Writing for History Extra, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore explains how infighting lost the battle of the Somme...


One of the questions that is often asked of me since I wrote my book on the battle of the Somme is: was there one event that led to the failure of the ‘big push’? It is hard to pinpoint one single cause, but if pressed I would specify the unhealthy relationship between two of Britain’s top generals. As mentioned in my book, they had very different views about how the offensive should be started.

On the one hand there were the flamboyant views of General Sir Douglas Haig, the 55-year-old commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the eternal optimist. He was adamant that any attack plan should be ambitious, and should be calibrated so that there was at least the chance of a decisive breakthrough. If the plan worked, he wanted the coup de grâce to be administered by his beloved cavalry, the branch of the army where he had earned his spurs.

On the other hand there were the more pessimistic opinions voiced by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the 52-year-old commander of the British 4th Army, the organisation selected by Haig to carry out the Somme attack. If asked, he might have agreed that Haig was the British Army’s equivalent of Don Quixote, because like Cervantes’ fictional anti-hero, he did not face up to the real nature of what he had to assault. Lessons learned from previous attacks on the western front had convinced Rawlinson that Haig’s plan to break through the German multi-layered trench systems in one great rush, while desirable in theory, was unachievable in practice.

The 4th Army’s commander believed that the most that could be accomplished on the first day of the Somme attack was the penetration of the front network of German barbed wire and trenches. The reason for his relatively unambitious approach was his realisation that to be sure of taking a trench system his artillery had to first cut the protective wire and pulverise the trenches. It was hard to accomplish this if the trench system targeted was too far away from the artillery – as was the case with the German’s second Somme position – particularly if it could not be seen from the British line. That explains why Rawlinson advocated pausing after capturing the first position while the artillery was dragged forward. Only then could the next stage of the attack commence, the softening up of the German second position, before the second assault went in. Rawlinson famously referred to his strategy as ‘bite and hold’. It required the attacker to bite off one German trench system at a time and, when selecting the objective, not to be too greedy.

The men’s different expectations certainly made the planning of the attack more complicated. But they did not inevitably mean that the approach of one of the generals had to be totally ignored. Compromises reached after such creative tension can often capture the good points of both sides of the argument.

More like this

However, for creative tension to produce constructive results it is essential that the opinions of both sides are given equal weight. That was not the case in this instance. Haig and Rawlinson had history: during the year leading up to April 1916 when the Somme plan was formulated, Haig had established a hold over Rawlinson way in excess of what should have been the case given their relative status. It meant the 4th Army’s commander was constrained when it came to challenging Haig’s tactics.

The seeds of Haig’s unhealthy ascendancy, and of the resulting disaster that eventually ensued on the first day of the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, were sewn during the British Expeditionary Force’s very first major attack in France. During the advance towards Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915, Rawlinson had made a mistake. He instructed the general of one of the divisions within his 1V Corps to use a unit to back up the assault on the German front system, when it should have been kept back so that it could carry on the advance after the first German position was breached. Rawlinson compounded his error by blaming the subordinate major general.

A formal portrait of Sir Douglas Haig on horseback at Poperinghe, 12 September 1917. Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection. (Photo by Lt E Brooks/IWM via Getty Images)
A formal portrait of Sir Douglas Haig on horseback at Poperinghe, 12 September 1917. (Photo by Lt E Brooks/IWM via Getty Images)

Matters came to a head when the major general complained that he was unfairly being made a scapegoat, and Rawlinson, humiliated, was forced to apologise. Field Marshal Sir John French, the then commander of the BEF, was all for sacking Rawlinson, but Haig, who as commander of the 1st Army was Rawlinson’s immediate superior, successfully argued he should be given another chance. Haig’s verdict, noted in his diary, was that “Rawlinson is unsatisfactory in this respect, loyalty to his subordinates. But he has many other valuable qualities for a commander on active service.”

However, there were consequences. Although Haig’s intercession meant that Rawlinson was reprieved, it effectively neutered him. Unless there was a dramatic change in circumstances, never again could he challenge Haig without transgressing the unwritten rule between gentlemen that states that if a man saves your life or reputation then you must treat him like a brother, and never betray him.

Rawlinson would have been particularly susceptible to the obligations imposed on him by such a rule. He was the archetypical English gentleman of the old school, whose actions and sense of right and wrong were strongly influenced by his family and their history. It was his family he had to thank for the baronetcy he had inherited, and their values would have been reinforced by the lessons about morality and chivalry he would have picked up while a pupil at Eton, Britain’s most prestigious public school, which was famous for the way it transformed the sons of rich and aristocratic families into pillars of the community. Although Haig, who had been a pupil at Clifton College, a less well-known public school, did not belong to the Old Etonian ‘club’, his money, contacts and subsequent education meant that he was to be treated as if cut from the same cloth.

The rule that required Rawlinson to pay back Haig in kind would have been all the more applicable in this case because of the way Haig’s support acted as a shield against Sir John French on an ongoing basis. It was clear that French had a grudge against Rawlinson. The two had clashed over a proposed attack on Menin during the first battle of Ypres – and, in the aftermath of this, French had made it clear that Rawlinson was on his last warning. The mental torture inflicted on Rawlinson by French’s hostility was exacerbated by the fact that for weeks afterwards, whenever their paths crossed, French either totally ignored him or was studiously cold towards him. This naturally led Rawlinson to fear that French would seize on some other pretext to have him sent home.

It prompted him to write in his diary: “I know Sir John will never forgive me for what I did at Menin, because he knows he was wrong and I was right. He is a vindictive little person and harbours resentment for years, so I don’t fancy I shall get any help from him.”

