The Somme: was it really a monstrous failure?

As we reach the centenary of Britain's most notorious battle of the First World War, Gary Sheffield questions whether it truly was uniquely terrible...

British reserve troops waiting to move up to the forward area during the battle of the Somme, France, 1916. Photograph from the Daily Herald Archive. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Advertisement

In the early evening of 14 July 1916, two squadrons of British and Indian cavalry launched a surprise attack on German infantry and machine-gunners near High Wood in the north-east corner of France. Carefully using the folds in the ground to conceal their advance, the horsemen of the 7th Dragoon Guards charged the defenders, got in among them, and killed and wounded a number with their lances. Stunned by the sudden assault, 32 Germans surrendered.

Their shock action over, the 7th and Deccan Horse dismounted and entrenched, but when the anticipated support from reserve infantry failed to materialise, they fell back. The two squadrons had lost about 100 men.

It was a remarkable end to a remarkable day – one that had begun at 3.25am with an artillery bombardment and a successful infantry attack on the German trenches on Bazentin Ridge. However the success was to be short-lived. To take advantage of the initial advances, reserves needed to be rushed up – a feat of organisation that was to prove beyond the capabilities of the inexperienced British Expeditionary Force (BEF). That’s why, when the cavalry did get into action, it wasn’t until the evening.

So the ‘dawn attack’ of 14 July, which promised so much, ended up gaining little. In the final analysis it was marred by administrative bungling, early gains too easily surrendered and, of course, bloodshed – an all-too familiar story in the long, brutal battle of the Somme.

The Somme has, over the past century, become a byword for futility. It is widely regarded, in Britain at least, as a uniquely terrible slaughterhouse. The casualty figures speak for themselves. Almost 20,000 British troops lost their lives on 1 July 1916 – the opening day of General Sir Douglas Haig’s ‘big push’ against German forces – in what remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. By the time the battle ground to a halt in November, Britain had suffered an estimated 420,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), while the French and German armies had lost perhaps 200,000 and 500–600,000 respectively.

Yes, the Somme was a truly terrible battle. But the question is, was it uniquely terrible – a horrific aberration in the history of Britain’s military endeavours? And is it fair to damn it as an abject failure?

Combined assault

The origins of the battle of the Somme lay in December 1915 when Britain, France, Italy and Russia agreed to launch synchronised attacks in 1916. Franco-British forces were to unleash a combined assault in the area of the river Somme, even though an attack further north, at Ypres, held more attractions to General Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the BEF. If the BEF broke out from Ypres, Haig argued, it would place key strategic objectives, such as the German-held Belgian coast, in reach. But the French insisted on the British fighting alongside them on the Somme.

The attack was preceded by a massive bombardment of German positions. With Allied guns pounding the enemy for seven days, morale among the attackers was high – surely nothing, they reckoned, could live through the artillery’s onslaught. Unfortunately, a combination of faulty tactics, the inexperience of the British gunners and lack of high explosive shells meant that the bombardment was ineffective across most of the front.

The infantry attacked on 1 July at 7.30am. Near Thiepval, 36th (Ulster) Division drove deep into the German defences, only to be forced back because the attacks of the divisions on their flanks had failed. This allowed the Germans to concentrate their fire and counterattacks on the Ulsters. Something similar happened to 56th (London) Division at Gommecourt.

In the south of the battlefield, by contrast, the British and, even more so, the French, made major advances. But it is the failures of 1 July 1916 that are remembered, along with the dreadful losses: 57,000 British casualties, of whom 19,000 were killed.

Before the battle, Haig hoped to break the German defences and open mobile warfare once more, but he had always recognised that a back-up plan of limited advances was essential. The failure to break through on the first day of the battle made that contingency a reality. Fighting from 1 to 13 July took the form of a number of small-scale or attritional attacks, usually costly in lives.

British losses were enormous. But so were German. With the defenders under enormous pressure on the Somme, General Erich von Falkenhayn, the de facto German army commander-in-chief, halted the massive offensive on French forces at Verdun (which had begun in February) on 11 July. One of the Allies’ major objectives – to relieve the pressure on the fortress city – was fulfilled.

