Somme

Munitionsfabrik

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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Conference Report: 1916: The Cost of Attrition

by DR ROBERT T. FOLEY

This summer, I was fortunate to have been invited to present a paper at the Australian War Memorial’s 1916: The Cost of Attrition conference. In late July, a number of academics from the Anglophone world assembled in Canberra to explore the events of 1916, focusing on the impacts of this particularly violent year. Befitting a conference in Australia, there was considerable emphasis on the experiences of Dominion forces. The conference also brought together some talented early career researchers to present their work on the First World War.

One of the key themes that emerged for me was how differently the events of 1916 are remembered across the world. Of course, this should not have been a surprise, but having come fresh from Britain, with its prominent commemorations of the battles of the Somme and Jutland, it was a bit of revelation that battle of the Somme holds far less fascination for the public in former Dominion nations. Tim Cook, from the Canadian War Museum, highlighted this is his keynote address: In Canada, there were no formal commemorations of the battle. Public, and by extension government, interest there is firmly focused on the anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017. Glyn Harper of Massey University highlighted a similar phenomenon in New Zealand where an officially sponsored tour of the Somme battlefield scheduled for this year was canceled from lack of interest. Closer to home in Europe, for the public of Germany and France, of course, the battle of Verdun is the most significant event of 1916, while the battle of the Somme has received far less attention.

What attention is given to the battle of the Somme in Australia, Canada, or New Zealand appears to be focused on individual elements of the battle or specific events of 1916: For Australia, the ill-fated diversionary offensive at Fromelles and the attempts to capture Pozières feature. Pozières again features for the Canadians, and for New Foundlanders Beaumont Hamel is significant. This underlines the increasing ‘componency’ of the British army during the war, with each Dominion component becoming more aware of its own unique identity as the war progressed. These identities forged during the war helped shape how the war has been remembered, a point highlighted by papers from Peter Burness and Daniel Eisenberg, both from the Australian War Memorial.

However, at the same time these components were developing their own identities, speakers made clear they were also becoming more integrated into the British army as a whole. Aimee Fox-Godden from King’s College London spoke about how the lessons from the fighting in France in 1916 were disseminated and adapted in other theatres of the war. This point was reinforced by Jean Bou’s paper on the operations of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1916. Meleah Hampton (Australian War Memorial), Robert Stevenson (Australian War Memorial), and Michael Molkentin (Shellharbour Anglican College) showed how the AIF relied upon the rest of the British army for its doctrine, force structure, and also for direct support in battle. Glyn Harper and Tim Cook demonstrated the same for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This point was reinforced by Andrew Simpson in his paper on the development of corps as a key level of command during the war. Jim Beach from the University of Northampton highlighted the significance of intelligence provided by the GHQ of the British Expeditionary Force for all its components.

Appropriately for a conference about the cost of attrition, another of the key themes developed over the course of the conference was the challenge of meeting the demand for manpower. Jean Beaumont from the Australian National University spoke about the often-bitter debates over the conscription referendum in Australian politics in 1916 and 1917. Tim Cook spoke about how the conscription debate as well as the wider debate about manpower highlighted the deep divisions between Anglophone and Francophone Canada. Linked to this was another issue of developing a sustainable force structure. Robert Stevenson and Michael Molkentin spoke about the difficulty the Australians faced in maintaining the units of the AIF at full fighting strength, particularly when faced with fresh demands on manpower created from the need for new types of units (e.g., heavy artillery or air squadrons).

A third theme that stood out over the conference was the experience of the attritional combat during the year. Meleah Hampton and Glyn Harper covered combat on the Somme, particularly the hard slogging for small gains in territory. The British historian Peter Barton made some excellent use of sources from the German archives to show what combat was like for both German and British troops. Ashley Ekins, the head of the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial spoke about the morale and discipline in the AIF during the war, with some striking examples of punishment routines devised to make up for the lack of the death penalty for AIF personnel. Aaron Pegram from the Australian War Memorial spoke about the significance of the idea of ‘reciprocity’ in shaping the treatment of Allied prisoners of war in German camps: The German authorities recognized that mistreatment of Allied prisoners would be used as justification of mistreatment of German prisoners, and this helped protect prisoners on both sides from abuse. In a welcome shift from the experience of the war on land, James Goldrick of the Australian National University highlighted the challenges of combat at sea in 1916, particularly the North Sea with its notoriously poor weather.

Of course, this short report cannot do justice to the breath of the papers presented or to the quality of the questions and discussions they generated. An edited volume of the paper is due to be published, which will bring these important papers to a wider audience.

Image: A view of the Somme battlefield near Martinpuich. Courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (H02116).

