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Webmatters : The First Battle of the Somme: 1916
Rough Map of Area

The Somme

Some Background

On the 16th December 1915 General Sir Douglas Haig’s intrigues against his Commander in Chief; Field Marshal Sir John French, finally bore fruition when French was removed and Haig took his place.

That French had shown a certain ineptitude throughout 1915 is beyond denying but Haig had certainly not done his old friend any favours by privately denouncing him to the King. Sir Douglas was, by far, the better soldier but his own withdrawn character and inability to verbally articulate his thoughts would provide him with his own problems over the next two years.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was no longer a minuscule formation on the Western Front but a force to be reckoned with. Munitions output had grown considerably and the new formations created by Lord Kitchener’s famous rallying call of Your Country Needs You were armed and approaching the end of their training.

The Easterners in the British Government who had argued for a campaign against Germany’s allies had been proved wrong in the Dardanelles. Gallipoli had been a disaster and Haig had been proved right. The war would be won when German had been dealt with.

On the 29th December 1915 Général Joseph Joffre the French Commander in Chief agreed with Haig that a joint offensive would be launched in 1916 along the banks of the river Somme.

The area had been remarkably quiet throughout 1915 and the Germans had spent their time creating a solid defensive network of trenches and dug-outs.

 

The Germans intervene

In 1915 the Germans had pre-empted the Allied plans by launching the 2nd Battle of Ypres. In 1916 they would deal a blow to Joffre and Haig’s plans by launching an offensive against the French fortress town of Verdun on the 21st February.

The French participation in the proposed Battle of the Somme would, over the coming months, be reduced considerably but Haig continued planning the offensive with great meticulousness.

In essence Haig intended to pummel the German defences into the ground. Munitions dumps were set up throughout the rear areas of the intended battlefield. New roads and railways were created. Billets and encampments organised. Water, sanitation, food, medical facilities all had to be provided in an area that was ill-equipped for a major offensive.

Approximately 3,000,000 shells were massed ready for the offensive (At Loos in September 1915 Haig had been allocated less 500,000 rounds).

Haig had, in 1915 whilst commanding the First Army, tried short bombardments which allowed for surprise but had learnt (like the French) that for the most part they were ineffective against well entrenched positions.

For five days the German positions on the Somme would be subjected to the greatest bombardment that the British had as yet carried out, prior to the infantry attacking on the 29th June 1916.

In 1918 the Germans would use whirlwind bombardments (named after their originator Colonel Georg Bruchmüller) of incredible intensity, achieving both surprise and effect. But that was another lesson in the use of artillery that had to be acquired and by that stage in the war the Germans had both the available shells and the means to deliver them. In 1916 the British didn’t.

Their was some doubt however about the infantry. For most of the battalions involved in the offensive, the Somme would be their baptism of fire. Regular soldiers understood the principles of fire and movement but the Senior Staff Officers had reservations about tens of thousands of untried citizen soldiers accomplishing the same technique.

Besides; what would be left of the German positions after they had been hit by a million and a half shells. It would be safer for the men to advance in deliberate waves where each could see his mates alongside. This would give them confidence in the fog and heightened emotions of battle.

It needs to be pointed out that Haig was very much a man who informed his subordinates of what he wanted and then let them get on with it. Some Divisional commanders moved their men out in front of their own lines ready to rush the German positions, others didn’t.

Weather concerns postponed the battle for two days allowing for a further 48 hours of shelling, with almost 400,000 shells being fired into the German trenches during the final 24 hours.

 

The German defences

The question is sometimes posed as to why the German trenches always seemed to be better than ours. The answer probably lies in the fact that the Germans were for staying: You want us out – you move us. The Allies only ever considered their front line as a temporary measure – even if they hadn’t moved in months.

History has shown that on the Somme the Germans in their deep bunkers were pretty much immune to the bombardment (though they were being driven crazy by the noise and stress and it was difficult to get food and water up the line).

In addition the shells were often quite ineffective in breaching the barbed wire (It would take further improvements in their design to come up with an effective fuse).

In places it was found to be very well cut, in others, not at all. Despite vast improvements in manufacture over the previous twelve months many of the shells failed to explode (farmers are still reaping the iron harvest – NEVER touch anything you see).

The Germans were made aware, by the intensity of the bombardment, that an offensive was coming and two things aided their murderous reception of the British. Firstly an exhortation from General Rawlinson (Commanding the Fourth Army who were carrying out the attack) was intercepted when it was unfortunately telegraphed to troops in the front lines.

Secondly, the detonation by the Hawthorn Mine ten minutes before the main attack heralded the end of the barrage. Much in trench warfare depended on the defenders’ ability to judge the right moment as to when to leave the safety of their shelters and man their machine guns. Too soon and they would be caught by the shelling. Too late and the enemy would be upon them. The detonation of the mine caused a domino effect along the German line – the British were coming.