As weary British troops embarked on consolidation of their positions from late November 1916, two things were happening which in different ways illustrate some of the problems which require consideration in approaching a verdict on the Somme in its centenary year. First, Haig was penning his official despatch on the battle. It is dated 23 December 1916. In it he deploys the benefit of hindsight – what he had learned from his experience in directing the Somme Offensive – to underplay his pre-battle hope of a breakthrough, and, till at least mid-September, his retention of some hope of that breakthrough. If hindsight for the historian is at one and the same time his weapon and potentially his Achilles heel, then so it must be for the Commander-in-Chief. Certainly Haig’s failure to acknowledge in this official document that the first great offensive waged under his command had educated him in how this colossal struggle inexorably would have to be fought, – simply by wearing out his enemy – seems to diminish him as a man, but surely, if one were to believe him correct in his assessment, does the omission seriously diminish him as a Commander-in-Chief? That judgement that is less clear.

The second point is that as Haig was writing his report, the Germans were pressing on with the preparation of the new defensive line to which they would withdraw from February to April 1917. Well before this, in Germany on the Home Front, the exigencies produced by the war in general, blockade in particular, and not least the strain of the Somme, were stimulating strikes, disturbances and peace protests.

The Somme had played a major part in undermining German High Command in the West though it was the opening of a new front in Romania which led to Falkenhayn’s removal and Hindenburg and Ludendorff being summoned at the end of August to take over in the worsening crisis in the West. What weight may we place on this, on the withdrawal, and still later developments, in evaluating whether the British and French were indeed to have won the Battle of the Somme?

John Terraine maintained that the Somme in 1916, and Third Ypres in 1917, were essential elements in the August-November 1918 defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. His argument has been further developed in the tri-nation research of William Philpott’s history of the Somme, Bloody Victory – ‘[Attrition], loathsome as it may be, worked.’ The historian made the further point that Lloyd George, who had been pre-eminently in a position to halt such procedure in prosecuting the war, did little so to do until deploring the means after the war. Philpott might quite reasonably have added, as many would, that he ‘did nothing except consistently undermine in Westminster, Whitehall, with the Press and with French politicians and generals, the position and reputation of his own Commander-in-Chief BEF’, but Philpott is unequivocal concerning the strategy of attrition, originating from the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Cumulatively, the effects of attrition combined with repetitive and increasingly frequent battlefield defeats were to bring on the German army’s eventual collapse. The issues may not be easy to quantify but, as marshalled by these two historians, and others distinguished in the field, the argument convinces.

Some attention was given to the place of the battle in the generational passage of our history: what the Somme has come to mean to us and the extent to which that was a true reflection of the actual experience of the battle in 1916 and its significance to the outcome of the war. Here, an attempt will be made to restrict the perspective to the original setting. Was it a necessary battle; to what extent was there choice available to Haig over its location and timing; what can be said about the manner in which it was waged and the awful price? Was it unjustifiably prolonged and, within the 1916 time-scale circumscribed; was there identifiable profit from such expenditure of human and material resources? To some extent the answers to these questions have already been indicated, but they need summary and attention given to the further fundamental question of how the men of the units which saw prolonged service on the Somme coped with the experience in terms of their morale?

The reality of the constraint upon Haig’s freedom of action as Commander-in-Chief BEF, lay in the relative difference between the British and French material contributions to the Western Front in December 1915 when Haig was appointed to his command: in miles of front held, about 50 as against 400; in divisions of troops employed on the Western Front, about thirty-eight as against ninety-five. The disparity between the British and French commitment was so striking that there could be no question that the overall strategic direction would be in French hands. This situation, by definition paralleled in reverse for naval strategy, was formalised by the conclusions reached at the Inter-Allied Military Conference at Chantilly on 6–8 December 1915 and then at the end of the month by the instructions given to Haig by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.

First, at Chantilly, Joffre had secured unanimous support for what amounted to his strategic overview – concentration upon the main, rather than subordinate battlefronts, co-ordination of planned offensives for those fronts to be launched as soon as possible and designed collectively to be decisive. On 28 December, Haig received his instructions from Kitchener and they made it unarguably clear that British troops were in France primarily to combine with the French to defeat the enemy: ‘The closest co-operation of French and British as a united Army must be the governing policy …’ As John Terraine, long ago, consistently maintained, no matter what clauses followed about Haig not coming under French command, the reality of his terms of reference was caught in the expression ‘the governing policy’. Hence we have a uniform inter-Allied consensus for a co-ordinated offensive and it can be inferred beyond dispute that Haig would work with the French design and timing of that offensive on the Western Front. Furthermore, it would follow that a much heavier burden of such an attack would fall upon the BEF because the nearing readiness of the New Armies would enable the imbalance of the Allied effort on the Western Front to be considerably redressed. The Chantilly Conference had quite specifically referred to the need for the ‘wearing down’ of the enemy by operations conducted by those powers which had reserves of men, all this materially to help a concerted effort. In the West this meant Britain. There was no longer a reservoir of French manpower on which to call, and of course there is irony in the fact that the number factor dictated that strategy would be French-determined and yet it also dictated that the price in men would have now to be paid by Britain to a far greater extent than hitherto.