Building on the partial success of 14 July in the southern sector of the battlefield, relentless Allied attacks crashed into resolute German defences. The German policy of immediately counterattacking Allied gains meant that places such as High Wood, Longueval and Guillemont were the scene of bitter – and repeated – struggles. The South African Brigade captured Delville (‘Devil’s’) Wood on 15 July but the Germans quickly recaptured it. British troops then retook the wood on 27 July, with fighting continuing there until early September.

Brutal training

In the northern sector of the battlefield, the fighting was equally fierce. The mostly inexperienced British empire troops and their leaders endured brutal on-the-job training on a battlefield dominated by high explosive shells. The result was confusion, courage, mistakes, the painful learning of lessons that were not always properly absorbed, and the death, wounding and traumatising of hundreds of thousands of men. Yet across the battlefield the Germans were steadily, if slowly, driven back.

By September the French army was shouldering a larger share of the fighting and, on the 12th, it almost penetrated the German defences at Bouchavesnes. Haig launched a major push on 15 September, when 12 British, Canadian and New Zealand divisions, supported by the first ever tanks to see action, advanced about a mile – far short of the hoped for breakthrough. As ever, the losses were high. A British chaplain later wrote: “The glory and success of [the battle of] September 15th I did not see, but the cost of it I shall never forget… Whereas [at the field hospital] on ordinary days one triple tent for officers and one for men sufficed, now all the rows of them were in use and the ground outside was covered in stretchers.”

Still the battle went on, despite heavy rain that turned the ground into a quagmire. General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, directed that the attrition would continue. The British attacked one hill, the Butte de Warlencourt, time and again. Shortly after it was captured, Lieutenant-Colonel Roland Boys Bradford VC, commander of 1/9 Battalion Durham Light Infantry, commented that the Butte “had become an obsession… It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. So it had to be taken.”

The final phase was the battle of the Ancre (13–18 November) in the north of the battlefield, where the 51st (Highland) Division stormed the fortified village of Beaumont-Hamel. Having seized this target (which was originally meant to be taken on 1 July) – and with the offensive running out of steam, and the weather worsening – the Allies closed the battle down.

Appalling casualties

In the case of some great military clashes – Hastings in 1066, Waterloo in 1815 – there were clear winners and losers. This was not the case with the Somme. When it ended, the attackers had advanced about seven miles, but had failed to rout the defenders, or even force them into a major retreat. Both sides suffered appalling – and comparable – casualties.

On the face of it, the Somme was a draw. But when you place it into a wider perspective, it soon becomes evident that its outcome favoured the Allies. With their greater manpower resources, the British and French empires were better equipped to sustain the dreadful attrition than the Germans. By the end of the battle, the BEF had completed its apprenticeship, had learned and applied numerous lessons, and was, in 1917, a much more experienced and competent army.

The German army, although still a formidable force, had lost key personnel. A staff officer, Captain Hans von Hentig, commented that: “The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army… dug by British industry and its shells.”

Before the Somme, German High Command had underestimated the British Army. Now, it faced the unpalatable reality that it was confronted with a major new force on the western front. The German leadership responded in two ways. In early 1917, it abandoned the old Somme battlefield and pulled the army back to a formidable defensive position, which the British dubbed the ‘Hindenburg Line’.

Even more significantly, it took the fateful decision to try to force Britain out of the war through unrestricted submarine warfare – allowing U-boats to sink merchant vessels, regardless of nationality. This was bound to bring the neutral USA into the war. Yet the Germans reckoned that a starving Britain would be compelled to sue for peace before American power could make a difference.

In doing so they made an enormously costly strategic miscalculation.

So, while the Somme was not an Allied victory in the traditional sense, it did amount to a significant strategic success for the British and French. In this respect, it was no failure.

Wars in deadlock

The Somme is remembered – perhaps more than any other military encounter in British history – as a battle of attrition. Thousands of men lost their lives fighting for tiny pockets of land that were, in many cases, soon surrendered back to the enemy. But, for all that, the Somme was hardly uniquely attritional. From Verdun to the great battles on the western front of 1915 and 1917–18, to the massive campaigns in eastern Europe, the First World War was pockmarked by protracted, grinding bloodbaths.

