The Battle of the Somme I


‘Battle Of The Somme, Attack of the Ulster Division’, by artist J.P. Beadle.


British objectives, 1 July 1916.

The sheer size of the commitment demanded by the Battle of Verdun soon derailed any thoughts of the French Army making the major contribution to the planned offensive on the Somme in the summer of 1916. Instead, Joffre exerted increasing pressure on Haig to launch a British-led offensive as early as possible. Haig was dubious and preferred to delay as he recognised that many of his new divisions were little more than a collection of half-trained units which would need time to evolve into a powerful attacking force. Yet Joffre was desperate and Haig, again bound by the collective dictates of alliance warfare, had little option but to accept a start date of – at the very latest – 1 July 1916. Much nonsense has been written as to what Haig was trying to achieve on the Somme, but his intentions seem clear enough.

My policy is briefly to: 1. Train my divisions, and to collect as much ammunition and as many guns as possible. 2. To make arrangements to support the French … attacking in order to draw off pressure from Verdun, when the French consider the military situation demands it. 3. But while attacking to help our Allies, not to think that we can for a certainty destroy the power of Germany this year. So in our attacks we must also aim at improving our positions with a view to making sure of the result of the campaign next year.

General Sir Douglas Haig, General Headquarters, BEF

There were no major strategic objectives. The Somme battlefield had been chosen by Joffre simply because it was adjacent to his forces rather than for any more cogent reasons.

By this time Haig had settled his General Headquarters in the small château of Montreuil. There has been much ill-informed criticism speculating on the life of luxury supposedly led by the ‘château generals’, but the GHQ was in itself a large organisation of staff officers which required space and an excellent communications system if it was to function properly. Haig and his staff certainly had a stern and unwavering work ethic.

Punctually at 8.25 each morning Haig’s bedroom door opened and he walked downstairs. He then went for a short 4 minutes’ walk in the garden. At 8.30 precisely he came into the mess for breakfast. If he had a guest present, he always insisted on serving the guest before he helped himself. He talked very little, and generally confined himself to asking his personal staff what their plans were for the day. At nine o’clock he went into his study and worked until eleven or half past. At half-past eleven he saw army commanders, the heads of departments at General Headquarters, and others whom he might desire to see. At 1 o’clock he had lunch, which only lasted half an hour, and then he either motored or rode to the headquarters of some army or corps or division. Generally when returning from these visits he would arrange for his horse to meet the car so that he could travel the last 3 or 4 miles on horseback. When not motoring he always rode in the afternoon, accompanied by an aide de camp and his escort of 17th Lancers, without which he never went out for a ride. Always on the return journey from his ride he would stop about 3 miles from home and hand his horse over to a groom and walk back to headquarters. On arrival there he would go straight up to his room, have a bath, do his physical exercises and then change into slacks. From then until dinner time at 8 o’clock he would sit at his desk and work, but he was always available if any of his staff or guests wished to see him. He never objected to interruptions at this hour. At 8 o’clock he dined. After dinner, which lasted about an hour, he returned to his room and worked until a quarter to 11.

Brigadier General John Charteris, General Headquarters, BEF

Haig’s routine rarely changed. He and his staff had an overwhelming amount of work to get through.

The Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was charged with carrying out the Somme Offensive, while the Reserve Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, would exploit any breakthrough. Rawlinson had a daunting task ahead of him and he naturally gravitated to a cautious two-stage approach – he aimed to over-run the German First Line system in the first assault and then pause for reorganisation before making a separate attack on the Second Line system. He would have preferred a hurricane bombardment but there were still not enough guns so he opted for a prolonged bombardment of several days to achieve his ends. These plans were not well received by Haig, who insisted that Rawlinson include in the initial objectives an attack on the German Second Line system – fearing that early opportunities might be missed and then positions would have to be attacked when German reinforcements had arrived and were well set. Haig was employing a system of scenario planning although he would not have recognised the term. He wanted to ensure that the Fourth and Reserve Armies were prepared for different degrees of success – or failure. He insisted that they plan for a possible breakthrough, but he also allowed for a slower rate of progress. As part of this process cavalry were to be held ready to exploit any breakthrough. In 1916 there was no alternative to cavalry.

