Thinking Point: Do you think the Battle of the Somme was a success or a failure?
The Battle of the Somme was intended to be a joint Anglo-French attack on 1st August 1916. However, heavy French losses at Verdun brought the date of the Somme offensive forward by a month, to 1st July, on the insistence of General Joffre. The aim was to divert German attention from Verdun in defence of the Somme. General Sir Douglas Haig would have preferred to attack later on, on the open plains of Flanders where there was more to be gained strategically, and when the volunteer army raised by Kitchener had been trained more fully.
However, as Britain was the 'junior partner in a coalition with France... the French tended to call the shots'. So with the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, Haig organised the attack on the Somme. The plan was simple. After an initial weeklong bombardment of the German front line their defences would be destroyed, Haig claimed, 'not even a rat would be alive' at the end of it. The Infantry would then advance to take hold of the German positions and a charge of Cavalry would sweep through Cambrai to Douai, breaking the enemy line in two.
Unfortunately, this approach did not go according to plan:
- The preliminary artillery bombardment had the unfortunate affect of warning the enemy that an attack was imminent giving them plenty of time to prepare for it.
- The German dugouts were well constructed and heavily fortified. They were able to shelter in their underground bunkers in relative safety until the infantry attack started.
- The bombardment had churned up the ground badly making the advance more difficult.
- Many British shells failed to explode leaving the German defences virtually untouched in parts.
Therefore, when the men went over-the-top at 7:30 am on 1st July, wave after wave were simply mown down by enemy fire. Approximately 60,000 men were killed or wounded by the end of the first day. The French, attacking where the defences were weaker, had been more successful yet without back up from the British they were unable to hold on to their advance.
Convinced of eventual success Haig allowed the bloodshed to continue despite the growing losses. By the time he called off his 'Great Push' on 28th November 1916 more than 450,000 British, 200,000 French and 650,000 German soldiers had been slaughtered. After four months of fighting the Allies had advanced a distance of no more than five miles.
Britain’s unbroken connection to the chalk uplands of Picardy dates back to 1914 when a powerful upsurge of enthusiasm drove a million men to enlist well before Christmas. Men started to join up together in battalions of “pals” in affirmation of their collective way of life. They shared common values and wanted to defend these against the growing threat that appeared to be coming out of Germany.
In Yorkshire, the men of Leeds, Bradford, Barnsley, Sheffield and Hull coalesced into the 31st Division of Kitchener’s New Army. They trained hard and, with some interlopers accepted from outside the county – from Accrington in Lancashire and as far away as Durham – they began the long march that by summer 1916 led them to the Somme.
On July 1, the opening of the “great push”, the 31st Division was on the northern edge of the battle facing strong German positions at Serre. At 7.30am, the British rose up, with the men from Leeds, Accrington and Sheffield in the lead. None made it across no-man’s-land. Despite a week-long bombardment, the German defenders scythed them down. In less than an hour, the pals suffered around 1,500 casualties. As news filtered home, families, factories and sports clubs felt bereft.
This remains the received vision of July 1, 1916: slaughter and loss, futility and sacrifice; the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history, with almost 20,000 men killed and 40,000 more wounded. The scale of the disaster overshadows and obscures any deeper understanding of the day. Yet it was not all like this. On the southern end of the British line, the 30th Division also went over the top. It too was populated by northern pals, from Manchester and Liverpool. Supported by stronger and more effective artillery, including the better-supplied French guns to their right, and propelled by more imaginative tactics, the Lancastrians surged steadily forward from Maricourt and successfully took their objective of Montauban. They showed that, given a fair chance, Kitchener’s men could fight and overcome the German defences. Although achieved at considerable cost, the capture of the positions along this southern edge of the battle was the first time in the war that planned objectives had been taken and held in a major offensive.
Nothing provides a greater contrast in the history of the war than the abject failure in the north at Serre and the stirring achievements in the south at Montauban. Few know about the successes there. July 1 is remembered solely as an unmitigated disaster. Yet for historians it represents the beginning of a process of growth and development that reaches through to the end of the war and German defeat.
In the weeks of hard, bloody fighting that followed, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Somme was joined by men from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Key lessons were learnt by front-line soldiers and their generals in how to use new weapons such as the Lewis gun, trench mortar, grenade and even the impressive but still limited tank.
