World War One, Somme
The battle of the Somme
was another in a long line of ill conceived battles.
Many Generals were still convinced that a decisive
battle was possible. The attack would be proceeded by a
massive artillery bombardment which was designed to
break the German lines. "You won't even need guns when
we are finished," some British soldiers were told.
"You'll be able to walk over there and take the
ground." "All the Germans will be dead." For seven
days the most profound artillery bombardment in human
history occurred. Approximately 100,000 shells were
fired each day. The very earth shook. The sky was
ablaze with fiery colors. "Even the rats were
terrified," said one German soldier. On the day of the
attack, a massive bomb was detonated right in front of
the German lines. Then for just a moment, there was
stillness. The Germans knew the attack would soon
follow. They came out of the trenches they had been
hiding in and manned the machine guns. They mauled the
on coming British troops and made that day the bloodiest
day in British military history. By days end about
28,000 British lay dead on the fertile fields of France.
Philip Gibbs, a
journalist, watched the preparation for the major
offensive at the Somme in July, 1916.
Before dawn, in the darkness, I stood with a mass of
cavalry opposite Fricourt. Haig as a cavalry man was
obsessed with the idea that he would break the German
line and send the cavalry through. It was a fantastic
hope, ridiculed by the German High Command in their
report on the Battles of the Somme which afterwards we
In front of us was not a line but a fortress position,
twenty miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by
masses of machine-gun posts and thousands of guns in a
wide arc. No chance for cavalry! But on that night they
were massed behind the infantry. Among them were the
Indian cavalry, whose dark faces were illuminated now
and then for a moment, when someone struck a match to
light a cigarette.
Before dawn there was a great silence. We spoke to each
other in whispers, if we spoke. Then suddenly our guns
opened out in a barrage of fire of colossal intensity.
Never before, and I think never since, even in the
Second World War, had so many guns been massed behind
any battle front. It was a rolling thunder of shell
fire, and the earth vomited flame, and the sky was
alight with bursting shells. It seemed as though nothing
could live, not an ant, under that stupendous artillery
storm. But Germans in their deep dugouts lived, and when
our waves of men went over they were met by deadly
machine-gun and mortar fire.
Our men got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown
down like grass by German machine-gunners who, after our
barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the
open. Many of the best battalions were almost
annihilated, and our casualties were terrible.
A German doctor taken prisoner near La Boiselle stayed
behind to look after our wounded in a dugout instead of
going down to safety. I met him coming back across the
battlefield next morning. One of our men were carrying
his bag and I had a talk with him. He was a tall, heavy,
man with a black beard, and he spoke good English. "This
war!" he said. "We go on killing each other to no
purpose. It is a war against religion and against
civilisation and I see no end to it."
John Buchan described
the first day of the offensive at the Somme in his
pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme (1916)
British moved forward in line after line, dressed as if
on parade; not a man wavered or broke ranks; but minute
by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge
of high explosives, shrapnel, rifle, and machine-gun
fire. The splendid troops shed their blood like water
for the liberty of the world.
The Battle of the
Somme was planned as a joint French and British
operation. The idea originally came from the French
Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre and was accepted by
General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Expeditionary
Force (BEF) commander, despite his preference for a
large attack in Flanders. Although Joffre was concerned
with territorial gain, it was also an attempt to destroy
At first Joffre intended for to use mainly French
soldiers but the German attack on Verdun in February
1916 turned the Somme offensive into a large-scale
British diversionary attack. General Sir Douglas Haig
now took over responsibility for the operation and with
the help of General Sir Henry Rawlinson, came up with
his own plan of attack. Haig's strategy was for a
eight-day preliminary bombardment that he believed would
completely destroy the German forward defenses.
General Sir Henry Rawlinson was in charge of the main
attack and his Fourth Army were expected to advance
towards Bapaume. To the north of Rawlinson, General
Edmund Allenby and the British Third Army were ordered
to make a breakthrough with cavalry standing by to
exploit the gap that was expected to appear in the
German front-line. Further south, General Fayolle was to
advance with the French Sixth Army towards Combles.
Haig used 750,000 men (27 divisions) against the German
front-line (16 divisions). However, the bombardment
failed to destroy either the barbed-wire or the concrete
bunkers protecting the German soldiers. This meant that
the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive
positions on higher ground when the British and French
troops attacked at 7.30 on the morning of the 1st July.
The British suffered 58,000 casualties (a third of them
killed), therefore making it the worse day in the
history of the British Army.
Haig was not disheartened by these heavy losses on the
first day and ordered General Sir Henry Rawlinson to
continue making attacks on the German front-line. A
night attack on 13th July did achieve a temporary
breakthrough but German reinforcements arrived in time
to close the gap. Haig believed that the Germans were
close to the point of exhaustion and continued to order
further attacks expected each one to achieve the
necessary breakthrough. Although small victories were
achieved, for example, the capture of Pozieres on 23rd
July, these gains could not be successfully followed up.
On 15th September General Alfred Micheler and the Tenth
Army joined the battle in the south at
Flers-Courcelette. Despite using tanks for the first
time, Micheler's 12 divisions gained only a few
kilometers. Whenever the weather was appropriate,
General Sir Douglas Haig ordered further attacks on
German positions at the Somme and on the 13th November
the BEF captured the fortress at Beaumont Hamel.
However, heavy snow forced Haig to abandon his gains.
With the winter weather deteriorating Haig now brought
an end to the Somme offensive. Since the 1st July, the
British has suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost
nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German
casualties were in the region of 500,000. Allied forces
gained some land but it reached only 12km at its deepest
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