The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered II

The other major consideration is over the employment of tanks on 15 September. Haig’s eagerness to use the new weapon is unquestionable and even after their patchy performance in initial battle testing, his faith in them is confirmed by his striking request, two days later, for 1,000. The charge against him that he used the tanks when he had too few to make an impact and that in using them he was conceding their surprise factor for small reward, does not really stand up against the dual need to use all means available to achieve a breakthrough while the weather held and the fact that the tank had to be proved in battle before mass production could be requested, never mind sanctioned. Where he might have been bolder and intervened in Rawlinson’s plans was in the failure to concentrate those tanks available and to use them in a favourable location in the role for which they had been conceived, breakthrough. Instead, they were carefully spread like some special seed that some might fruit. The role given them was to deal with strongpoints, not to force a way through. Perhaps their slowness and the small number which remained immune to mechanical disorder or becoming ditched made them unfit at this stage for anything more adventurous than was essayed but a case can be made against the way the tanks were initially employed and more particularly against the absence of proper artillery protection of their advance.

The time factor can be used on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, there was the urgent need to use tanks almost immediately they arrived because so much was at stake in the effort to achieve strategic initiative, and then, essential battle-testing too, and on the other hand, there was artillery and infantry unfamiliarity with the new engine of war, the small number available, their mechanical unreliability and the inexperience of the crews. All the latter considerations counselled caution, retaining the surprise factor, addressing the problems known to be there and then launching a tank-centred decisive operation.

There were other general matters where tactical thought was developed slowly, like the way in which Lewis and Vickers guns might have been more effectively employed in a mobile attacking role. The same might be said for the need to train and utilise Stokes Mortar teams, but the second barrel of the double-barrelled shotgun charge against Haig for the Somme – the first aimed at the infantry tactics employed – was the prolongation of the battle when, to some at the time and to many who have written about it since, the offensive was maintained long beyond the point of any profit whatsoever. Built into such an indictment is the presumption, frequently stated, that Haig and his staff at their comfortable HQ were totally removed from an understanding of the actual conditions under which the men at the front served and that polished-booted, red-tabbed Staff Officers, coping with the inconvenience of the map obscuring the whisky decanter, drew neat lines which determined the fate of the men towards whom they were callously indifferent. Haig’s immaculate dress and stern gaze out of photographs, the setting for which is usually the steps of some splendid chateau, are mentally juxtaposed against images of men in the line and casualty statistics. Of course such visions derive from judgements already made, presumptions affirmed.

There is substance to the charge of the perceived remoteness of the staff once the important qualification is understood that the nearer the line staff work took place, the more difficult it was. Anyone who was momentarily to doubt this reservation has only to read Staff Officer: The Diaries of Lord Moyne 1914-18.5 Walter Guinness, the first Lord Moyne, was to be engaged in Brigade and Divisional staff work in the second half of the war and his diary documents graphically the well-nigh impossible circumstance for such work when under heavy shelling in a forward position. As it happens, there is too, a delightful illustration of the prejudice he met against staff officers when he himself was simply a regimental officer on the Somme. On 23 August, he wrote of the Adjutant of his battalion, the 11th Cheshires, a man who was a university lecturer in Agricultural Chemistry: ‘He hates and despises all staff officers, feeling no doubt that he has far more brains himself and says that there are many Double First men serving in the Armies who ought to be on the staff. With all his cleverness, however, his manners are such that what the staff might gain in brains, it would certainly lose in friction.’

It has been argued that the gulf between GHQ and the staffs of subordinate HQ lay not least in a combination of Haig’s closed mind and the fear he inspired. The nature of his taciturn personality and of his remote position at the apex of military authority certainly combined seriously to reduce access to him and there is little evidence to demonstrate that the men around him were endowed with exceptional ability or the capacity for innovative thought. On a point of detail, Haig’s keenness to use the tanks scarcely suggests a closed mind but the command structure, inter-communication, the exchange and discussion of ideas, implementation of change, the cooperation of individuals and of Staffs, were not areas in which Haig and the senior echelons of command achieved distinction during the central months of the war. Near the top of the pyramid, there were men whose work subsequently seemed seriously adrift like Brigadier-General John Charteris, in command of Intelligence, who fed Haig unwarrantably optimistic reports on the decline of German morale, but the point has to be made more general – there was simply an insufficiency of well-trained Staff Officers for all levels of this work in the hugely expanded BEF. The disappointing quality of their work on the Somme too frequently reflects this and not just at GHQ. From every point of view there was truth in Lord Moyne’s diary entry. Later in the war, New Army officers would increasingly break into the enclosed professional milieu of the Staff, but during the Somme, a natural prejudice felt by ‘one of us’, that is the Regimental Officer with his men in the line, against ‘one of them’, the briefly visiting Staff Officer, too frequently is evident. It was rooted in the different circumstances of their daily life and the idea of receiving orders from on high through the person of a polished superior being, who seemed to display an unfamiliarity with and a distaste for work at the sharp end of his orders. A discordant thought intrudes here: is this not a normal feature of ‘life at the coalface’ – how well thought of, is the Bishop on his rare visitation, the school inspector at his scrutiny, even the factory foreman on his rounds?

It is also perhaps fair to suggest that Staff Officers, unless by prior experience solidly grounded in regimental work in the line, might cocoon themselves within the idea that the Regimental Officer would have no idea of the burdensome and endlessly problematic nature of the Staff Officer’s work and this perception would hold a measure of truth. There are, however, numerous counterbalancing snippets in letters and diaries from officers and men paying tribute to the organisational work behind the assemblage of so many facilities, so much materiel and so many men of different units engaged in separate but related tasks before the onset of some major endeavour.

Field Marshal Lord Harding, a subaltern in the First World War, told of a lesson he had learned from the Great War was to avoid the gulf between the Staff and the Line which he had experienced in 1915–18. The Field Marshal did not serve in France but much has been written in support of this point. It may be considered however that the gulf was there almost by definition both by reason of the particular nature of the First World War and perhaps by the structure of any army at war. In that event then the missing element was High Command concern to stress the inter-dependence of each and a wider understanding by each of the work of the other. Staff Officers with regimental experience had this, but otherwise ignorance prejudiced the view across the divide. Tackling this in war may not have seemed a high priority and would not have been easy to organise. We can see with hindsight that it would have been beneficial.

It remains to be said on this matter that while Haig’s severest critics make no documented case against him of indifference to his men, the charge remains by implication. However, it simply cannot be substantiated; there is too much evidence to the contrary. From subaltern to general the man in command had men ‘to use’ in battle. For him to be unnerved by the full meaning of this, and for him to have given inadequate thought to the best employment of them to achieve the aims of the endeavour; these two factors together would show an unfitness for command. Perfection, freedom from error, and with tragic significance, freedom to operate outside the constraints of the warfare in which commander and men are engaged, this we cannot expect. Whether Haig were to have failed his men on the Somme will continue to be debated; the baser charge that he was indifferent to them, does not stand serious examination. As a liaison officer at GHQ, Charles Armitage, sharing responsibility for feeling the pulse of the men under Haig’s command, was infuriated by what he termed such a ‘wicked slander which has never been substantiated; the exact opposite is the truth’. By character, personality and upbringing, Douglas Haig was inescapably a product of an age which determined that his paternalistic attitude to his men would give rise among later generations with their different values and social norms, to a range of judgemental reaction – certainly, regret, probably, some lack of comprehension and, in all likelihood, scorn. Could or should anything different have been expected? A hundred years on, the ‘mateyness’ which society seems to expect between leader and led in any walk of life, frequently looks shallow, artificial and unrealistic to a discerning observer. No, in 1916, Haig showed that he had not got the ‘common touch’. In addition to the points already raised, he lacked an essential element in exhibiting it, verbal fluency. How extraordinary it would have been if he were to have had it. Perhaps he did develop something approaching it post-war with his work for the Royal British Legion, but that is another matter.