Throughout this very difficult period, Rawlinson was comforted by the knowledge he had Haig’s support. That had been made abundantly clear to him. As Rawlinson recorded in his diary, after mentioning Sir John’s verdict, Haig had “then said he was quite prepared to fight my battles for me, and I might have every confidence in him. It was very good of him and I am certain I have a good friend and staunch ally… thanks to his strong character and personality.”

Rawlinson’s daily jottings in his diary refer back to Haig’s steadfastness concerning this incident time and again. Whenever French’s behaviour made him feel insecure he would add a note repeating in substance the mantra he had recorded after his talk with Haig: “I feel quite sure I shall get justice in DH’s hands.”

King George V with General Sir Henry Rawlinson and General Congreve at St George's Hill, near Fricourt, 10 August 1916. From ‘His Majesty the King 1910-1935’ introduction by H W Wilson (Associated Newspapers Ltd, London, 1936). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
King George V with General Sir Henry Rawlinson and General Congreve at St George's Hill, near Fricourt, 10 August 1916. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

With the benefit of hindsight, Haig’s promise that he would fight Rawlinson’s battles for him has a sinister ring about it, given what transpired. Haig was able to use his hold over Rawlinson to dominate him, and to require him to fight the Somme battle in the way he desired.

The fact that Rawlinson could not challenge him might not have mattered, had Haig not become so sure that his strategy was the correct one. This confidence was partly a product of his belief that God would support the commander of the side in the conflict that had been wronged, partly because he had been brought up to believe nothing in life was insuperable, and partly because of his previous experience on the western front. On several occasions he had seen how opportunities in France and Belgium were not fully exploited because attacks were not ambitious enough.

If Rawlinson had been determined to make Haig accept his relatively modest attack plan, he should have expressly explained all of the reasons why he was advocating a restrained approach. One of the most important factors was his belief that he only had enough artillery and shells to attack the front German trench system. He was relying on a ruling by his artillery experts who told him that he must have one heavy gun for every 100 yards of front line attacked.

Applying that ruling to the Somme, he did not have enough guns even to capture the 20,000-yard front line he had originally selected. But he appears not to have mentioned this to Haig. If that is correct, it would explain why Haig felt he could with impunity order him to attack the German second position as well. Notwithstanding Rawlinson’s failure to point out the most important pitfall inherent in the extra depth of the thrust that Haig was requesting, no one can say that, prior to the attack, the 4th Army commander did not himself appreciate the dangers that were part and parcel of Haig’s demand. “I am not at all sure that we can undertake this further objective with the guns we shall have,” he wrote. “If we have to do too much, we shall water down the bombardment to such an extent that we may not get in.”

But for some unexplained reason, Rawlinson did not explicitly apply the principles underlying his diary note.

This failure was repeated in a memorandum he sent Haig on 19 April 1916. In this, he stated that while he could cater for the extra yards of front in the Montauban sector (by using one of the divisions he had originally earmarked for the reserves), it would be impossible without the provision of extra guns. But there was no reference to how the extra depth of the attack requested by Haig to the north of the Albert-Bapaume road made it essential that he should be given extra artillery for that as well.

A view of George V with his army commanders at Buckingham Palace, celebrating the Silver Jubilee. From left to right are Australian Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, General Henry Rawlinson, Field Marshal Hubert Plumer, the king, Sir Douglas Haig, Lord North and Lord King. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A view of George V with his army commanders at Buckingham Palace, celebrating the Silver Jubilee. From left to right are Australian Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, General Henry Rawlinson, Field Marshal Hubert Plumer, the king, Sir Douglas Haig, Lord North and Lord King. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The only points that Rawlinson would not give way on related to the suggested attack on Gommecourt (Rawlinson stated that he did not have the resources to include it in his plan), and the form of the artillery softening up process. Rawlinson, in his original plan, had favoured a 48–72 hour bombardment, over the alternative, a hurricane onslaught lasting just five to six hours. Haig had queried whether the former option might forewarn the Germans of what was to come, only for Rawlinson in his considered reply to counter that the hurricane version would not give the gunners time to cut the wire in front of the German trenches, which would take several days.

Furthermore it would be impossible to do that at the same time as bombarding the German trenches. The bombardment would throw up dust and smoke, concealing the wire from the artillery observers, who needed to see clearly in order to direct the gunners’ shells onto it.

Haig would eventually give in to Rawlinson on both these points. Gommecourt would be attacked by General Edmund Allenby’s 3rd Army, and Rawlinson could carry out his methodical bombardment. But because Rawlinson never challenged Haig’s demand that he should attack the second system north of the road during the first day of the attack, it stayed in the plan.

Rawlinson’s failure to make his case properly and stand his ground on this important issue raises questions concerning his competence and integrity. Did he realise that Haig’s plan was so impractical that it unnecessarily put the lives of his men at risk, yet refuse to challenge it robustly because of his personal circumstances? Did the gentleman’s code of honour require him to let Haig win the argument over the depth of the attack as a reward for saving Rawlinson’s career in the wake of the Neuve Chapelle affair? And did this trump his duty to protect his men by insisting the plan should be workable? Or was he so overwhelmed by the huge task he had been set that he really did not appreciate the scale of the shortage of artillery? The former explanation seems more likely than the latter.

Whichever is correct was beside the point as far as the situation of the British infantrymen was concerned. Following what had been cooked up by their two most senior generals, they were to be ordered to attack a German defence system consisting of deep trenches and dug outs which, far from being obliterated, in many areas were untouched. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is the author of Somme: Into the Breach (Viking Penguin).


This article was first published on History Extra in September 2016