If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Into the Valley of Death

The Purpose of the Battle of the Somme: Part I- Preparation

The study of history can be a tricky thing indeed.  In the pursuit of establishing meaning of past events, very often the subjectivity of human observation (either at point of origin or in reflection after the fact) can either spin or skew time gone by-sometimes inadvertently- to a significance more important to the observer than that which is being observed.  This is particularly true if the event itself has superlative qualities.

A stark example would be the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Of superlatives, it
has a rather good share; the opening day remains the bloodiest in British military history, it was the largest body of men committed to a battle by the British up to that point and (one of) the longest battles fought.  By that, the course of the battle saw day after day of ever increasing tonnage of artillery shells fired, longer and larger undermining operations, mileage of railway track laid, among much else.  Much could-and has- been written reflecting the Somme’s stature of one of history’s great battles.

That the prevailing view is that since it accomplished little as the war would continue for two years after the battle’s conclusion, there is added a futility to its memory.  One can rightly ask why such a sacrifice of lives and resources was required if no significant gains had been made.  At this far remove, the temptation to apply moral thought is all but unavoidable.  Even historians disagree on this question.

One of the major points of contention is what the British hoped to achieve by fighting at the Somme.  This issue feeds into any analysis of the battle, and putting stock in one theory over another thus influences conclusive thought.  Central to this is whether the battle was meant to be the “Big Push” that would crack the Western Front wide open, bringing the conflict back to maneuver warfare; or that the Somme was intended as an attritional battle, to wear down German manpower, resources and hopefully, the will to carry on fighting.  It is true that neither of those goals were realised.

An irony is that critics of the battle, whether in one camp or another tend to see the Somme as a futile and blind waste of lives for no resolution.  Determining the true intent of British commanders at the Somme may be in some way helpful to better understanding it.

The battle was conceived as part of a multi-lateral Allied offensive to be mounted in the late spring of 1916.  A conference in December 1915 between British, French, Italian and Russian generals agreed in principle to a simultaneous effort on their respective fronts.  No supreme command was established so the armies of the different nations would largely be operating independently towards a common goal.  This left the door open for army commanders to cooperate with each other at their own discretion with mixed results.  Surprisingly, the conference took little consideration that their opponents were devising their own hopefully decisive offensive strategies.  The Allied pinion was that the Germans were content to remain on the defensive- to hold the ground in Belgium and France where they were.  This was a great miscalculation and a large oversight in contingent planning.

In the Eastern and Southern Fronts, “the Russian army would carry out a double-pronged attack”[1] against Germany in the north and Austro-Hungary in the south.  “Italy would strike…with a view to penetrating deep inside Austria.”[2] The British and French intended to make a combined attack in an area where their forces met along the Western Front, an area which straddled the River Somme.  The majority of British forces had so far been operational along the Yser area.  There was a familiarity to it from long exposure which would be lost in moving south to the Somme.  The British Commander-in-Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig actually favoured designing an offensive at Yser, but was persuaded by the French and his political masters that a combined effort in the same area would be more prudent.  The Somme, as a battlefield “offered an immensely long front of attack on which twenty divisions could assault side by side.”[3] Within this move was the usual difficulty of occupying positions which had once been held by the French.  Transitioning isolated points of resistance, as was the French habit of defensive war, to a proper trench line would necessitate a good deal of labour in the months running up to the battle.

Such a large undertaking as the general offensives of 1916 were to be required a
great deal of preparation.  “The whole first half of 1916 was devoted to building up great masses of armaments, to bringing forward the green new armies that Kitchener had recruited in 1914, lo literally laying the groundwork.”[4]  Haig describes in his despatches the effort placed in building and improving roads and rail lines, dwelling particularly on the ingenuity by which a complex water system was installed to keep the front in good supply.  Some 120 miles of pipe were laid for this alone.  If nothing else, these preparations are a remarkable human achievement.  Never before had had such a percentage of the general population worked towards a common goal.  The organisation and management, both of individual projects and the entire enterprise as a whole is staggering to contemplate.  No less so were the German preparations of their defensive lines.  Knowing that the French and British outnumbered them, they constructed trenches, bunkers and strongpoints with ample use of concrete and steel- “the infrastructure they had put in place was a marvel of engineering.”[5] The Germans had, in “nearly two years’ preparation…spared no pains to render these defenses impregnable.”[6]

In the immense amount of work required to prepare for a general offensive, Haig notes “Much of this preparatory work had to be done under very trying conditions….in addition to fighting and…maintaining existing defences.”[7] To say nothing, perhaps, as to how all this would interfere with training an army which was little better than amateur.  For Haig, “a very large proportion of the officers and men under my command were still far from being fully trained, and the longer the attack could be deferred the more efficient they would become.”[8]  Nearly two thirds of the 143 battalions were of the “New Army,” war raised volunteers with no prior military experience and at this point without any exposure to battle.  “At least three divisions (the 30th, 32nd and 34th) which were to attack…came to the Western Front in a state of training which must be described as quite deficient.”[9] All told, there were 18 divisions on the Somme, 12 of which made up Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson.  One of those divisions was a recent arrival on the Western Front, but as they had come by way of the Gallipoli campaign, had a great deal of practical exposure.