And this style of combat was not confined to the fighting fronts: submarine warfare and blockade were both designed to slowly but relentlessly starve the enemy population.

What’s more, attrition as a weapon of war didn’t disappear with the signing of the armistice in November 1918. In fact, it was all too typical of the high-intensity military operations that dominated the first half of the 20th century – and that includes the Second World War. Despite its reputation as a predominantly swift-moving and decisive encounter, the 1939–45 conflict often descended into deadlock too. Yes, the German army overran its enemies at lightning speed in the early years. But from late 1941 – with the Allies on the ropes but crucially not knocked out – Somme-style slogging matches returned to the battlefield.

The sheer size of the USSR, allied to the iron laws of logistics, meant that the Germans were unable to capitalise on their initial successes in Operation Barbarossa. Soviet commanders learned from their earlier defeats, and the Red Army eventually proved to be a formidable and skilful enemy.

British empire forces, although not as numerous, likewise learned lessons and became much more capable on the battlefield. The entry of the USA into the war in December 1941 brought a large, fresh and technologically advanced army into the anti-German coalition.

The shifting balance of resources was also reflected in the skies, where Allied aircraft – once terrorised by the Luftwaffe – soon reigned supreme. So, by the middle of the war, the German advantages that had served them well in earlier years had largely been eliminated. Now, the armies were much more evenly matched. Stalemate ensued.

This deadlock tended to be shorter in duration than in the First World War. Tanks, motorised transport and aircraft helped make fronts more mobile and restored the possibility of decisive manoeuvre such as battles of encirclement, largely absent from the western front from 1915–18. Nevertheless, campaigns such as the second battle of El Alamein (1942), Stalingrad (1942–43), Kursk (1943), Monte Cassino (1944), and Normandy (1944) produced conditions highly reminiscent of the western front, complete with casualty rates that often equalled or exceeded those of a generation before.

This is the context in which we need to understand the battle of the Somme. It was not an aberration. It was like so many other battles of the early 20th century – battles that had evolved by the Second World War without losing their essentially attritional character.

Yes, British Army losses in 1939–45 were substantially lower than in the First World War. But that was the case for two reasons. First, the army was much smaller. Second, the British, unlike in 1914–18, did not have to fight for a prolonged period against the main enemy – defeat in 1940 and the Dunkirk evacuation ensured that. However, casualty rates for individual units reveal that the fighting was very bloody – especially during the campaign in western Europe in 1944–45. The level of losses during the bitter advance from Normandy to the Baltic would have been grimly familiar to infantrymen who fought on the Somme two decades earlier.

Gary Sheffield is professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University. A new edition of his biography of Haig has just been published: Douglas Haig: From the Somme to Victory (Aurum Press).

Five defining moments on the Somme

1) The BEF takes the lead

Unexpectedly, it was the BEF and not the French army that contributed the most troops to the first stages of the Somme. The initial plan had the French taking the lead. However on 21 February 1916 the Germans attacked around the French city of Verdun. The fighting there sucked in large numbers of French divisions, forcing the progressive scaling back of the French contribution to the forthcoming offensive.

If the battle-hardened French army had assumed the lion’s share of the fighting rather than the inexperienced British, what would the outcome of the Somme have been? It’s a fascinating counterfactual.

2) Blood and glory on 1 July

The 1st of July 1916 was a day of mixed fortunes for the Allies. In the north of the battlefield the offensive was a disaster. In places the barbed wire was not cut, and the gunners had failed to deal with enemy artillery and machine-guns. Some divisions captured ground but were driven back through lack of support. But in the south the raw soldiers of XIII Corps, including Pals from Liverpool and Manchester, and the 8th East Surreys, who kicked footballs into action, captured all their objectives. The French also made a major advance, at a tiny cost in casualties.

3) Empire troops are cut down

On 1 July the 1st Newfoundland Regiment lost 324 men killed and 386 wounded out of a total of 801, in a brave but doomed attack near Beaumont-Hamel. This was the first contingent from the Dominions of the British empire that fought on the Somme. The Australians first came into action, around Pozières, in mid-July and August. The South African Brigade made its name at Delville Wood in mid-July, while Canadians and New Zealanders made their Somme debut in late August and September. The Somme was an important milestone in the emergence of Dominion divisions as elite formations.