With German operations at Verdun diminishing rapidly as the Battle of the Somme maintained its momentum in July – on 11 July, Falkenhayn, the Commander-in-Chief, had ordered the suspension of offensive operations at Verdun – had not the Somme justified itself and hence could be halted during the latter part of that month? No, the offensive had been conceived as a huge co-ordinated Allied vision to wrest the war’s initiative from the grasp of the Central Powers and there was the continued belief in the possibility of achieving a breakthrough – 1 July at Montauban and 14 July had both indicated that such a chance might be there. There was something else, previously referred to, but deserving re-emphasis, the advance by the Somme of High Command education in the nature of the war in which they were engaged. Attritional erosion of the capacity of an enemy to continue the fight was not new. It was not new when it was waged by the North in the American Civil War, though it was then on an unprecedented scale, and new in the sense that the North had the basis of industrial power to forge the weaponry for this form of destruction of its adversary, but even if it were fundamentally built-in to Allied strategy as agreed in December 1915, it was to be a new experience for Britain in the following year.

The war had become one in which populous, industrialised societies increasingly utilised every fibre of their national resources. However, regardless of this, the current stage of weapon technology gave every advantage to the defender, in this case the Germans, who had advanced into Belgium and France, been checked and, preserving their 1914 initiative, had dug in. To attack them to throw them out of their gains meant challenging the approach to positions commandingly defended by concealed machine-gun and rifle fire supported from the rear by well-sited artillery. There was no flank to turn except by the huge gamble of seaborne invasion of the occupied coast of Belgium and so a fundamentally frontal assault was decreed by definition though the configuration of the line in some sectors seemed to offer flanks for assault – again frontally. With the Entente committed to attack and the Germans advantaged in their defensive posture, the Western Front had become a battle of will and materiel. For Britain, the Somme was the first major test. Gallipoli had devalued strategic alternatives and French requirements focused concentration upon Picardy. Even when the higher aim of breakthrough dissolved in frustration after 15 September, there could be little question of calling off the battle. Furthermore, in the turning of the screw upon the enemy, valuable objectives had been won in the south which invited exploitation to attack, in the flank, positions which were still resisting frontal assault further north. That this is not simply a Headquarters view, nor a retrospective view, is illustrated in the letter sent home on 30 September by the Medical Officer of the 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, C. K. McKerrow: ‘We still push ahead and kill many Huns. Our losses are smaller than at first and I really believe we are doing pretty well. It will be great if we can get Bapaume before the winter sets in.’

The twin arguments of maintaining the pressure and securing further tactical advantage were used in the attempt to sustain a momentum of attack which German resistance and worsening weather were combining to halt. As GHQ and Fourth and Fifth Army HQs weighed judgements based on weather reports, ground conditions, progress on the map, Intelligence gained from aerial photography and written reports, interrogation of prisoners and other sources, further factors were being evaluated. British casualty statistics, ammunition resources, troops in reserve, morale, the needs of allies and an awareness of wavering support and even opposition in Westminster and Whitehall; all this was being considered as the battle was prolonged into exceptionally adverse campaigning conditions. Gough’s keenness to attack has been mentioned and there is the possibility that Haig believed a success might refurbish his damaged reputation, even his command which he may have perceived as being under threat. Were Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt worth their price in November? From the privileged position of hindsight the answer may be in the negative. At the end of September or at some stage in early October, even in the then recognised attritional nature of this battle, there was evidence available on ground conditions alone that there was no profit in its continuance. In a sense, the battle was evidently won, with the aerial photographs indicating German preparations for retirement; however, does the boxer show readiness to halt his assault with his opponent clearly wobbling?

In a denial of access to post-December 1916 developments in assessing the Somme, what can be said about its balance sheet? German casualties could only be estimated, hence British statistics, however gathered or interpreted, lack a point of comparison. Certainly the manpower resources of the British Empire were deeper than the resources of their adversary, and the losses, dreadful as they were, would in a numerical sense be more than made up by the trained readiness of conscripts in 1917.

British losses in killed, wounded and missing have been variously estimated from figures of just over 400,000 to 424,000, the French at around 202,000. German losses may have been as high as 680,000 but there is no consensus over these figures. Even in an understanding of the nature of war and of this war in particular, there can be no minimising of the scale of the blight upon the young manhood of the British nation, the Empire and the other Allies – and of those of their antagonists. However, war is waged within the constraint or with the opportunity of available weapons and technology and the requirement to attack or defend with their attendant disadvantage or advantage – the awful figures simply represent the consequence of the military collision of Great Powers at this particular time. To extend the enquiry into the ultimate areas of responsibility for the actual outbreak of this terrible struggle or still more provocatively but tenuously into the hypothesis that if Britain were to have been better prepared militarily then might war have been avoided.

