Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Somme

On the first of July 1916, the British and French launched a major offensive on the Somme. This battle has a special place in the minds of the British public, and rightly so. On the first day of the battle, the British suffered casualties of 60,000 men; a third of these men were killed. No other nation, at any time in this war, suffered this degree of loss, on a single day.

One in a million
The Somme is ingrained in the British public consciousness and not only symbolises the futility of the Great War but also the callous disregard for the British High Command, and at the personal level, the Generals for the men under their command. I would dispute both these contentions, but will deal with only one in this short article.

The British Generals in 1916 faced a problem  shared by no other combatant nation. All major warring nations, with the exception of the British, had implemented the pre-war policy of maintaining a large standing army in addition to a large reserve of well trained men. For continental powers this was sound policy. Britain was not a continental power in this respect. Britain maintained a small, but exceedingly well trained, professional army. In the maelstrom of 1914, and the early months of 1915, this magnificent force was spent on the Western Front. The cadre which survived would train the 'new armies' which would fight for the rest of the war.  At the start of the war, the British menfolk responded to the clarion call of war in their millions. These men needed to be fed, equipped and more importantly, trained. And herein lies the problem.

In July of 1916 Britain had achieved the continental million man army. These men were well equipped, well fed, but hastily trained. Not so much an army, but rather a body of men under arms. Up to this time, the French had sustained the majority of the fighting on the Western Front. The fighting at Verdun had sapped the fighting strength of the French and they sorely needed a British offensive to draw away German troops. British battle tactics, by necessity, were simple in July 1916. In concept, at least, the Somme was to be an artillery battle. Consequently a heavy artillery barrage descended upon the German lines for seven days before the men went over the top. The guns battered the German positions and tore up the land. Many of the shells contained shrapnel which sprayed the battle field with metal balls. While effective on unprotected troops, they contributed little to the oncoming battle. The Germans did not oblige the British (how unsporting of them) and remained safe, except from the most heaviest of projectiles, in their deep and well constructed dugouts. Whilst it is true the barrage affected the nerves of the German troops, it failed in its primary objective of killing them. At precisely 7.30 am on the 1st of July, the barrage stopped. Whistles were blown and the British troops left their trenches and walked in linear lines toward the German positions. Conveniently, the cessation of the guns alerted the Germans of the impending attack. They left their dugouts and sited their machine guns on the trench parapets. What followed was a massacre.            

The battle of the Somme continued for another 5 months. It was the testing ground for the British army and men learned battle tactics the hard way, uncluttered by classroom theory. At the end of the battle, in November of 1916, the British had at last forged a professional army on continental lines; but at what cost? The gains in land taken were modest but the battle, in its entirety, took a grievous toll on the German army as well. At last the Germans became aware that Britain was not only an effective sea power, but a land one, as well. The Somme battles were predominant in the mind of the German High Command when they made their decision to retreat from their lines in April 1917.

The lens and perspective of 100 years makes men wise. We can see all the war laid out before us in cold apparel. Yet the British generals cannot leave the battlefield, without some blame. The British High Command expected the battle on the Somme to be the 'Breakthrough Battle'. The battle which would scatter the German army and end the war; how naive. After the first day, perspectives changed. The British acknowledged that the battle would be one of attrition. Objectives would be measured in men's lives, not ground taken. Clear minds should have realised that the battle was lost within the first week, but politics dictated otherwise. The million man army needed to be expended, so why not here. The British press and public would not settle for less. And of course there was the French. The French had clamoured for this offensive. They were bleeding to death in the Verdun cauldron and needed respite that only a major British offensive could provide.

And so for the butchers bill: 1,000,000 men injured or killed- give or take a 100,000.

General Haig, in repose

1 comment:

  1. I for one am grateful that I was born when I was. There might be a lot of shit going on in the world today, but nothing on the scale of either World War - and certainly not on the scale of the Somme. An appalling waste of life.

    And how often was Haig seen with a gun in his hand leading his troops out of the trenches towards the German machine guns? Answers on a postcard....