4) The advantage is lost

In the early hours of 14 July, British infantry crept out under the cover of darkness into no man’s land. This lay between the British front line, captured from the Germans on 1 July, and the defenders on Bazentin ridge. When the attack was launched at dawn the defenders were surprised and rapidly overrun. A great victory appeared to be at hand. But, as we explain on page 24, it was not to be, for it proved impossible to get reserves to the right place rapidly enough to exploit the success. A cavalry attack turned out to be too little, too late.

5) Tanks roll into action

On 15 September 1916, the tank appeared for the first time upon a battlefield. Trench deadlock spurred the development of numerous weapons, including mortars and hand grenades, but the most significant was the armoured fighting vehicle.

Initially developed by the British, the Mark I tank deployed in the fighting at Flers-Courcelette was a fragile machine that broke down easily. Its performance was patchy, but the success of one machine at the village of Flers was reported in the press and caught the public imagination.

Why Haig was no butcher

The general’s strategy in 1916 was fundamentally correct

Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig is one of the most controversial generals of all time, and his performance during the battle of the Somme is central to his reputation. He has become known to some as ‘The Butcher of the Somme’, although there is no evidence that anyone called him that while the war was going on. Interestingly, until the 1960s it was Passchendaele (properly, the third battle of Ypres) that was popularly regarded as the epitome of wasteful horror, rather than the Somme.

Among the charges against Haig’s conduct of the Somme is that he was an old-fashioned cavalry general who failed to adapt to trench warfare. In reality, Haig was thoroughly conversant with modern war. After the trauma of the Boer War, he played a key role in reforming the army and preparing it for a new conflict. Haig had, among other things, been responsible for modernising the British Army. Cavalry (reformed by Haig and others) continued to have a place on the battlefield, even on the Somme.

As C-in-C from late 1915 onwards, Haig oversaw the transformation of his inexperienced army of volunteers and conscripts to a war-winning force – but the battle of the Somme took place very early in this process. He was consistent in his belief that trench deadlock should be seen as a transient phase, and that the BEF should be ready for when ‘normal’ conditions returned to the battlefield. Ultimately Haig was proved right in 1918, but it took far longer to break the stalemate than he had anticipated.

Whatever else he might have been, Haig was not a technophobe. He was a keen supporter of advanced technology, such as aircraft, quick-firing artillery and machine-guns. He has been criticised for supposedly throwing away the advantage of surprise by prematurely committing a small number of tanks to battle on 15 September. This is unjust. Tanks were simply too primitive to be war-winners, and their use to support the infantry was appropriate given the circumstances.

If Haig had waited for months for large numbers to be available, the secret would probably have leaked out.

Haig has also been accused of being vastly over-optimistic, with dire results for his troops. There is some truth in this, but only some. He believed that British shelling had cut German barbed wire prior to the attack on 1 July, but that was what his intelligence staff had told him. There was a collective failure, rather than it being solely down to Haig.

But Haig was culpable for the disastrous decision to order the artillery to fire on multiple targets during the preliminary bombardment, to ease the infantry’s way through the dense German positions and restore mobile fighting. The weight of explosives was spread far too thinly, and key German positions were not suppressed. This had bloody consequences for the attacking infantry, many of whom got no further than no man’s land or, at best, the enemy front line.

Haig also consistently overrated the effect of attrition on German morale. He was not well-served by his intelligence staff in this regard, although it is not true to say that they simply told him what he wanted to hear.

Haig’s performance as a general on the Somme was patchy but by no means all bad. He made mistakes and sometimes expected too much of his raw troops.

On occasion he was let down by senior subordinates. But while Haig’s strategy was sometimes clumsy and wasteful, it was fundamentally correct. The Somme was a critical phase in Haig’s apprenticeship as a high commander, an essential stepping-stone to the victories of 1918.

In late 1916, a divisional commander reflecting on 1 July suggested “that perhaps we had all been rather optimistic as to what it was possible to do”. Haig’s reply was unusually candid: “Well, we were all learning.”

Advertisement