We have to accept then that there was no disagreement that a major offensive was needed and no possible issue over the fact that the BEF would foot the larger proportion of the bill. It cannot be seriously maintained that Haig’s belief that Flanders was where the ultimate decision might be won, made him obstructive over Joffre’s insistence that the offensive should be well south of where the BEF had so far undertaken major operations. What Haig wanted to do was to convert the idea of subsidiary wearing-out fights before such a great battle took place into the drawing together for more profitable use of all the resources necessary for that larger endeavour. To this end, attacks immediately prior to the general action would be justified as they would distract the enemy and draw in his reserves committing them to operations of secondary consequence; attacks launched earlier would be profitless.

In conference discussion with Joffre on 14 February, Haig’s point was conceded but the same conference also fixed the scene and the date for the Allied offensive – the Somme on 1 July. There is no need here to examine the reasons why Haig would have preferred Flanders: it is sufficient to say that Joffre required the Somme. Again there is an irony. Here on the Somme in an attritional battle, Joffre would be able to fix the British into playing a major part. Haig would be looking for something different, a front to be broken but, in truth, with no strategic objective behind that front. In Flanders there were two such objectives, Roulers and the ports of the occupied coast of Belgium. On the Somme there was nothing of similar significance.

In parenthesis, it is tempting to consider whether Haig’s lack of recognition for French achievements on the Somme, at the time and subsequently, something for which he has been criticised, had its roots in the British C-in-C having to dance to the French tune, being uncomfortable with this and with the fact that, in military terms, the French were at this time dancing the better – their artillery programmes and concentration, and their infantry tactics in the assault.

On 21 February, the German onslaught at Verdun made an indelible imprint upon all Allied planning for the Western Front. Haig had not yet jettisoned all thoughts of Flanders but such thoughts were held now under inescapable restraint. Readily he undertook what he had so recently refused, the immediate taking-over of the line held by the French Tenth Army. In French perception, the Somme, by its relative proximity to Verdun, could assist in the holding of the historic city; Flanders certainly would have no such effect. At a stroke, Verdun added a preoccupying urgency to all planning for the Somme and it would determine that a date earlier than 1 July might be contemplated for the opening of this offensive, a date later could not be. Haig, on 26 May, had made his preference for a later date clear to Joffre but he was not ungracious in accepting the priority of French need over British readiness for the battle.

The battle then had been judged necessary by French-led, inter-Allied agreement. It was given British Cabinet endorsement conveyed to Haig on 14 April. The location of the battle was decreed by Joffre, the timing decided by both Allied intention and German intervention. Haig’s role had been entirely proper – professionally rather sceptical but, from the reality of his subordinate position, seeking at this stage to raise the prospect above that of une bataille d’usure and of loyally concentrating the available resources for what was now a threefold concept – a major element in the co-ordinated Allied offensive planned for 1916, the very necessary rescue of an ally and the development of the possibility of a decisive breakthrough.

Concerning the way in which the battle was waged, the divergence between Haig and Rawlinson over the question of ‘breakthrough’ or ‘bite and hold’ has been stressed. In his book British Generalship in the Twentieth Century, E. K. G. Sixsmith suggested that Haig was in pursuit of ‘true strategy’ which of course sought surprise, and examined the nature of the ground to see which objectives, once taken, offered hope for exploitation. Even with the closeness of the opposing lines offering unpromising chances of securing surprise, we should remember that some strategic surprise was won. British military activity from the Belgian coast southwards did delay German realisation that the real effort was coming between Serre and Montauban and the Germans did not anticipate that the French would be able to take on any offensive role at all. A shock certainly awaited them on the French sector. Sixsmith is one of several authors who stress quite appositely that in the earliest stage of the planning for the Somme Haig had wanted an infantry advance led by lightly-equipped infantry patrols but his three Army Commanders had opposed this and Haig conceded their point. Sixsmith maintains that Rawlinson was more concerned with the means at his disposal and the method of attack and that while Haig was able to insist on planning for the swift seizure of some key objectives – Montauban for example – his inability to answer the problem of the enemy wire other than by prolonged bombardment led him largely to accept Rawlinson’s tactical approach. Hence, a preliminary bombardment that was long enough and heavy enough would leave the infantry with the reduced task of taking possession of destroyed defences and consolidating them against counter-attack. Successive waves advancing behind a precisely timed artillery bombardment which would lift exactly as previously decreed onto the next target, would be the subsidiary infantry role in what was basically an artillery battle. Capturing the first line of enemy trenches was not, however, to be the relatively simple task envisaged.