What is clear is that by joint endeavour France had been protected from the most serious threat both to her front and to the condition of her army since the disasters on the frontiers in 1914. German recognition that she could not maintain her existing position against sustained British pressure was recognised by the September 1916 commencement of the new defence line to which in February 1917 her troops began to retire. In this, Terraine saw an ‘unquestionable Allied victory, mainly a British one’ in that ‘it was a settled German principle not to retire if this could possibly be helped; the decision to do so at the beginning of February 1917 was dictated by one consideration only – the imperative need to avoid another Somme’. If, in view of what was known at the turn of the year, there were evidence for the High Command to claim, as Haig did in his Official Dispatch, that a full half of the German Army, the mainstay of the Central Powers, ‘despite all the advantages of the defensive, supported by the strongest fortifications, suffered defeat on the Somme this year’, then few should dispute that it had been a victory, terrible in its price, but a victory.

Of the men themselves – how had they endured the circumstances and avoided any vestige of a collective breakdown in discipline? The Somme, for the soldier of the New Army and to a large extent for the Territorial who served there, stands in many ways representative of the whole war. We have seen from letters and diaries the evidence of attitude and opinions before initiation into the reality of war, at the enlightening of a man’s ignorance and then during his prolonged exposure to the stress of battle. We have seen men being ‘educated’ by the Somme – tried and tested. The constituent elements which together determined their state of morale can be highlighted but before so doing we must remind ourselves that these elements would need different emphasis if we were to have the Regular soldier predominantly in our sights.

How were men, who were not by profession soldiers, motivated to accept privation and danger and then physically and mentally to exert themselves to do things which, before they had donned uniform, most would have considered totally alien – to fight and to kill? What factors gave a body of men a collective strength of will to strive to achieve a common purpose against opposition of whatever nature and what had to be in each individual, if not by nature then by implantation or constraint, to give the chain of collective will sufficient strength in each link?

If men were to be required readily to do things which did not come naturally to them and which involved their subjugation of every instinct to avoid danger and not think solely of self-preservation, then at the foundation there had to be a strong adherence to a cause which was consistently more inspirational than self. While a range of reasons impelled enlistment in 1914, for most men the bedrock of the decision to enlist was a belief in the case presented by poster and newspaper and from within, that King and Country had need of him. Unemployment, boring jobs, a desire for adventure, breaking away from current constraints, wanting to be with friends, fear of being left out, marginalised, yes, such factors were certainly there in varying measure for many in the queues at recruiting stations but that which drew everything together and for many men was itself the total almost tangible impulsion, was patriotism. It is not appropriate here to account for the springs of such an emotion, to look at education or the power of the press for example, but to recognise the beat of the nation’s pulse, remaining aware, as Peter Simkins properly reminds us, that ‘thousands simply appear to have succumbed to the heady atmosphere which enveloped them in the early months of the war, particularly as the national and local recruiting campaigns got into their stride’. There is no doubt at all that to be out of step with this mood invited external and internal pressure.

Patriotism as a basic element in the morale of a soldier was not going to be sufficient in itself nor of course was there a monopoly of it: field grey as well as khaki was drawing on it for inspiration. In 1914, it was a concept which may have had the personifying face of the King and Kitchener but held within its adherent’s perception, his hamlet, village, town, county, state within a Dominion, that Dominion itself, as well as the idea of Mother Country and of Empire which quite evidently influenced many who came from overseas in support of a call initially made from London. Symbolically it did not have to be London. A New Zealander on his way to war wrote: ‘After the horrors of Hartlepool and Scarborough, I am proud that I will have the chance of getting a little back on them.’ George Bird, a Royal Marine Light Infantryman, spoke for many in trying to get his family to explain to his sister the obligation which impelled him. ‘Poor Florrie, I was sorry to read of her crying about me. It is a matter of duty this war. I am out to save our home and you, the same as millions more are doing.’ Bird, a working-class lad, expressed his simple conviction powerfully; it matches nicely the more sophisticated analysis of a subaltern, O. W. Sichel, but we can scarcely deny the added significance of the latter’s judgement in that it came from a man who had been serving with the 5th Royal Warwicks on the Somme in November 1916: ‘After all this is a splendid cause, a magnificent race to be fighting for. Only he who comes out here can realise the greatness of England, the colossal strength of the Empire – the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that have been surmounted.’

