The Battle of the Somme
by Lucy Pollock, 9J
The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, with more than one million casualties. So, what happened in the battle? What were the mistakes? How did it end?
The Battle of the Somme was part of the ‘War of Attrition’ phase of World War One.
On the 3rd of August, 1914, Germany invaded Belgium. The next day Britain declared war, and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) went to France.
For the first two months the armies fought aggressively against each other. These first meetings were called the ‘War of movement’. The Germany armies managed to get within 30 miles of Paris, but were eventually defeated at the Battle of the Marne, September 1914.
Towards the end of September, the Germans dug the very first trenches of the war. By November 1914 the trenches stretched all the way from Switzerland to the English Channel. This was a ‘Race to the Sea’. The advance of the British and French was stopped.
The allies realised they would have to fight for their countries on the Western Front, and many other battles. The results were hundreds of thousands of casualties for the French, including losses at the Second Battle of Ypres, (where Germans first used poison gas), the Artois offensive, and the devastating attack that Gemany made at Verdun, leading to the horrific death of 280 thousand Germans and 315 thousand French.
French commanders, led by General Joffre, pleaded and pressurised the British command to have a bigger element in the war. They needed to ease the pressure that was put upon the French armies in the Battle of Verdun, where so many of their men went down to their deaths. And so, the Imperial British and British attack on Germany. The British Commander, Sir Douglas Haig, agreed on a joint attack with the French on the German lines near Bapaume. This was to be one of the most famous battles in English history, a battle of horrific and traumatising slaughter of the human race. The Battle of the Somme…
General Douglas Haig was the mastermind behind the plan of action of the battle. In December 1915, Haig was appointed commander in chief of the BEF; therefore, he played a major role in the Battle of the Somme. He was confident that his plan would work; that they would break through the German lines, and bring the allies to victory. The plan that finally emerged seemed to have had only limited goals, and there were three main parts to the plan that was definitely going to win in Haig’s eyes.
The first part was to have a massive artillery barrage, along an eighteen mile long section of the front. The aim of this was ultimately to kill German soldiers and destroy their trenches and the barbed wire that surrounded them. Haig hoped to employ the use of one thousand five hundred British guns, backed by about the same number from the French artillery.
The second part of the plan was to advance and capture by British soldiers of these positions, and, thirdly, a grand charge through these positions by Haig’s beloved cavalry, under the command of General Gough. The cavalry were to sweep northwards and attack the remaining German positions and "roll them up" from the south. Nevertheless, it has to be made clear, that each of these stages of the plan would only be successful if the previous part plan was completed without fail.
However, there was huge disagreement with this plan, from Sir Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson was commander of the British expedition, sent to help defend Antwerp from the German Army, and as commander of the Fourth Army, played an important role at the Battle of the Somme. Rawlinson disagreed with Haig’s idea of a cavalry based break through. He wanted a more ‘bite and hold’ theory, where the army would capture one German line and then stay there, until there were sure that it had been captured.
Haig, and Rawlinson especially, had considerable doubts about the professional skills of the soldiers of the New Army, since they had not been tried on a large scale in battle, and also about their courage. As a result, they felt the attack had to be made ‘easy’ for them, by preparing the way with a huge artillery bombardment, so that when the soldiers went over the top, all they would have to do was to stroll across no-mans land, and occupy the enemy positions.
The Artillery Bombardment
And so, the first part of Haig’s plan was put into action. On the 24th June, the preliminary bombardment began. The British believed that the Germans would be so shattered by this bombardment that the infantry would simply have to walk over No Man’s Land and occupy the German trenches.
The Bombardment went on for eight days, one thousand, five hundred and thirty seven British guns fired 1,723,873 rounds, and the bombardment was actually audible in London if the wind was blowing in the right direction. To those at the front, it seemed that nothing could survive it. This made the army very self-assured, believing that the job had been a major success, and the Germans had been literally wiped out. The British Generals promised their man that nothing could survive this, the heaviest artillery bombardment in history.
However, in reality from the British point of view, there were several, very serious, but as yet, undiscovered imperfections in the bombardment. Little did the English army know, the Germans were well aware of their plan, and had forty-feet dugouts made of chalk underneath the ground. The British had clearly overestimated the power of their artillery. There were not enough heavy guns to destroy the very deep German dug-outs, and, furthermore, because of mass production, around thirty per cent of all the shells failed to explode.
