Lions led by donkeys? Britain's most traumatic land offensive of the First World War drew to its conclusion in November 1916. Trevor Wilson and Robin Prior reassess the campaign, the wisdom of its strategy and tactics, and the reputation of its C-in-C, Douglas Haig. The French village of Pozières taken 28 August 1916 during the Battle of the SommeThis month marks a noteworthy anniversary in British military history. Seventy-five years ago, the campaign on the Somme dragged to its close. The battle, extending from July 1st to November 19th 1916, constituted the first major operation launched by the British Army on the Western Front. Ever since, argument has raged over its significance. Was the Somme campaign a catastrophe for the British Army? Or, on the contrary, did it help to speed Germany to defeat? It suggests the complexity of the struggle that these matters remain undecided.
The Somme battle lasted for 141 days which can be marshalled into six fairly distinct episodes. There were three periods of intense fighting on a broad front – on July 1st, on July 14th and from September 15th to the 25th. Separating these were two periods of continuous but less extensive fighting – July 2nd-13th and July 15th to September 14th. Finally, there was the period in the mud from later September to the end of the battle.
For many the battle is known only by the fighting on the first day. On July 1st 1916, fourteen British divisions (approximately 120,000 men) attacked the German lines on a 20,000 yard front. At the end of the day 19,000 of the attackers lay dead and another 38,000 were missing or wounded. For these enormous losses all the British had gained was a section of the German front line in the south. Nothing at all had been secured in the north.
This meagre achievement fell far short of the intentions of the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig. He had anticipated bursting right through the German defences, sending his cavalry on to Bapaume, and rolling up the entire German position on the Western Front. It was in fact this grand design that sowed the seeds of disaster on the first day. To clear the way for the cavalry, Haig had given the artillery the task of crushing the successive lines of German defences. Thereby he spread his artillery resources so thin that a goodly number of German machine-guns and heavier weapons survived the bombardment unscathed. These were able to exact a fearful toll on the massed British infantry when it advanced to the attack.
In spite of this setback Haig determined to continue with the offensive. In this he was encouraged by the French, who to the south of the British had done comparatively well. His aim was to get within striking distance of the German second line in the southern sector where the attack on the first day had enjoyed its only success. This plan led to the second period of the battle. During these days attacks were made incessantly. But they were quite unlike that of July 1st. Then three-quarters of Haig's forces on the Somme had been committed on a continuous front. The second period was characterised by small-scale, piecemeal, narrow-front attacks using on average only about 14 per cent of the available battalions. So between July 2nd and July 13th, no single co-ordinated attack was made. Apparently neither Haig nor his Army commanders, Rawlinson and Gough, saw a need for such an operation. Yet the method of proceeding piecemeal was bound to prove costly. It allowed the Germans to direct artillery and machine-gun fire from those sections of their front not being attacked upon the narrow sections that were. This second period cost the British 25,000 casualties. Five of the attacking divisions suffered losses of the same order as those hardest hit on July 1st.
On July 14th the intense, broad-front attack returned to the Somme. Five divisions went forward at