Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Somme: 100 years on

It's no secret that I've a huge interest in history.  It's one of the reasons I was very proud when my son chose to study the subject at University this year.

This week sees a significant anniversary of a very poignant event to me - the start of the infamous Battle Of The Somme.

Two years into World War One, and things were not going well for the allies of France and Britain on the Western Front.  In February, Germany had started a major offensive against the fort of Verdun, which was controlled by the French.  The sole purpose of this offensive was to bring French forces into a meat-grinder where they'd take casualties in such numbers it would impact their ability to continue the war, meaning they'd have no choice but to sue for peace.

Desperate to relieve the forces at Verdun by inflicting a counter-attack which Germany would be forced to react to, Britain planned an imaginative and daring attack against the German line.  In the week before attack, German lines would be bombarded with over a million shells, including the detonation of a gigantic mine immediately prior to the attack.

British commanders believed this barrage would completely annihilate the opposition - no one would be left alive in the enemy trenches.  What would remain for the troops would be to cross no mans land and occupy German positions, preparing them for an inevitable German counterattack.

The first day's offensive was planned in minute detail, with a timetable of follow up waves, who would come forward to support the first waves, together with set later artillery support for where the Germans were anticipated.

On July 1st 1916, the massive mine was detonated, and officers blew their whistles to "go over the top" into no-man's land.  Within minutes the problems in the plan were being exposed - unknown to British generals, the Germans had deeper trenches, with better fortifications than their British counterparts.  As the British army marched in formation into no man's land, the Germans on the other side were already in position, able to cut down whole swathes of men with their machine gun positions.

But the real tragedy of the Somme's first day was the inflexibility of the plan.  With wave after wave of later formations being forced to stick to the plan, and follow a previous wave which had been annihilated just an hour before.  What we now would describe as "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results".

The grave of Horrace Iles, who died only 16 on the first day of the Somme.
Photo by Paul Reed

It is still remembered as the worst day in British military history - with 60,000 casualties, including 20,000 dead.  The inflexibility of the plan, which saw so many futile losses even when the shortcomings had become obvious would tarnish the Generals involved as uncaring leaders "far from the trenches" more wrapped up in dreams of glory than for any care of their men.

Such a view is perhaps somewhat unfair - the disaster of the first day of the Somme was a somber wake up call to what was still a relatively new kind of warfare compared with the wars of the 19th Century.  Tactics did change (although arguably perhaps not fast enough) and led to ideas such as,

  • Development of the tank armoured vehicle to attempt to break the stalemate and cross no-man's land
  • Use of telephone and radio communications to signal back the situation to generals behind the trenches
  • Integration of artillery to support the movement of infantry, particularly "creeping barrages"
  • Use of staggered formations to approach machine gun positions instead of approaching in formation
  • Development of grenades and portable mortars to support troops against dug-in positions

The Battle Of The Somme (which lasted until November 1916) did succeed in taking pressure off the French at Verdun, and prevent the collapse of the Western Front, but at a terrible price.  Sadly, even on it's best day, trench warfare remained a bloody and costly business.

To me, the Somme is a ghastly reminder about planning.  We often think that the more detail a plan is scoped out in, the better.  However there are always "things that go wrong".  Hence probably the greatest weapon developed was greater flexibility for junior officers to appraise and make their own decisions, over following a plan.  This is the hallmark of all modern armies, but one which was forged in blood.

Reading a lot of American testimonies from World War Two, there is a lot of criticism of the British army for being "overly cautious".  It's impossible to pin that comment to a single root cause, but after the costly disasters of World War One, caution seems to have worked into the DNA of army thinking.

  • Dan Snow's History Hit is doing a series of podcasts on the Somme this week with some of the world's experts.  The series has taught me a lot of things I'd never knew.  Start with part one here.
  • The Somme: From Defect To Victory - you can see this on YouTube here.
  • First World War Centenary Site
  • Paul Reed's been sharing a lot of poignant material on Twitter, and his blog is well worth checking out.  He talks to Dan Snow here.
  • YouTube channel The Great War is well worth checking out.  Here Indiana Neidell looks at General Haig, the man behind the British offensive in the Somme.  He also looks at Arthur Currie here who suggested some changes in tactics such as flexibility of units.
  • Wikipedia has an interesting page looking at the development of tactics for trench warfare here.

Although just a dramatisation, this Blackadder sketch is well worth a watch,


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