German Army on the Somme

The Allied offensives of 1915 had been time-limited: two or three weeks at the most, with the final stages increasingly episodic, broken-backed. On the Somme “the enemy just kept coming at us, day and night,” with a “grim obstinance” as certain as the turning of the earth, and about as easily stopped. The French had always been formidable in the attack. The British were improving significantly. As battalion and brigade commanders learned their craft the hard way, their infantry was taking more ground and capturing more positions, albeit still at costs high enough and with fiascoes sufficiently frequent that the summer of 1916 is commemorated rather than celebrated in regimental histories. The decreased frontages and the limited objectives increasingly characterizing British planning after July 1 enabled an increased concentration of guns, the crews and commanders of which were also learning from experience.

German casualties increased exponentially. A single battalion lost 700 men in four days “under the violent fire of enemy heavy artillery.” Casualties of three and four hundred per battalion in a single tour were common; after two weeks in the line, the 16th Bavarian Infantry was down to fewer than 600 men, a fifth of its authorized strength. When the battle was at its height, two weeks was about the maximum time a German division could remain in the line before being “bled out” (ausgeblutet): no longer fit for combat. Even small-scale reliefs were risky, costly, and often random; a regimental sector might be held by three battalions from different units, entirely unknown to each other. Communications were not so much disrupted as suspended. Even deeply buried telephone cables were severed; dispatching messengers amounted to a death sentence for no purpose. The Allies increasingly dominated the entire “battle space.” Their artillery and aircraft were reaching well into the German rear consistently and effectively, disrupting resupply and reliefs, punishing local and sector reserves. Regiments pulled out of the line had minimal opportunities to rest, reorganize, and retrain before being recommitted. Fresh divisions—and these grew fewer as the summer progressed—were worn down materially and morally by the weight of Allied firepower even before being committed to combat.

Sustained Allied fire superiority made fixed trench systems increasingly vulnerable. It also made anything like a flexible defense of forward positions through temporary withdrawals an unacceptably high-risk option. Especially as losses were replaced by recycled wounded and inexperienced replacements, flexibility made demands the ordinary infantrymen could not predictably meet. On the other hand, disrupted organizations, ruptured communications, and the consistent Allied artillery superiority randomized counterattacks, reducing them to small scales, battalion levels or less, and making determination a substitute for both shock and sophistication. The British had a platoon-level technical advantage as well: the Lewis gun, a light machine gun that gave even outnumbered men in improvised defenses a useful plus in firepower and morale. Thiepval Ridge and High Wood, Longueval and Pozières, and a dozen other sites of memory and mourning were brutal mutual killing zones. A German officer spoke for them all when he described Delville Wood: “a wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses, corpses piled everywhere … Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair.”

On the Somme there was another common denominator: the Germans were increasingly failing to recover lost ground. Max von Gallwitz summarized the reasons: the defending units were exhausted; the counterattacking ones lacked relevant knowledge and training. Results in the French sector, though more or less lost to Anglophone history, were similar. In the process the innovators addressed two general institutional problems not originated on the Somme, but exacerbated there. Both reflected the Somme’s fundamental nature as a battle the German Army was visibly and viscerally losing. Verdun might be a meatgrinder, a butcher shop, a mill that ground death. But it was an offensive. The Germans set the agenda; the French responded. The Somme was exactly opposite. The Allies were the attackers. They kept on attacking. And from the beginning of the preliminary barrages, it was increasingly and unpleasantly clear from front-line shell holes to army headquarters that the Germans were on the permanent short end of a “materiel battle” (Materialschlacht) unprecedented in the history of war. No matter what resources could be scraped up and thrown in to balance the odds, the Allies seemed able to meet the rise and raise the stakes almost effortlessly. When on July 30 Max von Gallwitz issued an order of the day stating that the next assault “must be smashed before the wall of German men,” he was making an unmistakable point that blood must be matched against steel. The past six months made the probable results impossible to ignore. They also encouraged the questioning of military and national cultures of competence at levels and on scales no less impossible to overlook.

The relationship between soldiers and states has an elementary and significant contractual element. The state is expected to provide those who fight its battles a fighting chance—the best one it can. When that contract is perceived as broken, the “employees” may seek its renegotiation. The French Army would do this in spectacular public fashion in 1917. The Germans on the Somme were arguably a year ahead, using a different method: what the workers in Scotland’s factories and shipyards called “ca’canny,” or going slow. German intelligence calculated the Allies had thirty-four divisions in the Somme sector. The Germans had at best a round dozen. They faced odds—as long as no one checked official figures too closely—of almost two to one in infantry, one and a half to one in artillery, two to one in aircraft.

And on September 15 the Allies raised the stakes again. “The enemy…” recorded a staff officer, “employed new engines of war, as cruel as effective.” Reactions to the tanks varied widely, but of the more than 1,600 casualties taken by the regiment that bore the weight of the attack, almost half were listed as missing—and most of those were prisoners. This was an unheard-of ratio in an army priding itself on its fighting spirit. Was it also a portent? A division of the Prussian Guard, the Second Reich’s institutional elite, when ordered back to the Somme for a second tour in August, had its command declare the men were unfit for combat because of the nonstop British artillery. By early September an increasing number of regimental histories speak of having reached the limits of endurance under the never-ending flail of the Allied guns: “Today’s fire was the worst ever … The enemy artillery was firing brilliantly, directed from the air of course. German aircraft were nowhere to be seen.” This was death uncontrollable and unavoidable. These were men rendered helpless and out of control by the enemy’s technical dominance. In November a British battalion commander described the Germans as “very different Huns to fight than the Delville Wood lot. Boys … and oldish men. One of his soldiers, escorting prisoners to the rear, discovered that the original seven had become eight: “when he saw us coming along he [just] fell in.” Nor is it any disrespect to the battalion involved to describe it as “warriors for the working day,” as opposed to shock troops like the 29th or 51st divisions. What had happened in a matter of a few months? And what—if anything—was the remedy?

It is a trope, almost a cliché, that the German Army on the Somme suffered an irreparable loss of its best officers and men. The career professionals, the high-spirited volunteers, the shrewd reservists who had survived the earlier bloodlettings vanished into the mire of the Somme, never to be replaced. To a degree this narrative reflects a dominant aspect of German regimental histories: a tendency to construct their stories on a framework of inspiring leadership.

There were men at the front who saw the war as an opportunity to be reborn and remade in Nietzsche’s concept of the “overman” who might be killed but could not be conquered. These were few and far between. The men immortalized in unit histories are better understood as those who met situations while others followed or watched. This is a common, arguably a universal, pattern in mass armies on Western lines: citizen-based, where the ideal is the soldier rather than the warrior, where discipline trumps initiative, and where the average man in the ranks, in Kipling’s words, “wants to finish his little bit/and wants to go home to his tea.” In that structure leadership tends to be from the front and personal. Casualties tend to be heaviest among junior officers and NCOs. And when the agents, the actors, the visible ones, are lost—a near-inevitable reality, especially in the circumstances of 1916—they tend in any narrative to acquire mythical qualities. German accounts from the Somme for the summer of 1916 in particular tend towards a necrology of the irreplaceable. Thus an undistinguished and indistinguishable regiment of the line commemorates a captain “whose personality and powers of leadership were incomparable, a man apart in the way he rallied his men around him … He is not dead. He lives on in the ranks of his 2nd Battalion.”66

The prospect for relying less on individual example-setters than on the cooperative, integrated small group as showcased by the Rohr Battalion was still in experimental stages. It was questionable in any case whether the appropriate training and tactics could be generally applied in an ordinary rifle company, as opposed to an elite of volunteers and picked men. Prussian and German practice since the days of Frederick the Great emphasized a high general average in the ranks and among the units. The previous year had, as previously mentioned, been focused on improving those averages.

