In the early hours of 24 June 1916, British and French guns lit up the German defences on the Somme front. To Sergeant Karl Eisler, stationed at an observation post belonging to Reserve Field Artillery Regiment 29, the cacophony that filled the air – “a howling and hissing, a growling, a splintering and crashing” – was “uncannily terror-inducing”. As shells slammed into the ground nearby, the post shook and thick fountains of brick dust obscured his view. This was the frightening opening of an unprecedented seven-day bombardment and a four-and-a-half-month gruelling battle that would, as Eisler put it, demand from German troops “almost superhuman effort and the mobilisation of all psychological strength”.
The Anglo-French Somme offensive, usually portrayed as an inevitable disappointment for the attackers, appeared from the German defenders’ perspective as a near brush with defeat. Planned as the final blow in an Allied strategy to win the war through massive co-ordinated pressure on all fronts, the battle came at an extraordinarily difficult time for Germany.
The German army had since February been heavily committed to its own vain campaign to bleed the French dry at Verdun. At the start of June, the Russian Brusilov Offensive had smashed its Austro-Hungarian ally at Lutsk (today in western Ukraine), necessitating the hurried transfer of 13 German divisions, five of them from the western front.
Other enemies were circling. Romania was hostile and would declare war in August. The Italians were preparing their sixth attack on the Isonzo river. Further pressure was exerted by a British naval blockade, which ruthlessly squeezed Germany’s supplies of war raw materials and food. Rations at home that year fell to 1,336 calories per day, little more than half of adults’ recommended nourishment.
The Germans were the underdogs on the Somme. Their enemies’ manpower and material superiority was simply staggering.
At the outset of the offensive, 29 British and French confronted just seven German infantry divisions. The attackers had total control of the air. In artillery, this war’s most important weapon, they had a (literally) earth-shattering advantage: 393 British and French heavy guns faced a paltry 18 German, and the 933 medium and 1,655 light artillery pieces of the attackers were three and four times as numerous as the enemy’s guns.
The offensive’s seven-day opening bombardment rained 2.5 million shells on the defence and set the tone for the rest of the battle, impressing upon all present the attackers’ absolute material dominance in a new, ghastly form of industrial combat.
The Germans on the Somme did have some qualitative edge over their opponents, but this was limited; they were certainly not the invincible ‘professional’ force of popular legend. In the south of the battlefield, the 11 French divisions participating in the initial attack were, in training, equipment and experience, the equal of their enemy.
The British force in the north was less well prepared. Britain’s army had undergone a breakneck expansion from a tiny professional force at the war’s outbreak to a mass army of 1.23 million soldiers in France and Belgium, and this had brought command challenges and inevitable deskilling. Even so, German intelligence fretted before the offensive at how quickly this enemy had learned to co-ordinate infantry, artillery, trench mortars and aircraft. By the summer of 1916, British units had spent at least six months on the western front and were battle-hardened. The troops were highly motivated and optimistic about the coming push to win the war.
Dead and wounded
Far from being invincible, the German army that fought on the Somme had many problems. Certainly, it had learned valuable lessons during the past two years, but the bitter fighting had also taken a toll. Staff officers remained highly competent, but professional leadership at the lower levels had suffered terribly. One in every six career officers were dead and many more wounded already before the bloodletting at Verdun.
Wartime expansion had also diluted the army’s professional cadres. The Somme front was mostly garrisoned by reserve divisions raised at the war’s outbreak, which had never possessed many career officers. There was nothing ‘professional’ about these units: the men were citizen soldiers ripped from their civilian lives by the world crisis. They were motivated by the desire to protect their homes and families from invasion, a necessity underlined by the devastation surrounding them. As one of these soldiers remarked in his diary: “We can be pleased not to have the enemy in our own land!”
The defenders on the Somme underwent a terrible ordeal. The British and French attempted at the battle’s outset to break through on a 25-mile-wide front; the British commander General Sir Douglas Haig wanted to carry at least the German first and second lines and had his eye on more distant objectives.
The initial bombardment caused the Germans remarkably few casualties: just 2,478 killed and 4,478 wounded. Haig’s over-ambition had resulted in it being insufficiently concentrated, and faulty shells and deep German dugouts further reduced its lethality. Nonetheless, the prolonged barrage still placed German defenders under colossal psychological strain. Fearful rumours circulated the shelters that the enemy intended to exterminate everyone with artillery alone. German infantry units reported at the end of June that their men “all had just one hope: let the endless shelling finally stop and the enemy attack”.
On 1 July – not, as usually misremembered, the first but the eighth day of the Somme battle – at 8.30am German time, 55,000 Allied assault troops at last clambered over their parapets and advanced towards the battered German defences. A British wireless message hinting at imminent attack had been intercepted four hours earlier, and the Germans were ready. Despite their positions being beaten with intense shellfire and rocked by several almighty explosions from subterranean mines, the soldiers quickly climbed their dugout stairs, manned their positions and called down their own protective barrage.
