by Alan Styles
At the Chantilly conference in December 1915, it was agreed to launch a combined Franco-British offensive the following year. However, due to a German attack on Verdum in Febuary 1916 and the premature conclusion of a Russian offensive in June, the actual allied operation was mounted in a different sector and on a smaller scale than originally intended. The Somme valley was elected mainly because that river marked the junction of the British and French armies on the west front. Strictly speaking, the British area of operations was centered on the acre, a tributary of the Somme following through the main staging post of Albert. There was no obvious strategic objective on this sector and it was unpropitious for an allied offensive because the Germans had constructed formidable defenses above and below ground on the dominating heights.
Under desperate French pressure to create a diversion from Verdum, the British commander in chief Sir Douglas Haig was obliged to take over more of the line and attack at a time and a place not of his choosing. Thus the British became the senior partner in the first substantial intervention of the Kitchener volunteer armies in a hastily improvised offensive which was widely publicized as the decisive battle or, more colloquially, the big push.
Haig did indeed anticipate a breakthrough in which General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s fourth army would over run the German first and second defense line, thus gaining the high ground between Ginchy Poizers and Miraument. This would leave only a flimsy third line to be cleared to permit Sir Hubert Gouge’s reserve army to capture Bapaume and roll up the enemy lines toward Arras.
Rawlinson, who planned the offensive in detail, was pessimistic about chances of a breakthrough, preferring a methodical bite and holds; advance with an intense artillery bombardment preparing each short step forward. In addition, doubting the tactical flexibility of the new army soldiers, he allowed a rigid battle plan to be imposed on the corpse concerned, including the fateful decision that the infantry should advance in long and orderly lines.
A week long artillery bombardment failed either to destroy the German wire in many places or to harm the defenders in their deep dug outs on the escarpment. The offensive, launched in bright sunlight at 7:30 on the morning of July 1st, failed disastrously on most sectors of the 18-mile front. Even the explosion of several huge mines under the German front line did not prevent their machine-gunners emerging to create havoc among the waves of British infantry and artillery attacks enabled 18th and 30th divisions to take all their objectives, as did the 5th French divisions straddling the Somme. In the center, too, the 36th (Ulster) divisions performed heroically to seize the schwaben redoubt on Thiepval ridge, but the survivors were forced to retreat later in the day due to the lack of support on their flanks. In the northern half of the attack sector of Beaumont Hamel to Sierre and Gommecourt virtually no progress was made. Many battalions were virtually annihilated. The casualties in this tragic offensive totaled 57,470,the biggest ever suffered by the British army in a single day.
Some lessons were learnt from this bitter experience as the New Armies demonstrated in a surprise dawn attack without a long prepatory bombardment on July 14th. This attack captured a wide sector of the German second line between Longueval and Bazentin le petit, and there was even a fleeting opportunity for the cavalry-unfortunately positioned too far back-to make a breakthrough into the open country beyond high wood. In the center, Poizeres was taken by the Australians in late July but the two formidable barriers, Deville and high woods, held up further advance until September, by which time the operation had degenerated into a grim battle of attrition. In the opening days of the battle German casualty’s had been comparatively light, but their propensity to launch repeated counter-attacks soon caused their losses to equal those of the attacker.
A new era in warfare began on 15 of September when British used tanks for the first time. Only about 40 were available and many of these failed to reach the start line. Those that did were parceled out in twos and threes among attacking formations. A few spectral advances were made by these terrifying monsters, notably at Flers and Courcelette, but the tanks were too slow, unreliable, and few in number to make a significant tactical-as distinct from a psychological-impact.
The offensive continued, in truly appalling muddy conditions for which the campaign became notorious, until mid-November when the high ground beyond Beaumont Hamel was at last taken. The cratered, desolate landscape, glutinous pools, and splintered woods provided an enduring image of the battle. At the Norman end of the attack zone the village of Sierre, a first day objective, remained in German hands, as did the more distant objective of Baupaume.
It was there for impossible to justify the protracted campaign in terms of the ground gained, though the Germans retreat to the prepared defenses of the Hindenburg line Febuary 1917 suggested that they too suffered heavily. The issue of success or failure has consequently focused on comparative casualty statistics, but these are inconclusive due to defective evidence and different criteria on the two sides. British and imperial causalities between July 1 and November 19, 1916 totaled approximately 420,000 while the French just over 200,000. German losses have been variously estimated as between 450,000 and 680,000 depending on the word, wounded, and the exact territorial limits and dates of the battle. British historians have been preoccupied with allied losses but contemporary German sources, including newspapers reveal that their armies had been seriously, perhaps fatally, weakened by the campaign. In conclusion, the over all result may be termed a costly draw which served to demonstrate to allied commanders that drastic Improvements in all arms cooperation and training would be necessary to overcome the defenders advantages.
In terms of histography and in popular culture, the bitter disappointment and uniquely heavy losses on the first day have caused July 1st to represent; The Battle of the Somme; for all but a few military historians. In recent years, however, some of the latter have suggested that, despite the dreadful conditions and serious tactical failings, the campaign as a whole does contain evidence of a; learning curve; particularly in the implement of artillery, which would contribute to the remarkable victory in 1918.