However much it may be natural in any conflict situation and whatever may be said about the educational ideals which gave rise to it, the assumption of a moral superiority over one’s foe was a basic factor. It was rooted in the presentation to Britons of their history, raucously chorused in the Music Halls and now newly-proven by German beastliness to Belgians, the shooting of a nurse and a Merchant Navy captain and the sinking of a transatlantic liner. Such a sense of superiority was ample fuel for the engine of BEF morale. This is not to say that the patriotism of the citizen soldier was blazoned: it was felt. When superiority in materiel was added, as seemed the case in late June 1916, and perhaps in mid-September too, then confidence was further encouraged. If disaster were to strike, as it did on 1 July, if periods of protracted stress or misery were to erode that confidence in material superiority, there was still sufficient spiritual resilience. The cause in which they had their faith, retained its compulsion. The Somme of course soon shaved away from most men the expressions of patriotism still enunciated by Oliver Sichel but it left instead a resistant stubble of stoic acceptance of the need to do one’s bit, something wholly different in character from the disillusionment which was the focus of much post-war fixation upon the battle and devalued the endurance of the men who were there.

An additional element in the maintenance of a collective resolve was the special pride and sense of something to prove which animated Canadian, Australian and New Zealand units. It was a powerful competitive stimulant and perhaps particularly in the case of the Australians held a degree of discriminatory judgement against the English, conceived, justifiably or not, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. A similar sense of distinctive difference fuelling resolve lay in the far more ancient pride of Welsh, Scottish and Irish regiments and in the new element of identity in the battalions of Pals from towns in the North and elsewhere.

Regimental pride itself is of course fundamental in all considerations upon morale. Whether of far distant or more recent origin, a regiment’s past achievements raised high expectations of new honour and this was part of the unit’s mystique. It seems that not merely superiority over one’s foe is to be assumed, but over one’s allies and the regiment to left and right. For all its cumulative human tragedy, the Somme played its part in fusing identity with one’s unit. A subaltern, A. C. Slaughter, joining the 18th Battalion King’s (Liverpool) Regiment on 3 July, wrote home: ‘I feel proud of being posted to this Bn. after their work of the last 2 days. The only pity is that it is practically wiped out.’ Officer and man might express it differently but an undeniable pride in one’s battalion, battery or field company is consistently a part of the testimony of men enduring the battle. No silly claim is being made that this was unique to this war or to the British as distinct from allies or enemy but it was certainly intrinsic in upholding the performance of the BEF.

Of unsung but major importance to men of the BEF on the Somme, was the Army’s concern for the general welfare of its men in so far as circumstances permitted. Attempts were made to prevent units being exposed for too long a period in the line. There are numerous exceptions like that documented in William Strang’s diary of the 4th Battalion Worcesters during ten days at the beginning of July and again in October but the need for adequate sleep and a hot meal was recognised. Tributes to the work of men with the Army field kitchens and those bringing meals into the line are frequently recorded. There were rest periods out of the line and, though some were sullied for the men by labouring duties and further training, they provided opportunity for relaxation from the stress of the line, for recreation and the varied pleasures of welfare huts, concert parties and estaminets. In between two fierce actions in the autumn, E. G. Bates, the cheerful Northumberland Fusilier, saw the ‘Duds’ concert party of three officers and seven men assisted by Engineers in the construction of their stage and the setting up of lighting. ‘They had skits on all kinds of things including Chu Chin Chow. It was screamingly funny.’ Film shows, singsongs, band concerts, football and boxing matches were staged and billeting arrangements were at least better than sleeping arrangements in the line. Pay, more variety in food and optional extras, oeufs and frites, beer, vin blanc or rouge, letters and parcels to be received and letter-writing opportunities offered, baths, perhaps in the vats of a brewery, even some sightseeing, sexual release, just talking to women, all had their application towards a man’s sense of well-being.

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