A tank at La Motte en Santerre
Artillery was employed to ever greater effect with new fuses on the shells and as a creeping barrage to offer closer support to advancing infantry. Soldiers began to fight in smaller units, with riflemen working closely with men using the new weapons. By November, when the worsening weather forced the suspension of immediate operations, it was a very different war from the one encountered on the first day. The men of the BEF had come of age.
Since the 50th anniversary of the Somme in 1966, historians have struggled to draw out and explain these lessons. Despite decades of research and writing, people find it hard to get past the bleak balance sheet of the fighting: 141 days leading to a maximum advance of seven miles. For Britain and its Empire this came at the cost of almost 420,000 casualties including 125,000 dead. German casualties were higher, between 437,000 and 680,000.
What positive outcome could be found in that? Combined with their heavy losses against the French at Verdun, the Germans realised they could not repeat their experience on the Somme. The price had been too high. A change in German military leadership led to a new policy. A new defensive line was built some way to the rear that could be held with fewer men. Known as the Hindenburg Line, the Germans believed it to be impregnable. In mid- February, 1917, German front-line troops began to fall towards their new positions. The ground taken from them as they withdrew was as direct a result of the Somme as the hard-won gains taken in the battle itself and only with the capture of these positions did the fighting really end.
At the same time, recognising that they would be unable to win the war that year in the west, the Germans decided to suspend their attacks there. Instead, in a clear new strategic policy, they chose to use the submarine to strike hard against Britain in an attempt to force it out of the war. Only a few weeks later, when the BEF returned to the offensive, it showed how much it had learnt on the Somme. On April 9, the opening day of the Battle of Arras, significant gains were made. Vimy Ridge was captured by the Canadians and in places the British advanced up to three and a half miles. It demonstrated the BEF’s growing proficiency as a fighting force.
The pace of this development rolled on throughout 1917. At Ypres along the Menin Road and at Broodseinde and Cambrai in the initial strike, British and Imperial forces operated with a stronger, more professional edge. At each stage the Germans showed how much they, too, were learning in parallel with the British, with the result that losses on both sides remained uncomfortably high and the ambitions of British attacks were often thwarted.
Observer and pilot receiving their instructions
Yet, bolstered by growing numbers of newly arrived American troops, in the spring of 1918 when the Germans turned the tables with a series of massive attacks up and down the front, the BEF defended with great determination.
By the time they launched their own counteroffensive on the Somme on August 8, 1918, the British and Imperial soldiers had become ruthlessly efficient, honed by repeated battles and the careful study of their mistakes and successes. Weapons and tactics developed over months of experience were all incorporated into a new “all-arms” battle that began to wear down the increasingly exhausted Germans.
The Australian commander, Lt Gen Sir John Monash, observed that “a perfected modern battle plan is like nothing so much as a score for an orchestral composition, where the various arms and units are the instruments, and the tasks they perform are their respective musical phrases”. The generals began to conduct their orchestras with considerable skill, bringing in tanks, aircraft, machine guns, artillery and infantry at the place and moment where they could have maximum effect.
The 38th Welsh Division had struggled to capture Mametz Wood in July, 1916. Now they swept over the whole of the old battleground in a matter of days. The British advance pushed on towards the Hindenburg Line. But this time the ground was not given up by the Germans. It was taken from them by force of arms, trench by trench, machine gun by machine gun. When, on September 29, the Hindenburg Line was broken open, it was ordinary soldiers from the heartland of Britain who led the way using skills they had picked up on the Somme.
For historians, this shows the steady progress and gradual improvement that sees the BEF climb a steep but rewarding learning curve. From the inexperienced, naive force of 1914 it becomes a hardnosed professional army in 1918 that carries the Allies inexorably to the November 11 Armistice.
Yet despite all this, for ordinary people the argument fails to convince. In Accrington, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester, they still feel the loss of their men. Along with thousands of lives, hope and innocence also seemed to die on the Somme in 1916. The battle dealt a fatal blow to the optimism and pride of the nation, as Philip Larkin articulated 50 years later in his poem MCMXIV.
Objectively, the 1916 Battle of the Somme did indeed lay the foundations for Britain’s part in the Allied victory two years later. But even when this fact is recognised, it fails to explain why, after almost 100 years, we still feel the pain of the Somme so deeply.
Nigel Steel is IWM’s principal historian for the First World War Centenary Programme. Visit www.iwm.org.uk