 This was the 29th Division, containing a good combination of Regular Army and Territorial battalions.  Even with the 29th being a rather experienced division that experience in the Dardanelles had caused a serious deficiency in trained junior officers.  “The loss at the Dardanelles of 1,100 officers resulted in the cadres being filled by officers of no previous war experience.”[10] It is reasonable to extrapolate that the same must have been true among all other veteran divisions.  Planning, in light of the inexperience of those taking the field was “of stark simplicity for the infantry.”[11]  In consideration of the situation at large, particularly the ability of the French and Italians to hold out against a focused Central Powers offensive, Haig makes it plain that the British attack “be launched whenever the general situation required it with as great a force as I might then be able to make available.”[12] As this proposed start was contingent on things happening elsewhere and beyond British influence, Haig’s promise could well mean he be called into action sooner or with less resources than would be ideal.

It is this deficiency of experience which is often given as reasoning to the lack of success of the battle, particularly reflecting the first day.  Commonly, it is viewed as the naïve being pushed into a situation for which they were not prepared by uncaring and inconsiderate commanders.  It should be kept in mind that not only were many of the soldiers of the British Army in 1916 new and untried, or like the 29th, experienced but at a cost, but so were the heads of this army.  Haig had succeeded Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief in December of 1915.  Haig was elevated to a level of command over more troops than any British officer before him.  At the same time, General Sir William Robertson had ascended to the role of Chief of the Imperial general Staff.  Though of great experience gained from a long career which he began as an ordinary private, Robertson also was assuming a role with the same largess as Haig.  If review of the past chooses to regard the inexperience of those on the front lines as mitigation of the results, the same process must be applied to their leadership.

The lack of combat readiness on the part of the infantry would be, it was hoped,
made up for by an overwhelming artillery fire plan.  “At the Somme, the British had about forty thousand men working for about a week to fire thirty thousand tons of shells into the German lines, into an area thirty thousand yards wide and about one thousand yards deep….Every thousand square yards…got an average of thirty shells fired into it, for a total of around two million shells.”[13] This was not without its difficulties either.  Limitations of effective range meant that the concentration of fire would be placed on the German front line, leaving the secondary support lines nearly untouched.  “The British infantry were, therefore, being asked to commit themselves to an offensive of which the outcome, even if completely successful, would leave the Germans still largely in possession of a second and completely independent system of fortification untouched by the attack.”[14] What this does indicate is that while breakthrough may have been the intent of the battle, it certainly wasn’t the hoped for outcome of the first phase of the battle.  The prospect of German defense in depth remaining a factor was allayed in the belief that the artillery could destroy the first line prior to the infantry assault.  The infantry would move forward to occupy these decimated positions; with little expected resistance, and hold them while preparations were made to duplicate these results on the second line.  In the event, “the extent of artillery damage turned out to be astonishingly limited.”[15] An estimated third of all the shells fired in the preparatory bombardment were faulty, and there were far more shrapnel shells available than high explosive.  Shrapnel shells are particularly anti-personnel in nature and are not suited to the task of eliminating wire obstacles or reducing entrenchments.  There just wasn’t enough high explosive shells such a task would require.  Of those high explosive shells that were used, many were not powerful enough to penetrate the deep defenses and bunkers where the Germans were sheltering.

Often cited are the various assurances on the ease of the coming attack due to the ferocity of the bombardment.  “Brigadier General Gordon of the 8th Infantry Brigade…told his men that they could ‘slope arms, light up your pipes and cigarettes and march all the way to Pozières before meeting any live Germans.”[16]  The modern observer might tend to view this as evidence of bungling and ignorance amongst the highest levels of command.  It might not be as clear as that.  Quite simply it was understood that “no bombardment, however heavy, could eliminate every last defender concealed over a large area.”[17]  As many of the men who were to make the attack were new to war, the notion that the assault would be a walk-over may have been used as a placatory measure to lessen “stage fright.”  As the idea is obviously over-optimistic and should it have occurred, unprecedented, it is unlikely that any veteran units if told these things would have put any stock in it.


What was being faced, then, is the prospect of a battle to be fought by undertrained soldiers led by untried commanders after a lengthy but ineffectual artillery preparation. Asking what could be expected of men in such conditions might practically provide an answer to whether the Battle of the Somme was intended to be a war-winning breakthrough or a lengthy attritional battle.

The answer is that it was never entirely one or the other.


[1] Gilbert, Martin, “The Battle of the Somme”, McClelland & Stewart 2006 pg. 11
[2] Gilbert, Martin, ibid.
[3] Keegan, John, “The Face of Battle”, The Viking Press, 1976 pg. 206
[4] Meyer, GJ, “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914-1919”, Delta Books, 2006 pg. 435
[5] Meyer, GJ, ibid. pg. 439
[6] Boraston, JH (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches (December 1915-April 1919)”, JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 22
[7] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 21
[8] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 19
[9] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 222
[10] Gillian, Stair, “The Story of the 29th Division: A Record of Gallant Deeds”, Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1925 pg. 78
[11] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 225
[12] Boraston, JH (ed.), ibid. pg. 20
[13] Stroud, Carsten, “Iron Bravo: Hearts, Minds and Sergeants in the US Army”, Bantam Books, 1995 pg. 144
[14] Keegan, John, ibid. pg. 215
[15] Meyer, GJ, ibid. pg. 444
[16] Holmes, Richard, “Britain at War”, Hylas Publishing, 2004 pg. 276
[17] Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme”, Abacus, 2009 pg. 149

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