In the north of the battlefield, British attackers were stopped dead. However, further south and against the French a crisis developed. A division collapsed, the front line was lost and the Germans held their second line only thanks to a timely commitment of reserves. Still, the tremendous endurance of the German defenders had not been in vain. For around 13,000 casualties, they had inflicted five times their losses on the vastly superior enemy and had disrupted its war-winning offensive.
The successes of 1 July brought no rejoicing in the German Command. The army on the Somme steeled itself for renewed assault. On 3 July, its commander, General von Below, grimly ordered his troops to wage a bitter defence: “On the victory of Second Army on the Somme hangs the outcome of the war. The battle must be won by us… For now, everything depends on holding onto our current positions at all costs and on improving them with small counter-attacks. I forbid the voluntary evacuation of positions…
Only over corpses may the enemy find his way forward.”
Hail of shellfire
The battle now became a relentless attritional struggle. The British and French deployed unmatchable resources to break the Germans. By mid-August, they had sent 106 divisions through the inferno, against 57½ German. The hail of shellfire also continued uninterrupted, with the British firing off 19 million shells during the offensive. The fighting was grievously bloody. German forces on the Somme lost nearly 6 per cent of their strength every week. Infantry regiments frequently lost one third of their soldiers in action.
Yet it was above all the psychological strain that the battle placed on combatants that set it apart. The psychiatric casualty rate among the troops opposite the British was sky high – more than double the usual rate in the western field army. The constant heavy artillery fire especially unnerved the men. By the autumn, growing numbers were reporting sick, self-inflicted wounds were multiplying and soldiers were showing a greater propensity to surrender.
Nonetheless, the Germans held. As von Below had ordered, every position was contested, often by small groups of soldiers operating out of shell holes. A vivid taste of their ordeal and the desperate heroism of the outnumbered German infantry was left by Second Lieutenant Ernst Klasen, a company commander in Grenadier Regiment 12. In late July he fought at Delville Wood, a key position where the front shifted direction from west to south. This blood-soaked place was nicknamed ‘Devil’s Wood’ by British troops, but the wordplay does not work in German; to Klasen, it was simply ‘hell’. He had marched in the hectic advance of August 1914, fought in the brutal trench warfare of 1915, and survived the opening assault on Verdun, where he had seen “much horrific” that had temporarily left his “nerves … somewhat broken”. But his five days and nights on the Somme, he told his family, “were the worst days of the whole war”.
To reach their front line, Klasen and his soldiers had to leap from shell hole to shell hole. The air, he wrote, had been “full of iron”. On their arrival, the enemy bombarded and assaulted them. Klasen’s unit spent the next days under constant “murderous drumfire” from heavy artillery, followed by repeated infantry attacks. Just once could ration carriers get through with food and drink. What provisions the men had, they shared: “On such occasions,” remarked Klasen, “one meets true comradeship.”
The last day was the worst. A three-hour barrage of huge violence collapsed their trenches, and nearly everyone in the company was buried or lightly wounded. Klasen was hit twice by shell fragments, which luckily only tore his uniform and bruised his skin. Suddenly the fire stopped and British troops stormed forwards. The Germans opened up with rifles and machine guns, but the attackers were finally thrown back only after a savage fight with hand grenades.
The position held but at frightful cost. Only Klasen, who won an Iron Cross 1st Class, and two others among his battalion’s officers, returned unscathed. As company commander, his duties when he reached the rest areas included writing condolence letters to the families of 130 dead, wounded and missing men.
The Somme offensive was a failure, in part because of British and French command errors but also thanks to the courage and astonishing endurance of German troops such as Klasen. The Germans inflicted 624,000 casualties on the attackers, against their own loss of half a million men, and during the battle retreated a mere six miles on a 20-mile front. No decisive attritional blow was inflicted on German manpower; indeed, the army continued to expand, reaching peak strength a year after the start of the battle.
In morale terms, the battle’s impact was more severe. German troops were shaken by the colossal artillery fire and, for the first time, began to doubt their ability to win the war. Desertions would jump in 1917. Yet it was the French army, not the Germans, that suffered the greatest disciplinary problems in the battle’s aftermath.
For the Germans, the Somme’s legacy was nonetheless fateful. Their High Command was deeply shocked by the extent of the Allies’ material advantage, and reacted with a new, more ruthless war drive. This included pressing for unrestricted submarine warfare, the measure that provoked the US to declare hostilities in April 1917.
Ominously, the Somme also cemented German faith in the primacy of will over material. The army was reorganised in order to institutionalise the resilience and combat tactics of the small groups of infantry that had fought the British and French to a standstill in 1916. Over the longer term, this belief’s impact was even more profound and tragic. The emotive image of the unswerving front fighter hardened on the Somme and carrying all before him would be used to justify the army command’s determination to fight on against the world in 1917–18. Two decades later, it would also be remobilised by the Nazis to support their murderous ambitions for the revival of German power.
Alexander Watson is professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London and a winner of the Wolfson History Prize.