In a conference in December 1915 the allies resolved to launch a simultaneous set of attacks across all fronts in order to put Germany and her allies under maximum pressure. For the British and the French the focus of their combined attack was to be the Somme Valley. By February 1916 Haig had assented to this idea and planning began accordingly. However all the plans changed when the Germans launched their attack on the Verdun sector, designed to inflict a fatal number of casualties on the French Army thus knocking them out of the war.
With the vast majority of the French divisions initially assigned to the Somme attack now diverted to Verdun the main burden of the offensive now fell on the British. This battle was to be the largest attack by the British on the Western Front by far, and also one which would involve many of the New Army units, including the ‘Pals’ battalions.
The British battle plan, along with the French to the south of the River Somme, was, in essence, to capture a series of ridges held by the Germans by various leaps and bounds. Haig and the Fourth Army commander General Rawlinson planned a number of attacks, or phases. The 1st phase was designed to capture a line some 27,000 yards, or just over 15 miles, long, with the Third Army launching a diversionary attack. The 2nd phase was to involve the Fourth Army capturing the German second position and ready itself for an attack on the third position around the town of Flers. Whilst this was going on the French Sixth Army was to attack in the south to guard the right flank of the British advance.
The battle started on the 24th June 1916 with a five day bombardment designed to smash the German defences. The effects of the artillery barrage varied considerably. In some areas the German wire was completely flattened and their artillery destroyed. In other places the wire remained intact and the attacking infantry found themselves confronted by machine guns and artillery. The reason for this variation across the German front can be ascribed to a number of reasons, these include:
- Little of the German artillery had been ranged correctly therefore was not destroyed.
- Many of the rounds fired were duds.
- Most of the shells were shrapnel, not high explosive, as a result these shells failed to blow away the wire or damage the enemy dugouts.
- The number of guns was insufficient
With the main attack planned for the 29th June, it became rapidly clear that the bad weather and uncertainty as to the effect of the bombardment, was going to force a delay. As a result Haig ordered the bombardment to continue for a further two days, pushing that attack back to the 1st July.That day dawned dry and hazy, with a mist that would clear by 7.30 in the morning. All along the front the silence, after the seven day bombardment, was deafening. With the sounds of whistles echoing down the British lines the two British armies, Third and Fourth, launched themselves against the German defenders of General Below’s 2nd Corps. At the end of a day that was to be remembered forevermore the British Army suffered the greatest casualties it had ever endured, in a single day, and the German army was left staggered. To the north of the Albert-Bapaume the British attack was a disaster, and where most of the 60,000 casualties suffered by the British Army were inflicted. To the south of the road though the French 6th Army, and the right wing of the British 4th Army, inflicted a crushing defeat on the Germans, with their defence mostly collapsing. As a result in the southern sector the Germans began a retreat towards Peronne, to establish another defensive line. The misery in the northern zone was compounded in the afternoon when the Germans launched a series of counterattacks which recaptured a lot of the ground taken by the British in the morning assault.
The First Day of the Somme remains a controversial topic. The national idea, or memory, of that day is of British soldiers weighed down by 66lbs of equipment, walking shoulder to shoulder into withering German machine gun fire, because of idiotic orders by their commanders. This version of events can be ascribed to the immediate post war analysis of historians such as Basil Lidell Hart and J E Edmunds. A closer look at the details of the battle though provides a very different story.
The Tactical Notes for the battle, issued by Rawlinson, did not state in which manner the British were to advance, rather he seems to have deliberately used vague terms such as ‘a steady pace’ or ‘the rapid advance of some lightly equipped men.’ By using such terms Rawlinson seems to have left the process by which units would advance up to the battalion commanders. As a result of this different divisions moved at different paces. Men of the 31st Division, for example, crept into No Man’s Land before the bombardment had lifted. In the 29th Division some battalions marched, whilst others rushed. The 8th, 32nd and 36th Divisions were bolder still, with some of their battalions advancing to within the German wire. In fact it is now estimated that of the battalions that advanced on that day in a known order, 53 crept into No Man’s Land, 10 rushed the German lines, and 12 advanced at a steady pace.
The losses suffered by the 4th Army were indeed very high, 57,470 casualties, killed, missing and wounded, and 19,240 men killed. The countries memory portrays these numbers as a national outrage, and a stain on the character of the commanders, in particular Haig and Rawlinson. However these figures need to be put into perspective. On the 22st August 1914, the French had 27,000 killed in a single day. Going further back in time, the Battle of Waterloo saw 30,000 killed in a single day. The 1st day of the Somme wasn’t even the highest casualty rate, in terms of men killed, that Britain has experienced. March 29th 1461 27,000 men were killed at the battle of Towton, or roughly 1% of the total population of England.
How then has the 1st day of the Somme come to represent the futility of war, and used as a cudgel to beat the British commanders of the First World War? The process started with several post war historians, mainly following the death of Field Marshall Haig in 1928, who started to tear apart the British commanders and their achievements, or lack of, during the war. It can be argued that by selecting only documents that supported their arguments, and inventing others, these historians managed to sabotage much of the history of the First World War. Alan Clarke in his book ‘Donkeys’ even coined the phrase ‘Lions lead by Donkeys’ and ascribed it to a conversation between the German commanders Ludendorff and Hindenburg, which when pressed he admitted to making up. Clarke’s book, which by far is the most scathing attack on British senior command in the war, helped to influence the country’s view of the war and led to other things such as the play ‘Oh What a Lovely War.’
In recent years there has been a swing amongst many historians of the war towards a more favourable view of the conflict and the British commanders. They, including men such as John Terraine, who was a founding member of the Western Front Association, argued that no one person had ever commanded such a huge army in British military history, and as such Haig had to very much learn on the spot. Combined with this the huge difference in military technology which favoured defence over attack, forced all armies to come up with new tactics and new weaponry, such as tanks, which Haig was in favour of. Equally, and especially true for the Somme the British Army evolved over the four years of conflict from a small highly trained force, to a mass citizen army.
All of these facts, combined with many others contributed to a unique situation in the First World War. For the first time the country truly became a ‘Nation in Arms’ and it was this situation which both Haig and Asquith, later Lloyd George, found themselves in command of, with no experience of it, and little examples in history to gain inspiration from. The fact that Haig, in command of his citizen army, was able to accomplish so much following the German offensives of 1918, and use the forces at his command, in a combined arms role that modern commanders would recognise, to break the German army and force it into a retreat from which it was not allowed to recover, tells us much of the man in charge, as well as the soldiers he lead.
Learn more in this film from the Ministry of Defence: The Battle of the Somme Explained