Moreover, most seriously of all, the eighteen-pounders which were supposed to destroy German barbed wire, were having only a limited and haphazard success. It simply made the wire more tangled and impassable. This meant huge problems for the cavalry attack.
This final failure was to have dreadful consequences, as mentioned before; one stage of the plan could only take place if the one before it was successful. This was a major event in the battle, one that lead to one of the most disastrous and inequitable battles of our time.
1 July 1916
The rest of Haig’s plan was then put into action on the 1st of July, 1916. All the army had to do was wait. Resting seemed impossible whilst waiting for zero hour, when all of the planning was finally put into action. As Haig wrote in his diary the night before the battle, ‘With God’s help, I feel hopeful. The men are in splendid spirits. The wire has never been so well cut, nor the Artillery preparation so thorough.’ He, as many others said and truly believed, the Battle had been so thoroughly planned. The wire was broken; the German’s were dead, weren’t they? If everything did go to plan, then we should definitely defeat the Germans and win. What could possibly go wrong? The plan was failing before the attack had even begun. Some of the British army had heard of how the wire had not been cut, and of how the Germans were in fact all alive. The Generals, however, when informed of these accusations, just commanded the men to be silent. Of course the wire had been cut, they said. As a consequence, even though Generals had been warned off possible fail, the battle still went ahead. The soldiers lay in their trenches, waiting for zero hour, the whistle to blow, and the battle to begin. Meanwhile, lying in the German mines were explosives. These were set off at 7:28 am, giving the German soldiers two minutes warning before the British attack. At 7.30 the bombardment ended, and an eerie silence fell across the front.
A few seconds later, bugles and whistles sounded, and the first of the hundred and twenty thousand British soldiers rose from their trenches and went over the top. Rawlinson's plan was to be put to the test.
Each one of the men carried up to eighty pounds of equipment, including a gas mask, groundsheet, field dressings, trench spade, one hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition and a few extras such as sandbags or a roll of barbed wire. Of course, the Generals believed that the Germans had been destroyed in the bombardment. Their only worry was that their inexperienced soldiers would panic and become less organised in a rush attack. For many of the, it was their first ever battle. They were just volunteers. Instead, a decision was made that the men should walk, in straight lines, across No Man’s Land. If anybody so much as dared stay behind, they were to be shot dead.
And so, the innocent soldiers began to slowly proceed in straight lines across no man’s land. They soon realised that the preliminary bombardment had been an utter disaster, as they viewed the miles of barbed wire that lay in front of the German trenches. The Germans that they expected to find were not blown to pieces, shell shocked, or ready to surrender. They were stood grimly in front of machine guns.
It was fair to say that the poor victims stood no chance whatsoever. Some say that Haig’s plan only failed because dead men can advance no further. And they were right. The Germans stood ready next to their machine guns, and, with just one fatal pull of the trigger, innocent men were massacred in their hundreds. Some Germans in fact cried as the brutally killed the enemy. After all, they to were just humans and men, with families at home, in the same position as themselves. It seems unfair that they had to die for someone else’s mistakes. If they ran forward, they were shot. If they ran back to the trenches, they were shot. So where on earth was a soldier supposed to run to survive this battle? Many accounts have been written by survivors of the first day. Some soldiers didn’t make it twenty yards before they were machine gunned down. The ones that did make it further became tangled in the barbed wire. But the distressing thing for the soldiers was, as Private Roy Bealing, Wiltshire Regiment said, you didn’t know whether your own friends they were just tripping up, like yourself, or whether they were going down with bullets in them. It was said in many cases; the biggest mistake that was made in training was that the soldiers were never told what to do in the case of a failure.
One British battalion could not advance, as the bodies of the dead and wounded men that lay before them blocked their path. Some British regiments were killed still at their starting points. Some never even made it out of the trenches. The second part of the plan was turning into utter chaos on No Mans land. Young officers that were leading, laden with nothing but a pistol were and easy target. They were simply picked out, targeted and shot.