The Somme operation demanded logistical preparations which dwarfed anything previously attempted by the BEF. Hundreds of thousands of men and horses had to be moved up to the front; millions of shells brought forward; millions upon millions of tons of food and stores provided; road and rail links greatly improved; concealed gun positions prepared; assembly trenches dug, tunnels carved out and huge explosive mines laid ready for detonation under the German strongpoints. Here was a learning curve based in practical skills that took time to master: it was no simple matter to achieve logistical coherence while maintaining a degree of secrecy, and all the while under harassing fire from the Germans.

The British believed that they had digested the various lessons of the Allied 1915 offensives and taken due note of the methods employed in the German offensive at Verdun. However, they were still unable to resolve two incompatible requirements: the tactical necessity of attacking on a wide front was demonstrable, but there was a shortage of guns and ammunition to allow a Neuve Chapelle-style hurricane bombardment over such a length of frontage. And there was a further complication: they were learning but so were the Germans. The German trenches on the ridges of the Somme bore little resemblance to the single trench line at Neuve Chapelle, or even the series of lines and strongpoints at Loos. By the summer of 1916 the British were faced by a number of separate trench systems under various stages of completion. Behind belts of barbed wire up to thirty yards thick the German Front Line System consisted of three trench lines, complete with deep dugouts and a system of linking communication trenches. After a careful review of best practice in the line, the Germans had decided that at least 6–7 yards of depth underground was needed to protect the dugouts’ occupants from the heavier British shells – any deeper and the men would run the risk of being trapped when the eventual assault came. It was also evident that more than one exit was needed to avoid their being buried alive. By this time the Germans had also recognised the potential of concrete to give dugouts, command headquarters and observation posts a massively increased resistance to bursting shells. Rural villages were incorporated wholesale into the front line, with ordinary buildings and cellars reinforced with concrete that converted cottages into shellproof fortresses. In addition there were intermediate positions of strong earthwork redoubts such as the Schwaben Redoubt lying behind the Front Line System at Thiepval. These usually performed a specific tactical function – in this case dominating the high ground between Thiepval and St Pierre Divion. A similar Second Line System was being dug some 2,000–5,000 yards further back, while a Third Line System was also under construction. All this took a huge military investment by the German Army: the prior identification of possible points of weakness based on past experience; the intuition and skill necessary to devise the appropriate solutions; the allotment of scarce resources; and finally the hard grafting construction work required to carry out all the improvements. Tactically the Germans depended heavily on the vigilance of their sentries to alert the garrison to give them enough time to man the parapets and bring up their machine guns from the dugouts. They intended to hold their first line trenches if possible and their positions were carefully placed to allow concentrations of flanking machine gun fire to break up assaulting infantry in No Man’s Land. The second line troops would not only hold the line, but had well-trained bombing parties ready to countermand immediately any breaches in the front line. Local sector reserves would be moved up into the third line and launched as soon as possible into counter-attacks to capitalise on the inevitable confusion as the British strove to consolidate their new positions. Meanwhile the German artillery batteries had well-protected concealed gun emplacements, dugouts for the gun detachments and ammunition stores, concrete observations posts and deep-laid telephone lines. The gunners had practised their gun drill and fire control to perfection, while a simple squared-map system allowed the rapid identification of targets for a near-instant response. British gun batteries and other observable targets were carefully registered one by one. The overall combination of the strong physical defences and well-rehearsed defensive tactics was a considerable step beyond anything the British had hitherto encountered.

The British response to these challenges was to some extent simple: they would rely on the power of their massed guns. In all, they had 1,010 field artillery guns and howitzers, 182 medium and heavy guns and 245 medium and heavy howitzers, with an additional 100 French guns ready to assist them on the right flank. This sounds a lot but it worked out at just one field gun to every twenty yards of front and one heavy gun to every fifty-eight yards of front, in contrast to the one gun per six yards of trench at Neuve Chapelle. Yet the guns were required to clear the (much deeper) barbed wire, destroy several lines of well-constructed trenches and strongpoints and eradicate the threat of far more numerous German gun batteries.