As recognised in all accounts of the battle, there was an insufficiency of guns, in particular of heavy guns, of high explosive shells and, we might well remind ourselves, that the instantaneous fuse, so essential for the destruction of barbed wire, was not available for 1 July. The artillery programme for the assault has been considered by many to have been inflexible and, given the known insufficiencies and inadequacies in the instrument of delivery, unrealistic. Furthermore, even if the plan were to have been the masterpiece claimed by a recent historian of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, General Sir Martin Farndale, there was a considerable variation in Corps and Divisional understanding of the programme, and in the capacity to implement it or willingness to implement it. The same must be said of the use of meteorological information and newly-developed techniques like reliance on the map for ‘predicted’ rather than pre-registered shooting. In the case of the New Army, the lack of experience at all levels in the science of gunnery was a very serious matter. Additionally, in the light of all this and the inability to locate and destroy German batteries, an insufficient awareness of the true strength of the German underground defence system and that the British bombardment was to be rendered still less effective by the high proportion of defective shells and worn or dated artillery pieces, there was still another fatal flaw. This was the failure to require the infantry to exercise speed, keeping up with the barrage and being in on the defenders before they manned their parapets. This was the only way in which some element of tactical surprise could be achieved and, as fate was to decree, it was also the only way there would be any protection to the infantry as the men were exposed crossing No Man’s Land. With too much faith put in the artillery completely to fulfil its role in the battle and no widely-held confidence that New Army infantry could operate in any other way than methodically walking across and occupying destroyed positions, over- and under-confidence respectively were to combine in the production of the tragedy of the first day of the battle.

There was more. For reasons of artillery observation, the French refused to countenance an earlier hour than 7.30 a.m. for the infantry assault. This compounded the problem on the British front where the artillery had not done its work effectively and that which would be clearly observed was not the German positions but the British infantry in their approach of them.

Hindsight compels us to witness and re-witness in our mind’s eye the awful inappropriateness of heavily-burdened men attempting to make measured progress across No Man’s Land in successive lines of companies in extended order, with the artillery not having been effective in protecting them. The issue of some battalions, and New Army battalions too, having been trained in different procedures and carrying them out successfully, has to be followed up with, ‘then why were not all the Kitchener men so trained?’

Contemporary source after source lays emphasis on the New Army’s unreadiness in terms of training for the assault they would have to make – that is of course in contrast to their exhibiting an outstanding readiness in terms of elan. Were the battalions of the Regular Army and of the Territorial Force required to attack using precisely the same procedure? No, but by whatever means the men of the BEF attacked north of Montauban, success was minimal and the price still dreadful.

It is difficult to make a convincing argument that the New Army infantry, given the chance of May/June training behind the lines in France, could have developed a real proficiency in advance, by detachments, in the lozengeshaped ‘artillery formation’ or by the Regular Army pre-war ‘fire and movement’ procedure to build up a firing line, platoons alternatively giving covering fire and then advancing as they themselves were given protection. High morale there certainly was but there was not the marksmanship to take advantage from such procedure and, in fact, the nature of the more elevated German positions, secure in their concreted depth also, was surely not going to be taken by such methods at this stage of the war with morale of the defender unbroken.

There is then a strong temptation to state quite simply that the German positions were too strong and the enlarged BEF not ready for the Somme when the battle had, for all the reasons previously stated, to take place. Battle experience in this ‘new’ world war was everything. By definition, Kitchener’s men had not had Neuve Chapelle or Aubers Ridge or the experience of the Battle of Loos as a grim guide and if High Command and its staff did indeed have such experience, the insufficiently-tuned instrument at their disposal was going to have to be played and there was not the rehearsal time for learning radically new techniques before the performance – Verdun saw to that.

