The Battle of the Somme and German ‘Battle Management’

DR. ROBERT T. FOLEY

On 1 July 1916, the infantry of British 4th Army and the French 6th Army launched what their strategic leadership hoped would be the beginning stages of a decisive campaign against the German army in northeastern France. Initially, the German strategic leadership welcomed the start of the Anglo-French  offensive on the Somme, believing it would be quickly and bloodily defeated. However, it slowly became apparent that this offensive was on a scale and intensity hitherto unseen on the Western Front. Similar to the German offensive at Verdun earlier in 1916, the battle along the Somme was above all else a Materialschlacht — a battle of material — that demanded the German army develop new methods of command and control. While tactical action was important, providing frontline units with the men, munitions, and material required to maintain their line proved to be one of the battle’s greatest challenges and greatest feats. Between the beginning of the battle on 1 July and its end 141 days later on 19 November, ‘battle management,’ rather than traditional concepts of command or leadership, became the decisive factor in ensuring a German defensive victory on the Somme.

After a seven-day preparatory bombardment, 40 British and French divisions supported by some 2,500 artillery pieces attacked the German 2nd Army along the Somme with the initial objective of seizing the Bazentin Ridge, where the second German defensive position was located. On 1 July, Fritz von Below’s 2nd Army comprised 15 divisions, supported by some 600 light and 246 heavy artillery pieces. With the Entente onslaught, the German High Command rushed reinforcements to the hard-fought 2nd Army. Already by 5 July, elements of 11 additional divisions had been drawn in from around the Western Front to plug gaps in the 2nd Army’s line. Additionally, 27 heavy artillery batteries were drafted in. The 2nd Army quickly formed ‘Gruppe’ around new and existing army corps commands. These were necessary particularly to provide some command and control for the increasing number of artillery units thrown into the battle. These new Gruppe also formed an important constant in the battle; these command teams stayed in the frontline for long periods during the battle while divisions came and went. Indeed, divisions lasted on average two weeks in the frontline before being forced by high casualties to be replaced, while Gruppe might remain for months.

The numbers of units involved in the battle on the German side had grown so large that the German High Command decided to create a new command structure to handle the battle. On 19 July, a new army, the 1st Army, was formed out of the units north of the Somme River under the command of Fritz von Below, with the noted defensive specialist Fritz von Loßberg as its chief of staff. The 2nd Army commanded units south of the river and was led by the highly experienced Max von Gallwitz with Bernard Bronsart von Schellendorf as his chief of staff. One of the key advantages of this new command structure was logistics. In the First World War German army, armies were responsible for providing the logistical framework from the frontline back to the home front; each army on the Western Front had its own line-of-supply network [Etappen] to keep its units supplied.

Two armies on the Somme meant two independent means of keeping the frontline units going, and this was very much needed. In addition to the enormous stores of food required by the 750,000 men of the two armies and their horses, the 1st Army calculated that each fighting division required 100 tonnes of engineering material — wood, cement, barbed wire, etc — per day. Further, each division required 5,500 hand grenades and 10,000 flares of various colours every day. These added up to 150 train wagons per day. The German army also found the battle placed extraordinary demands on clothing, with a division requiring up to 5,000 tunics, 5,000 trousers, and 5,000 pairs of infantry boots per month.

The battle of the Somme was above all else an artillery battle. The British and French attackers used artillery in an attempt to batter down German defences and defenders prior to infantry attacks. The German 1st and 2nd Armies tried to create a wall of artillery fire to protect their own infantry. The numbers of artillery barrels used by the defenders rose dramatically as the battle progressed. At its start, the 2nd Army had about 850 light and heavy artillery pieces; by early September the two armies had between them some 1,700 barrels. As a consequence, the numbers of rounds fired skyrocketed. In the month of July, the German defenders fired some 3,566,500 rounds. By October, this had risen to almost 6,377,000 rounds. Obviously, there were peaks and troughs throughout the battle. On 1 July, the artillery of the XIV Reserve Corps fired some 120,000 rounds, with one battery alone firing some 4,600 rounds. The single highest expenditure of munitions came on 26 September, when the two armies fired more than 200,000 rounds of the main calibers (7.7, 10.5, and 15 cm). As a result of the battle, the German army on the Western Front increased expectations for the average daily expenditure for each artillery piece. For example, 7.7 cm field guns were expected to have a daily rate of 375 rounds per gun up from 250 before the battle.