Taken together, Verdun and the Somme drove home the same point. German material inferiority was the crucial factor on the Western Front, unlikely to be altered in Germany’s favor by continuing the same policies and practices. The most direct and immediate prospects for a balance shift were specific and operational: overhauling structures, doctrines, and tactics so as not merely to take account of the new way of war, but to move ahead of the curve. Robert Foley describes a process of “horizontal innovation.” Its transmission system was based on the reports submitted by units from battalions to army groups. These were not narratives, but analytical, lessons-learned documents describing enemy methods and approaches, critiquing what worked and what did not in countering them. In the war’s early years they had been ad hoc, informally circulated. On the Somme they became a key intellectual force multiplier in a military learning culture that historically emphasized flexibility, independence, and sharing information and ideas.

In particular, German staff officers were not mere subordinate advisors. Nor were they responsible only for a specific function: intelligence, operations, logistics. They shared responsibility for making and implementing decisions. They were a small group, homogeneous in backgrounds and attitudes. Though not precisely a band of brothers, they were accustomed to working with, and getting along with, each other. Prior to 1914, unlike far-flung Russia, distracted Austria-Hungary, and imperial France, they had had a single dominant mission: preparing for and winning a specific kind of war. Within their limits they could and did develop and introduce specifics: how to fight and, in particular, how to fight on the Somme in the summer of 1916.

The Germans reacted incrementally, like a clever boxer being driven towards the ropes. They restructured an overstretched command structure, giving Lossberg and Below the sector south of the Somme with a new First Army headquarters and assigning the quieter zone north of the river to the Second Army under Max von Gallwitz, bringing his own trouble-shooter’s reputation from the Eastern Front and Verdun. Gallwitz also donned a second helmet as army group commander, responsible for coordinating operations in the Somme theater. Corps were reconfigured on the now-standard model of being responsible for sectors, with divisions rotated to meet needs and resources. On the tactical level, Lossberg responded to the disruptions of communications caused by Allied artillery and ravaged terrain by decentralization and simplification. Battalion commanders were given complete control over their sectors. Their decisions were final while the immediate fighting lasted. They commanded all reinforcements regardless of seniority. Division commanders played the same role two steps higher, exercising full authority in their sectors, over reinforcements and over almost all their supporting artillery. The latter, a sharp difference from the French and British norm of centralizing artillery command at higher levels, accepted some sacrifice of massed fire support in favor of prompt response to changing situations.

Historically, corps and regiments had been the German Army’s most important headquarters. Now they were becoming essentially transmitting agencies, responsible for forwarding reinforcements and supplies. This role reversal was correspondingly revolutionary, regarding significant attitude adjustments and serving as a useful litmus test for the flexibility increasingly demanded of senior officers in 1916. Reducing for practical purposes the chain of command to two links, each in full control of its sphere, also addressed a practical problem of implementing counterattacks. These were increasingly configured on two levels. The counterthrust (Gegenstoss) was the battalion commander’s province: an immediate, improvised exploitation of the structural confusion and emotional letdown that accompanied even the most successful attack. The counterattack (Gegenangriff), methodically prepared and systematically supported, was usually a divisional matter.

The new approach was codified in two manuals. Conduct of the Defensive Battle, issued on December 1, 1916, described a zone defense. The outpost zone might be as wide as 3,000 yards in open terrain or as narrow as a few hundred in broken ground. The battle zone was defined by a main line of resistance and a second line 1,500 to 2,500 yards to the rear, both as far as possible concealed from enemy artillery observers and in full view of their own. The normal deployment in a regimental sector of a front-line division was one battalion in each of these zones, with a rear battle zone, as far as three or four miles back, occupied by the third battalion as a reserve. Specifics were outlined in Generalizations on Position Construction, issued in January 1917. Overmatched sentries and outposts could fall back on a network of resistance centers, dugouts and shell holes held by a half-dozen men, and regroup for a counterattack. Should enemy strength and shelling make that impossible, the defenders could again fall back and then mount an improvised counterattack (Gegenstoss), supported by regimental reserves. Entire Eingreif divisions (whose mission was mounting immediate counterattacks against enemy breakthroughs against the Stellungsdivisionen—line-holding divisions) could be committed as well and if necessary stage a formal counterattack (Gegenangriff) with up to several days of comprehensive preparation.