One tactical innovation employed by some divisions was the ‘creeping barrage’. A line of shells dropping in No Man’s Land and then moving slowly forward ahead of the attacking British infantry towards the German front line, thereby severely restricting the garrison’s ability to fire at the key moment as the British infantry drew near. This marked the beginning of a policy of suppression rather than destruction as an alternative role for the artillery. But there were still many practical difficulties to be overcome. Such barrages demanded a high degree of theoretical and practical gunnery skills, which many senior Royal Artillery officers doubted their newly trained batteries could achieve. Also, some of the more conservative divisional commanders were unable to grasp the whole concept of why the barrage should commence in No Man’s Land before rolling forward, preferring the simplicity of a direct trench barrage which would then lift according to a pre-determined timetable to alternative targets as the British infantry attacked. The default plan for the infantry issued by the Fourth Army was fairly simple, involving the troops advancing at walking pace in a series of waves that would build up to finally storm any obstruction to progress. Yet at the same time considerable latitude was granted to commanding officers in how they should approach the problem of the advance across No Man’s Land.

Another crucial British tactical advance was the integration of aircraft into the battle plans. Since August 1915, Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard had been in command of the RFC on the Western Front and he was in no doubt as to what was required of his men. He was in regular personal touch with Commandant Paul du Peuty of the French Air Service which was unquestionably at the forefront of aerial experimentation. The advice Trenchard received was entirely in accordance with his own aggressive instincts: to fight an air war well over the German side of the lines, pushing forward his RFC scouts to harry the German aircraft to destruction. This would prevent, or obstruct, German reconnaissance and artillery observation flights while leaving the front line sectors open for the operations of their British equivalents. Of course German scouts would break through to cause havoc at times, but these would be the exception rather than the rule. Casualties would simply have to be endured to ensure that the full requirements of the Army were properly fulfilled.

For the RFC the Battle of the Somme began months before the first shells of the preliminary bombardment. Ever since the British Army had taken over the Somme sector from the French back in 1915 the RFC had as a matter of routine been engaged in photographing every inch of the ground. But this process was given an added impetus by the imminent offensive. Thousands of photographs had to be taken mapping every German trench and experts then pored over blown-up prints to tease out hidden details behind the German veil, identifying machine gun posts, dugouts, headquarters, minenwerfers and gun batteries. Photographic interpretation may have been in its infancy but the results were still invaluable to the Royal Artillery. One method of artillery observation employed large kite balloons with specially trained observers dangling in the baskets below, communicating directly with the gun batteries on the ground via a telephone link. Although the balloons were far more inflexible than aircraft by dint of being tethered to one spot they had the great advantage of being able to remain aloft for hours. Yet aircraft remained the key to success, especially in identifying targets set back from the lines. They allowed a far greater range of vision and used the clock code to guide shells right down on to their targets. This may sound simple but there were still serious problems. In particular, many battery commanders were not accustomed to allowing their guns being controlled by relatively junior officers.

The real crux of the matter is that the artillery have a profound distrust and contempt for the Flying Corps, and have a terror of ‘allowing their guns to be run by the Flying Corps’. This is the phrase which is always produced in such controversies. As a matter of fact there are many cases when the Flying Corps are the only people who can run the artillery, and if they are not even allowed to have priority in the use of one gun they are practically wasted. The artillery are apt to exaggerate their accuracy when firing without aerial observation I think. Both sides lost their tempers.

Lieutenant Thomas Hughes, 1st Squadron, RFC

This difference of opinion highlights the natural friction that arises between new thinking and the conservative ‘common sense’ approach that had served so well in the past. It would die down over time, but it was a drag on progress. The process of education would continue throughout 1916. The war in the air formed an integral part not only of military planning, but of the practical execution of the bombardments which was the determining factor of success or failure in any offensive.


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