The voracious appetite of the artillery needed to be fed, and this came in the form of munitions trains. The German army had set loads for these trains, with one train delivering 26,880 7.7 cm rounds, 12,000 10.5 cm rounds, or 6,000 15 cm rounds. Indeed, usage of munitions trains became the standard way of measuring artillery expenditure in battle during the war. The scale of the munitions usage can be seen by the fact that in July and August, the German army went through 587 field artillery munitions trains and 372 heavy artillery trains, a far higher rate than at any point in the war to date. The unloading of these munitions trains and the distribution of the munitions to the frontline commands were handled through the Etappen of the two armies. Moreover, the armies each maintained special artillery depots, which served to replace worn out and destroyed artillery pieces, but also to repair damaged weapons, and these numbers were considerable. Between 26 June and the end of August, the German defenders lost 1,068 field guns and 371 heavy artillery pieces to enemy action or to wear and tear.

At the same time the 1st Army was created, a new Army Group Gallwitz was formed under the command of the 2nd Army commander, Max von Gallwitz, and was given overall command of the battle. One of the key functions of this level of command was to manage the large numbers of units flowing in and out of the battle. As we have seen, divisions lasted for an average of two weeks before needed to be replaced. Over the course of the battle, 96 German infantry divisions fought on the Somme, the equivalent of three-quarters of the German army on the Western Front, and many of these fought more than once. With divisions and corps focused on fighting the battle and armies on supplying this combat, the army group could pay attention to the strengths and weaknesses of individual combat divisions. The battle drew in so many divisions that the German High Command recognised that an army group formed of two armies was insufficient to manage divisional rotation effectively. Accordingly, at the end of August a new army group, Army Group Crown Prince Rupprecht, was created comprised of four armies. This created a much larger pool of divisions upon which the army group could draw to supply the battle with manpower. ‘Fought-out’ divisions could be withdrawn before they reached the point of collapse, sent to quite sectors of the army group front to rest and refit, and fresh divisions inserted as their replacements. (Often, divisional artillery was kept in place and served as reinforcement for the incoming artillery, which increased the significance of the Gruppe staff in coordinating the artillery battle.)

All of this meant that for the higher leadership of the German defenders, the corps, army, and army group commanders, the battle of the Somme demanded new means of ‘leading.’ As a Materialschlacht, the battle put careful and efficient management of resources to the fore. The creation of more-or-less permanent corps commands, splitting the battle between two armies, and last the creation of a standing army group all served this purpose. Each of these levels of command helped provide resources to the front line. The permanent corps (Gruppe) provided staff and support for the artillery battles. Each of the armies came with their own lines-of-communication service (Etappentruppe). Finally the army group managed the flow of divisions between armies and into and out of the battle. Increasingly, the tactical battle, where traditional ideas of leadership and command were more significant, was the preserve of the divisions and below, while the higher commands, whether based in a chateau or not, managed the battle. If any of these levels of command failed in their tasks of supplying different elements of the battle, than no amount of tactical brilliance on the part of the frontline commanders and their troops could have rescued the situation. The battle of the Somme brought home forcefully to the German army that ‘management’ was as important to victory in battle as ‘leadership.’

For more on how the German army fought the battle of the Somme and the lessons it drew from this battle, see my Journal of Military History article on the subject.

Image: A German munitions factory in early 1916. Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1970-047-37 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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