Initiative, mobility, flexibility, counterattacks on an unpredictable schedule and an increasing scale—these were the keys to achieving the ultimate objective of restoring the original position. The battle was still to be fought for the front line, but no longer in it. And the ultimate option now involved a command decision. Was the restoration worth the price in casualties? The question could no longer be overlooked, either at the front or at home.

Lossberg’s innovations were sufficiently effective even when applied ad hoc that one of his junior officers nicknamed him “defense lion”—and even as a captain Erich von Manstein was not easily impressed. But an even more comprehensive example of horizontal innovation was developing at the other end of the German military spectrum, where Lossberg had a counterpart and counterpoint. Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen was a general staff officer assigned before the war to monitor aviation developments who became an enthusiast. In March 1915 he was named commander of the army’s field air forces, and since then had advocated enthusiastically for an independent air arm, on a par with the army and navy. Coming from a lowly major the initiative was quickly sidetracked, but Thomsen made his mark nevertheless on the men and organizations of his embryonic service. The year 1916 brought a spectrum of new challenges as the Allied air forces grew numerically stronger and operationally superior in the areas of observation, reconnaissance, and bombardment. Thomsen’s response was to concentrate the fighters. There were not many Eindekkers that spring—only ninety or so, distributed by twos and threes among the army cooperation squadrons. Initially they were grouped into ad hoc detachments. One of these became Jagdstaffel (Fighter Squadron) 2, under the command of Oswald Bölcke. Bölcke’s reputation as a tactician was already high enough that he had been tasked with codifying a set of guidelines for air-to-air combat. He proved no less able to impart these Dicta Bölcke to the men of his squadron. Bölcke was a supporter of concentrating fighter power. Most of his pilots were accustomed to lone-wolf tactics. But most of those who survived the summer of 1916 were able to see the advantages of cooperation in the face of superior numbers and superior aircraft.

The Jagdstaffeln, in contrast to their Allied opponents, did little escort work. They were conceived as an instrument of air superiority, to counter the observation planes so important to Allied artillery. At Verdun they managed to hold their own. But the demands of the Somme, where the odds were as high as four to one and the Allies dominated the air for two and a half months, stretched the new organization to its limits. As more and more fighters were sent north, by the end of October in the Verdun sector a half-dozen or so German aircraft were facing French formations of up to forty-five planes. The Germans responded institutionally at army levels by giving the aircraft and the ground defenses a common command and a common telephone network. Operationally, the practice of reacting defensively to Allied incursions gave way to an emphasis on carrying the fight across the front—a doctrine easier formulated than implemented, at least initially, given the odds.

Front-line squadrons benefitted as well from an improved training program. Nurtured and galvanized by Lieth-Thomsen, it also gained from 1915’s overhauling of the ground forces’ training programs. During 1916 it developed to a point where most pilots had sixty-five hours of cockpit time before being sent to the front and to a further one-month course in current combat tactics, taught by men fresh from tours at the front. That kind of instruction gave fledglings something more than an actuarial chance in their first crucial days and weeks on operations. And beginning in autumn 1916 they began gaining a technical advantage as well. For a year German designers, manufacturers, staff officers, and combat flyers had been developing and evaluating not merely a replacement for the Eindecker, but a successor. The Albatros D I was the archetype of future Great War fighters. A single-seat biplane with two forward-firing machine guns, fast and maneuverable, it entered squadron service in September and contributed heavily to stabilizing the air battle at Verdun and on the Somme.