A counter-argument can be developed but it leads to a quagmire for the politician. If it were to be maintained that in the development of appropriate tactical training procedures for the men of the New Armies, first in the United Kingdom and then in France, the Army authorities had shown a slowness to adapt to the changed circumstance of warfare on the Western Front, the truth of this in general terms could perhaps be conceded but behind this lies the harsh reality of the Nation’s unreadiness for the war in which it found itself. Partnered by and matched against huge conscript armies with their nations’ industrial systems more readily placed upon a war footing, Britain was paying a high price in every direction as she embarked upon what was needed, the fundamental transformation of her society, economy, institutions and Government to meet the National emergency of a European and World War. Would she have been better prepared, indeed might she have been more of a deterrent to German ambition to make or risk war had she possessed that which was unthinkable to the pre-war Liberal administration, a conscript army?

Yes, the infantry tactics used on 1 July proved on most sectors disastrously inappropriate. Some changes were made, most notably in the hour of launching an attack and in attempts to infiltrate No Man’s Land before the attack was delivered but the tactics remained vulnerable. It is surprising that Haig’s belief in the possibility of breakthrough was not translated into allowing a night attack on 15 September after the initial success achieved by such timing on 14 July. It can be added significantly, even if depressingly, that when new tactics were developed by all three major antagonists on the Western Front, it still needed special circumstances for them to be effective – first, and little surprise here, in the development of a new highly sophisticated programme of bombardment and second, in serious flaws in the defence of the objectives being attacked. Such circumstances were certainly not present in the Summer of 1916 on the Somme.

Returning to the question of the readiness of the BEF for the battle, several sources echo the Official Historian’s emphasis on the relative inexperience of some of the Corps and the Divisional Commanders in managing units of that size. In one important sense the lament is more anachronistic than a fair charge to be made against any individual or the Army as an institution – the sheer size of the BEF was unprecedented and there was by definition no earlier school of experience for the large number of senior officers required. This still leaves open the competence of those promoted to senior positions and here the Canadian historian, Tim Travers, brings some of his most savage criticism to bear upon the system of promotion in the ‘old army’ and upon Haig in particular. There is abundant evidence of the tensions which developed as a result of the Edwardian army having to digest the lessons of the Second Boer War and ready itself for war in Europe. The old ways survived in awkward juxtaposition with attempts to modernise, make more professional, and develop more technical competence. In such a setting, power, privilege and prejudice advanced the careers of some, arrested those of others. Those who progressed were not always those best fitted for the requirements of the new war. This of course was not a scenario unique to the profession nor to the period, as the world of industry, business, politics and education for example, across any time scale, could doubtless testify. Travers made the point that ‘a still largely traditional officer corps [attempting] to fight a modern [technological/firepower] war as though it were a fully prepared and professional group of senior officers and staff, led to a strong tendency to cover up errors during the war, and to achieve alterations in the subsequent military record and then in the Official History’.

There is some truth in this but if this were the whole truth one is left to wonder how the war was won. It has been argued that victory was earned to an overwhelming though inter-related degree by the Royal Navy, also that the psychological factor of the scarcely-tapped resources of the United States was the key. British skill in the realm of propaganda is stressed too (with just a touch of irony) but there is the need to explain the absence of a collapse in the attacking endeavours of the BEF in 1916 and in late 1917, the absence of a collapse as its soldiers desperately defended in the March/April 1918 crisis and then surely its leading part in the three months of hard fought unbroken victory terminating in the Germans suing for an Armistice. Can the military events following upon July 1918 all be attributed to a shrewdness of German High Command policy in withdrawal, French resurgence, American troop arrival in strength and the work of the Australian and Canadian divisions?

Returning to the military direction of the 1916 battle, it is possible that more could have been made from the success at Montauban on 1 July in conjunction with the adjacent French achievements. Perhaps Gough’s reserves should have been swiftly given the chance to prove themselves here. Rawlinson’s decision to halt and consolidate on the first objective was, some consider, all the more regrettable as Balfourier’s XX Corps on his right had also reached its first objective and was anxious to push on to Peronne if the British were also to advance. The northward direction of any exploitation developed here would have been a serious outflanking threat to German defences which were holding firm against frontal assault.

On two further dates, questions have to be raised over the seizure of opportunities or of the reality of such opportunities. On 14 July, it does seem that the cavalry was not in a position swiftly to exploit advantage, again on the right of the British advance. One is almost conditioned to deride the potential usefulness of cavalry in France and perhaps the opportunity of which some have written was but a mirage. Nevertheless the mounted arm was expensively, and hence it must be presumed, purposefully, maintained, yet here we have it ordered up too late and then from too distant an assembly station to have any real chance of fulfilling its purpose. This matter, of great moment or otherwise, lay within Rawlinson’s command.


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