After this particular point, a British commander decided to set off a mine, which had previously failed to go off. He buried his own men under a hail of soil and rock. Germany threw back attacks with ease. The plan took two years to make. It was all over in ten minutes.
After the first day, there were twenty thousand dead, and over thirty five thousand men wounded. This in total was ninety one per cent of the British army.
‘Pals’ were the name given to a group of friends from the same community, town or village. On the first day of the Somme, many places in Britain had lost all of its male inhabitants in a few minutes. Friends and brothers, cousins and relatives were all killed together. Watching your own flesh and blood slayed right in front of you had to be one of the most horrific sights ever to meet the eye in this battle. It was true enough; the Battle of the Somme was Hell on Earth.
By the second of July, the first casualties had reached London. The newspapers printed the names of those dead. The British public were silenced with sorrow and anger. What had gone wrong? A film was then made at the cinema, of the Battle. This propaganda film meant, that for the first time, people actually saw the men dying in battle. The people were horrified at what they saw. The film was designed to encourage war support, but in fact it was doing the opposite. One wounded soldier had to be removed from the cinema after turning hysterical at what he saw. The film was soon withdrawn from the public eye hurriedly.
The Battle after 1 July
Despite the shock and the failure of the first day, Haig continued the attacks. He did not seem disheartened by the heavy losses that had been made on just the first day of battle. He said that attacks must go on, and the encouraged the army to keep trying. On the other hand, the German commander told his army that as soon as the British claimed a line, the Germans were to win it back as they could. The simply threw back the attacks with ease.
Haig ordered General Sir Henry Rawlinson to keep making attacks on the front line. An attack which took place in the night on the 13th of July did manage to succeed in a temporary breakthrough, but the German reinforcements arrived in time to close the gap.
As the battle went on, Haig started to believe that the Germans were getting close to the point of exhaustion. He went on and on, ordering more and more attacks, willing one to achieve a breakthrough. It was the first time that tanks were used. Although a few small victories were achieved, for example the capture of Pozieres on the 23rd of July, these gains failed to be successfully followed up.
The battle raged on for weeks and weeks. The British men were beginning to lose their moral. They were shot simply for ‘cowardice’. The French managed to gains mall amounts of land, but still the gains of the southern section of the line were minimal. On September 25th, the British tried again to host a large assault on the German lines, but ended up with the same consequences as before. The British then managed to move north, and this allowed them to take Beaumont-Hamel in mid November.
By the 18th of November, the Somme front had stabilized. The German army had fought to a complete standstill, and were entirely exhausted. This was known as the ‘Wearing out Stage’
As winter did set in, General Haig was forced to commence the battle to a halt. Bapaume had not been captured, and only six miles of ground had been taken
The final casualties were: British 415,000, French 195,000, and Germans, possibly 600,000. The men in that battle fought like lions. As it was, each defect compounded the others, and together they combined to turn the battle into terrible disaster
Many historians have opinions on the Somme, General Haig, and what went wrong. The majority have opinions on why the Somme was such a distaster, quoting on precipice elements. The historian JM Bourne writes: ‘Rarely can so much effort have been expended to such little effect… Once the artillery failed, the infantry was doomed.’ Lloyd George called the battle of the Somme: ‘The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history or war’.
Another, one of the best quotes, that in my opinion, sums up the Somme in just one phrase, written by Major-General Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, Commander of the 29th British Division, is: 'It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.'
In my opinion, I think that battle of the Somme was a disastrous and devastating catastrophe. After studying the battle in great depth, it seems unbelievable and frustrating that if the Generals had just listened when they had been told by soldiers that the preliminary bombardment had failed, innocent lives could’ve been saved. The many young men that lost their lives could have experienced the joys of marriage, parenthood and of living the rest of their lives to the full. Even though some men did survive, the effects from shell shock ruined their lives, so they may as well have died in battle – that is what it felt like for them.
To me, this is what makes the Battle of the Somme such a tragedy.
The Somme offensive of 1916 is implanted deeper in the folk-memory of the British people than any other First World War battle. People remember what happened on those fateful days during the war on Remembrance Sunday each year. Those men gave their lives to secure us a future.
As part of a poem says:
FOR THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD
AS WE THAT ARE LEFT GROW OLD
AGE SHALL NOT WEARY THEM
AT THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN