The Somme: a terrible learning curve

Gary  Sheffield, professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham, explains what British generals learnt from the bloodbath that was the battle of the Somme in 1916...

© Alamy

Today the northern part of the Somme battlefield is dominated by the huge Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval. Here are inscribed the names of 72,085 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) who were killed but have no known grave. Before the First World War there was a chateau and a village here, but in the summer of 1916 it became the site of a bitter battle that lasted for nearly three months. Located on the German first position, the Thiepval Memorial offers mute testimony to the disastrous first day of the Somme, a day that has become synonymous with military incompetence. Yet a short distance away, on the site of the chateau is another memorial, an obelisk on a plinth. This commemorates 18th (Eastern) Division, which finally captured Thiepval on 26–27 September 1916: an operation that demonstrated how much the BEF had learnt from the fighting on the Somme.

 

Facing a first class enemy

The army that was committed to battle in July 1916 was composed largely of green wartime volunteers, enthusiastic but poorly trained. The pre-war experience of the army and its commanders in colonial small wars – even a relatively large conflict like the South African War (1899–1902) – was not good preparation for the Western Front. Fighting a high-intensity conflict against a first class enemy like the German army made huge demands on soldiers of all ranks, and 1915 was a painful year of trial and error. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the British army was simultaneously expanding, and the conduct of war was undergoing changes so profound that historians have labelled it a “Revolution in Military Affairs”.

Two years later things were very different. In the “Hundred Days” that began with the battle of Amiens of 8 August 1918, described by the German commander Ludendorff as the “Black Day of the German Army”, the BEF (including Dominion troops) took the lead in winning a decisive military victory. For the last few years, historians have debated the extent, nature and speed of the BEF’s learning curve.

Some, like the team of Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, are more cautious in their assessment than others, such as Peter Simkins and this writer. In reality there was not one learning curve, but several. For instance, arguably, the change in infantry tactics on the Somme outpaced the absorption and application of lessons by senior commanders. Moreover, some military units were more effective at identifying and internalising lessons than others and, once recognised, lessons were not always applied consistently. For all that, there is compelling evidence that the learning curve of the BEF was real, if uneven.

What happened at Thiepval on 1 July 1916 was all too typical of that terrible day. A formation of Kitchener’s army volunteers, 32nd Division, was given the formidable task of capturing the Thiepval Spur, one of the toughest positions on the Somme front. German engineers had methodically converted a village of about 100 houses into strongpoints. Close by was the Leipzig Redoubt, a defensive work from which machine guns could fire into No Man’s Land, and there were further redoubts to the flanks and the rear of the German positions. Both armies recognised the Thiepval Plateau for what it was – dominating ground that had to be taken if the British attack was to make progress.

At 7.30am the attack began. The men of 32nd Division’s 96th Brigade clambered out of their trenches and were raked by perhaps 30 machine guns from Thiepval village. It was a massacre. Three battalions of volunteers from the North of England, 1st and 2nd Salford Pals, and the Tyneside Commercials, could make little headway, although isolated parties got into Thiepval village. Worse was to come: reports that the village had actually fallen to 32nd Division led to the Royal Artillery ceasing to fire on this target.

The attack by the 97th Brigade on the Leipzig Redoubt fared rather better. Brigadier-General JB Jardine, drawing on his experience of observation of the fighting in the Russo-Japanese War 11 years before, ordered his men to get out of their trenches while the British artillery were still pounding the German positions.

The Glasgow Commercials crept to within 30 or 40 yards of the German front line. When the barrage lifted, the infantry were able to race forward and get into the German trench before the defenders could properly respond. Leipzig Redoubt was taken and held, but the weight of fire was such that 32nd Division could not get any further forward. The fact that within the same division one brigade used effective tactics while another did not is a good indication of the hit and miss nature of the British army’s learning process in mid-1916.

On 1 July 1916 the British army had too few heavy guns for the job it was given – that of destroying the enemy positions. What’s more, the available guns were given too many targets to bombard, catastrophically reducing the concentration of firepower. Moreover infantry tactics were often crude. But even in the midst of disaster there were signs of hope, of some units using methods that worked.

One of the formations on the right of the British line was 18th Division. Its commander, Major-General Maxse, had a reputation as one of the best trainers in the British army, and before the battle his men had thoroughly rehearsed its assault. The artillery fired a creeping barrage, by which a curtain of shells moved steadily ahead of the infantry, and this helped 18th Division take all its objectives. Two weeks later it captured Trônes Wood, and in September, Maxse’s men attacked Thiepval. In a hard three-day action this German bastion finally fell to the British.

In his after-action report, Maxse stated: “With sufficient time to prepare an assault on a believe that a well trained division can capture almost any ‘impregnable’ stronghold, and this doctrine has been taught to the 18th Division”. Maxse brought in a senior staff officer to lecture on “recent fighting experiences on this front”. The tank was incorporated into the battle plan. Maxse limited the objectives to be captured, and attacked at 12.35pm, rather than in the morning, so as to minimise the hours in which his men, having captured the German trenches, could be shelled in daylight.

An officer of 18th Division wrote that “everyone was full of confidence. The troops were trained to the minute; attack formations had been practised till it could be expected that the advance would push through to its final objective as a drill movement, whatever the obstacles or casualties. It was known, too, that the artillery preparation had been terrific”. In short, Thiepval was an excellent example of the learning curve in action, but it was far from the only one.

 

The wrong lessons learnt

The Germans too learnt lessons from the Somme and other battles. They moved away from defending linear trenches to a much looser and more flexible system of defending strongpoints and using reserves in the counterattack role. They abandoned their policy of automatically counterattacking every Allied gain. But ultimately they learnt a wrong lesson. By concentrating resources on a relatively small number of elite “storm” units, they reduced the overall quality of their army. In the long run this proved to be a disastrous policy.

Over the winter of 1916– 17 the lessons of the Somme were collected and analysed by the British, and formed the basis of two important tactical manuals issued in February 1917. By April 1917, when it fought its next major battle, the BEF was a vastly more effective force than it had been nine months earlier. On the first day at Arras, British divisions advanced 3½ miles and Canadian and British troops seized the vital ground of Vimy Ridge. There was a long way to go, but the BEF continued to learn and apply the hard-won lessons of battles such as Passchendaele, and by the summer of 1918, it had reached a peak of efficiency. It is not going too far to say that the lessons of the Somme laid the foundations for the extraordinary series of victories of the Hundred Days that brought the war to a successful conclusion.

 

The Somme in context

The Battle of the Somme was fought from 1 July to 18 November 1916 on the banks of the eponymous river, between the French towns of Albert (on the Allied side of the lines) and Bapaume (on the German side). The battle stemmed from the failure of the belligerents to reach a compromise peace despite the military stalemate on the Western Front. This was largely because the Germans would not relinquish the territory they had captured in France and Belgium, and the French would not contemplate a peace without German troops first being expelled from their national territory.

At the end of 1915 it was decided that the British and French would launch a major offensive on the Western Front in the following summer, in combination with attacks on other fronts by their Russian and Italian allies. In the event, the German attack at Verdun in February 1916 forced the French to commit forces to defend this key sector, and it was the British army, rather than the more experienced French, that made the biggest contribution to the battle.

Hopes of a major breakthrough on the Somme faded after the failure of most of the initial British attacks, and it became an attritional battle in which both sides suffered enormous casualties in struggles for places like Pozières, Thiepval and High Wood. On balance, the Somme did more damage to the Germans than to the Allies, and in spite of the heavy losses, the British army emerged from the battle as a much improved effective fighting force.

Somme stats

419,654: British casualties during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916

204,253: French casualties during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916

465,000 to 680,000: estimates of German casualties during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916

127,751: British soldiers who died during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916

893: average number per day of British soldiers who died during the Somme, July to November 1916

100,000: number of horses required by British army for first stage of Somme offensive

74,000: number of rounds of ammunition fired by German defenders of Serre on 1 July 1916

7: number of miles advanced by British during the Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916

1,000,000: number of rounds of ammunition fired by British 100th Machine Gun Company on 24 August 1916

42: the number of German divisions diverted to the Somme in July and August 1916

Gary Sheffield is professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here