What integrated and synergized these improvements and innovations was institutionalization. Thomsen, like Lossow, was a mere lieutenant-colonel. But for over a year his observations, recommendations, and urgings had proved too prescient to ignore. In October 1916 the Air Service—henceforth the words merit capitalization—was assigned control of all aspects of military aviation: production, training, administration, ground defense, communications—even weather research. The Air Service remained under the High Command, but each field army had an Air Service commander and the army’s air assets reported to him.

For such a relationship to function effectively, fog and friction must be kept to a minimum. The Air Service benefitted from arguably the best commander/chef team Germany fielded during the war. Ernst von Höppner had begun in the cavalry, served on the general staff since 1902, and since 1914 had been both an army chief of staff and a division commander. He knew the system, had the seniority to make it work, and was an enthusiastic advocate of military aviation. His chief of staff, not surprisingly, was Hermann von der Lieth-Thomsen. In a relatively small service where everyone had started the war as a junior officer, it was easier to introduce and implement change and to react promptly to new situations. Air officers with field armies systematically submitted reports and recommendations. The Air Service, like its ground counterpart, also solicited reports from the front, and captains and lieutenants were more likely to be listened to than their counterparts in the infantry and artillery. Beginning in 1917, a series of manuals and instructions provided a clear structure of principles and doctrines.

The institutional result of all this was to enable the German Air Service to maximize its increasingly inferior material resources and hold the aerial ring until the war’s final weeks. The first effects would become apparent in the early weeks of 1917 during the Battle of Arras. That, however, left Verdun and the Somme still to be fought out in 1916. Verdun might have slacked off in its final weeks, with fighting becoming as routine as anything ever became at Verdun. The Somme was a different matter. At Verdun, the battle of attrition had been essentially a German initiative. If one emphasized lines on a map and overlooked strategic intentions and casualty lists, in terms of ground gained Verdun might even be claimed a victory. The Somme was an essentially different matter. On the Somme, attrition had been forced on the Germans. The lines on the maps had moved in one direction: backwards.

By the end of September the German Army on the Somme was showing fundamental strain. The artillery fired five million shells during the month. But guns were wearing out and fire control was becoming erratic. Casualties in the same month were close to 135,000—most of them, as usual, in the infantry but with a disturbingly high number of surrenders. In October and November the British were less successful in the center, but on both flanks the Allies pushed forward in the face of worsening weather, despite—and sometimes because of—depending heavily on divisions making their second or third appearance. German divisions rotated back had less time for rest. Their replacements were fewer, too often too old or too young. The mediatizing innovations on the ground and in the air were still in their preliminary stages. As Robert Foley states, horizontal innovations can improve methods—but at best they do so incrementally, as a blood transfusion rather than a cardiac stimulant.

Thiepval, as much a symbol to the Germans as Douaumont had been to the French, finally went under on September 27. Württembergers of the 180th Infantry had held the position on July 1. At the finish they held it still, as close to the last man as made no difference. But six weeks later, on November 13, the British 51st Division overran Beaumont Hamel, Hawthorn Ridge, and Y Ravine, also icons of the first day on the Somme, taking 2,000 prisoners including a whole battalion caught by surprise. In six days of fighting the British accounted for a total of over 7,000 prisoners. The First Army command blamed the defenders’ lack of alertness and awareness from divisional headquarters down to the rifle companies; the divisions holding the sector were relieved twice in less than a week.

An unacknowledged subtext of these and similar reports submitted as the year waned was that an improvised army led by amateurs was taking the measure of the world’s most professional and self-confident, not to say arrogant, competitor. A trope for German soldiers in the final weeks on the Somme might be the dead man seen with a prayer book in one hand and the other in a bag of grenades. On the other hand, there were lucky ones, like the messenger lance corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment who on October 7, his third day at the front, was hit in the leg and spent the next two months in hospital with a million-mark wound. At the other end of the power spectrum, in December the German government called for peace negotiations. It may have been a trial balloon or a diplomatic feint. It was also a recognition that the balance of war might be shifting in the Allies’ favor—one corpse at a time.

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