 

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Somme learning: Interpreting and adapting the lessons of the Somme campaign in the ‘sideshow’ theatres

This is the second in a series of posts by members of the First World War Research Group and select guest contributors to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

DR AIMÉE FOX-GODDEN

With the hundredth anniversary of the Somme campaign now upon us, it is both appropriate and understandable that attention is focused on the forces that fought across the plains of Picardy. The Somme campaign dominated the British Army’s experience of 1916 – both on and beyond the Western Front. Rightly or wrongly, it is seen as something of a watershed, particularly at the operational and tactical levels of war. Both Peter Simkins and Gary Sheffield have published respective works that include the subtitle ‘From the Somme to Victory’, while one academic has called the Somme campaign ‘the birthplace of modern warfare’. While there is a danger that such phrases understate the previous two years of campaigning, the experience of the Somme led to considerable introspection by all belligerents, generating a number of lessons learned. For the British, these lessons led to considerable changes in, inter alia, platoon tactics, artillery, and logistics.

Unsurprisingly, such lessons were not confined to the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] on the Western Front. A number of these lessons found their way to the ‘sideshow’ theatres. Exploring the interpretation and adaptation of the ‘Somme lessons’ in Britain’s far-flung theatres affords a useful way of exploring knowledge flows, interoperability, and offers us an insight into the British Army as an institution during a time of considerable change.

As I have written elsewhere (here and here), the army developed a number of different methods to disseminate knowledge, catering for a variety of different circumstances and needs. However, given the obvious differences in scale, enemy, climate, and terrain, why were the lessons of the Somme campaign of interest beyond the Western Front? The answer is two fold. First, there was appetite at an individual level. Some individuals were simply hungry for news of the latest technologies or innovations that emerged from France and Flanders, particularly as warfare in their own theatres was rather infrequent in nature. A staff officer in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force [EEF], for example, recalled being ‘given a description of the “tanks” in use in France’, and expressed great interest in meeting ‘two fresh fellows from the Somme and hearing all about their doings out their first hand’. Secondly, and more broadly, there was the importance of interoperability. For formations to be able to integrate and work together, they needed a certain degree of uniformity in structure and training. Such a requirement was nothing new. It had pre-war origins, notably with the dominion forces where, in cases of major conflict, imperial forces would combine to fight the common foe.

Interoperability was well understood by those forces beyond the Western Front who recognised that it was ‘impossible to define the kind of operations in which the troops… may next be involved’. Formations in the British Salonika Force [BSF] had a dual training programme that covered off warfare in offensive operations in Macedonia, as well as that relating to ‘trench work’ in France. The EEF went one step further, establishing a specialist branch of the Imperial School of Instruction at El Arish for ‘practical instruction’ in trench warfare to complement its training in semi-mobile operations. The school syllabus was focused around key Western Front pamphlets – many the product of the Somme campaign – and provided up to date instruction in cooperation between infantry, machine guns, and artillery.

The extra-European theatres were generally receptive to the Somme lessons, yet there were instances of friction relating to the relevance and movement of knowledge. Unsurprisingly, knowledge often resists translation into circumstances foreign to its genesis. It can be localised, temporal, specific. This kind of friction was not unique to the First World War. Owing to its global commitments pre-war, the British Army had been loth to prioritise one set of lessons over another, thus reinforcing individual action and initiative. This approach trailed the army into the First World War. Indeed, questions of relevance were never far from the minds of those commanders beyond the Western Front.

Essentially, what we see with the lessons of the Somme is the army’s continuing pragmatic approach to learning. Each expeditionary force, and, in some cases, the formations within them, approached these lessons in a non-unitary manner. The EEF, for example, pursued a highly individualised approach to the tactical lessons of the Somme. Its divisions were given significant latitude to adapt these lessons to suit their local situation. Despite serving in the same corps, both the 74th (Yeomanry) Division and the 60th (London) Division had very different views on how these lessons should be interpreted. The former felt that the platoon structure derived from the experience of the Somme was incompatible with conditions in Palestine, while the latter thought the new platoon structure ‘absolutely correct’. I Indian Corps of Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ [IEF D] in Mesopotamia employed a similar approach. While the corps believed the new platoon structure to be ‘the best’, it was concerned that these tactical lessons would be used ‘too rigidly… regardless of the prevailing conditions’. Though striving for interoperability with forces in France, I Indian Corps encouraged variation owing to the obvious differences in terms of geography, supply, and the enemy faced. Contrary to both the EEF and IEF D, the BSF ordered all its formations to adopt the new platoon structure with the aim of assimilating ‘the organisation of battalions in this Force with that of battalions in the British armies in France’. The attitudes of all three forces serves to highlight the tension between promoting interoperability, while simultaneously encouraging devolved decision making.

Innovations relating to counter-battery fire also elicited differing approaches within the various expeditionary forces. Relevance was, once again, the watchword. As a result, the adoption of organised counter-battery fire was patchy and often subject to lag. The importance of counter-battery fire during the Somme campaign had led to the establishment of counter-battery staff officers [CBSOs] within all corps of the BEF by December 1916. In the BSF, senior artillery officers were despatched to the Western Front in mid-1917 to learn lessons ‘on the job’, leading to the establishment of a CBSO in XII Corps in September 1917. In contrast, the EEF decided against the adoption of a formal CBSO. Instead, the EEF’s senior artillery commander advocated a far looser command structure than that found on the Western Front and Salonika. The different approaches taken by the BEF, BSF, and EEF reveals that specific best practice, much as it was in the pre-war army, was subordinate to conditions and demands in theatre.

The differing responses of British forces in Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Salonika to the lessons of the Somme campaign tells us much about the British Army as an institution. On the whole, the army was reticent when it came to enforcing best practice beyond the theatre of origin. It was for each force to discern the relative value of this experience for its own use. That the forces were, in the main, willing to adapt the Somme lessons suggests an openness to learning. This openness invariably led to considerable diversity of method across all forces, attesting to the uneven, non-unitary, and messy nature of military learning.

Image: Troops of the 10th Battalion, Black Watch and 12th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders assembled for a mock attack during training near Salonika in February 1916, via the Imperial War Museum.

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THE SOMME- The British Battle

This is the first in a series of posts by members of the First World War Research Group and select guest contributors to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

PROF ROBIN PRIOR

Robin Prior is Visiting Professorial Fellow at the School of History and Politics at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of six books on the first world war, including Gallipoli: the End of the Myth and (with Trevor Wilson) The Somme.

The Battle of the Somme is to be remembered or commemorated but hardly celebrated on its hundredth anniversary this year. The battle has a number of distinctive features – few of them pleasant. It was the largest battle, in number of troops committed, ever fought, or likely to be fought by the British army; it also was the most costly in terms of casualties; and in terms of dead and wounded it contains the very worst day in British military history with 57,000 casualties – 19,000 of them dead – on the first day of battle 1 July 1916.

The decision for a large battle in the summer of 1916 was made by the allied planners at the Chantilly Conference in December 1915. Russia and Italy were to make contributions, but on the Western front it was to be a joint Franco-British affair to take place where their armies joined around the River Somme in Picardy. The German offensive at Verdun rather dented this conception as French troops were repeatedly drawn from the Somme area to prop up the sagging French line further south.

The British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, was aware of this movement but apart from taking over a section of front that was to have been assaulted by the French, did not let the new circumstances affect his planning. In attacking the German positions on the Somme he essentially had two options. He could adopt the plan of the Army Commander General Rawlinson, who would carry out the attack, and concentrate their artillery resources against the German front system of trenches. When this had been flattened and captured they would drag the guns forward and attack the second enemy line in similar fashion. The aim of this plan was to kill Germans rather than gain ground.

But Haig had his own conception. In this plan he would bombard the three German lines facing him and flatten them all. The cavalry would then be free to sweep over the enemy defensive position, head towards Bapaume and then turn north and roll up the entire German front. The aim of this plan was either to win the war at a blow or to force a substantial withdrawal of enemy forces from occupied France and Belgium.

Haig considered the Rawlinson variation but soon adopted his own scheme. He had an unprecedented number of guns and considered that with a long bombardment he could achieve his aim of unleashing the cavalry and overwhelming the entire German position. Two issues were ignored by this decision. The first was that despite the massive fire-power at his disposal, his artillerymen faced an enormous problem. The Germans, over a period of 18 months, had converted a system of defended lines into a series of much more complex defensive positions. Thus behind the front line of their first and second system lay a maze of inter-connected trenches, all with deep dug-outs. Haig’s artillery therefore were required to neutralise entire areas, especially in the two front systems but to some extent in the third and most distant system as well. For this the British needed heavy guns of at least 8” calibre and above. Yet the overwhelming proportion of British guns were not heavy, merely 18 pounder field pieces and 4.5” howitzers. The Germans had also concentrated many batteries of guns some miles behind their front, yet Haig was woefully short of counter battery guns with which to neutralise them.

The second issue that was hardly even considered was that should a miracle occur and the German defensive positions collapse, would the cavalry be able to navigate a path through a maze of trenches, littered with shell holes, barbed wire entanglements and all the detritus of a modern battlefield?

These two issues lie at the heart of the disaster that was the first day of the Somme. By merely assuming that his artillery was of sufficient number and of appropriate calibre for the task instead of undertaking the necessary calculations, Haig doomed his soldiers to destruction. The most elementary arithmetic would have revealed that he had sufficient fire-power only to subdue the front system. By attempting to destroy all three trench systems Haig managed to destroy none, leaving German machine gunners undisturbed and free to fire at the troops advancing across no-man’s-land or indeed merely trying to get forward to their own front line. Those troops who were not cut down by this fire fell victim to the un-attacked distant German artillery pieces that were able to land a fury of shells across the areas where the British infantry were trying to advance.

The cavalry aspect of the first day of battle is often deemed irrelevant because no cavalry were committed that day. But It was Haig’s insistence on attempting to push through the cavalry that spread the artillery fire fatally thin. And this was doubly obtuse because the sombre fact was that the cavalry had long ceased to be an arm that could exist (for very long anyway) on a modern battlefield. Horsed-soldiers were such easy targets for those enemy machine gunners who survived even the most intense bombardments on the Western Front that they must soon be shot down. And the entanglements through which they had to manoeuvre, meant that the pace of any fortuitous advance must be slow which made the horses that much easier to shoot. The type of war Haig might have liked to fight was one thing. The type of war he was confronted with quite another.

So the first day of the Somme was catastrophic for Rawlinson’s Fourth Army, almost 50% of which were casualties by day’s end. Ah, but observers say: the Somme battle continued until mid-November; the whole operation must be considered. Let us then consider it. After the first day, apart from one attempt at a considered broad front attack (14 July) the battle for the next two months descended into a welter of un-coordinated, narrow-front operations in which small numbers of troops attempted to capture the German trenches in front of them while being pounded by unsubdued machine gun and artillery fire. The results were so meagre that the ground gained in this period can only be clearly represented on a large scale map. Haig and Rawlinson presided over rather than directed this shambles. In August Haig seemed to grasp that some consideration should be brought to bear on the methods being employed by Rawlinson but when Rawlinson ignored his strictures, the commander-in-chief lapsed into incomprehensible silence.

While the command slumbered, the troops suffered. Repeated attacks were made against strongpoints in the German line such as Mouquet Farm, High Wood, Delville Wood, Ginchy, Guillemont and others. Probably the feeble yet frequent attacks against High Wood alone cost 100,000 casualties. Overall, in terms of the percentage of casualties suffered (50%) this period bears direct comparison with the first day. In short, looking at the battle in depth does not improve the view.

For a brief moment in September the prospects of the British improved. On the 15th Haig incorporated a new weapon into the battle in the form of tanks. About 50 of the Mark I monsters were used to some effect near Flers and the unsuspecting Germans sensibly fled. Some ground was gained. Then, just 10 days later, a broad-front, well planned blow was struck in the same area, this time without tanks. The Germans were pushed further back, the British gaining more ground in these two episodes than in the whole period from 1 July. Haig’s armies now stood at the edge of an extensive, low-lying area of the battlefield. It was late in the campaigning season. The French had recovered at Verdun. The battle could be halted on a winning note.

It was not halted. Instead Haig concentrated his cavalry once more. This time he was aiming for Arras, some 70 miles away, completely disregarding the fact that it had taken him three months to capture just 6 or seven miles of ground. The result was another disaster. On 9 October the troops set off in rain and mud. The important innovation in infantry protection that Haig had developed at the Somme, the creeping barrage of shells fired immediately in front of the attackers, was useless in the mire when troops could not keep pace with even the slowest barrage. Rain, fog and low cloud rendered the aircraft spotting for the artillery useless and therefore also rendered the protection the guns were trying to provide useless. The operation was called off. The enemy front was hardly in sight, let alone Arras.

In these dismal conditions operations continued for another 6 weeks. The gains made were derisory and tactically bereft as the troops were advancing into a swamp. Finally, major operations were halted in mid-November. The battle had cost the British some 400,000 casualties. The Germans certainly suffered –some 230,000 becoming casualties. In general the enemy was appalled at the tenacity of the once-insignificant British army. But the army that suffered most was the British. And this battle was not part of some grand conception on the part of Haig to wear down the enemy one battle at a time. As noted, it was designed to win the war. The ‘one continuous battle’ justification offered for the Somme is guff, thought up by Haig after the fact to disguise the incompetent way he had fought this particular battle. One hundred years later we must look at the Somme not as a bloody victory or indeed any kind of victory. It was a dire defeat and perhaps the nadir of British command on the Western Front.

Image: Three 8 inch howitzers of 39th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA), firing from the Fricourt-Mametz Valley during the Battle of the Somme, August 1916, via the Imperial War Museum.