The Battles of the Somme 1916

1 July - 18 November 1916

The British C-in-C Sir Douglas Haig and commander of Fourth Army Sir Henry Rawlinson are often criticised for the choice of tactics at the opening of the Somme offensive on 1 July 1916. It has been stated time and again that they assumed that a lengthy bombardment would destroy barbed wire defences and suppress the defenders in the trenches. It would be a walkover.

The British artillery bombardment before the Somme

The British Army now has unprecented artillery available for the battle

Until the Somme the largest bombardment fired by the British Army had been in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. That had been enough to destroy the enemy's wire, strongpoints and trenches in some places and to allow the attacking infantry to break into the German defences. The heaviest bombardment in terms of shells per yard had been at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Yet the firepower at both seemed to be a fleabite in comparison with that being assembled in Fourth Army on the Somme. There were now almost twice as many weapons - when viewed on a "per yard of front" basis - in heavy artillery, and a quarter more in field artillery, than at Loos. This time too, there was at first plenty of ammunition for the planned bombardment. Confidence was high. General Sir Henry Rawlinson said to his subordinates, "nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it". Whether he, no idle dreamer, believed it is another matter.

A comparison of the artillery available for the opening of Loos and the Somme

  Loos Somme
Frontage (yards) 11200 25000
  Number Guns per X yards of front Number Guns per X yards of front
Field artillery For cutting wire, trenches, strongpoints, etc
18-pounder guns 304 36.8 808 30.9
4.5" howitzers 72 155.5 202 123.7
Heavy artillery For destroying artillery, railways, roads 
4.7" guns 12   32  
60-pounder guns 24   128  
6" guns 5   20  
9.2" guns 2   1  
12" guns 0   1  
6" howitzers 36   104  
8" howitzers 16   64  
9.2" howitzers 10   60  
12" howitzers 0   11  
15" howitzers 3   6  
Total heavies 108 103.7 427 58.5
Other obsolescent types (all light) 39   0  
Source: British Official History, Military Operations, France & Flanders 1916 Volume 1 

Shell casings

But the task set was beyond even this expanded artillery capability

This accumulation of firepower, however, was spread over a very deep area. Haig's extension of the battle plan to include the second German trench system halved at a stroke the weight of artillery that could fall on the front lines. The guns would have to fire on deep barbed wire defences as well as multiple lines of trenches in each system. When viewed as in terms of weight of shellfire per yard of enemy trench, the Somme bombardment was not even up to that fired at Neuve Chapelle, over a year before..

The bombardment plan

Fourth Army HQ issued the bombardment orders to the artillery units on 5 June. There would be a five-day ceaseless rain of shells on the enemy, in a number of stages. Individual artillery units would fire in 2 hour periods, with a rest in between. Z Day was the day of the infantry assault, and the preceding days were U, V, W and X Days. The first two days would be devoted largely to cutting the barbed wire defences. For the final three days, the heavy artillery would destroy trenches, emplacements, strong points and enemy artillery, and the field guns would continue the removal of the wire. In places there would be releases of gas and smoke, to deceive the enemy as to intentions. Roads and tracks would be shelled at night, to stop supplies and relief units coming up. There would also be a daily 80-minute intensive bombardment: on Z Day this would be a quarter of an hour shorter, in theory allowing men to advance when the enemy was still under cover.

Very little of the British artillery would be ranged against the German artillery. At this stage of the war the techniques for spotting the enemy's guns were still developmental and gunnery techniques could not be accurate enough to hit them had they been identified. In the opening attack, unsuppressed German artillery effectively barred no man's land to British reserves. Those troops that did get into enemy lines were cut off, with no way for reinforcements to get through and no way back.

The bombardment begins: U Day, 24 June 1916
A dull day, low cloud and heavy rain, following thunderstorms the day before.

The day the battle of the Somme really began. It is a myth, showing much misunderstanding of a First World War battle, to believe it began with the infantry attack on 1 July. The wire cutting was begun. No aerial observation flights being possible until very late in the day, no "counter-battery" firing (that is, aiming at the German artillery) was done. Enemy artillery retaliation was light. 4th Division released gas for an hour in the Beaumont Hamel area.

Howitzer on the Somme

V Day, 25 June 1916
Much brighter and warmer day.

Wire cutting continues and work on enemy artillery increases. RFC pilots report large explosions at enemy dumps at Longueval, Montauban, Mametz Wood and Pozieres. 102 hostile batteries are iidentified firing, as the German response increases. RFC shoots down three enemy observation balloons on Fourth Army front. At night, the infantry sent out raiding parties to judge the situation: the news is mixed. Opposite 30th and 18th Divisions at Montauban, the trenches are badly damaged and very lightly held; at La Boisselle and Ovillers, 34th and 8th Divisions find them full of men, on the alert.

W Day, 26 June 1916
Heavy showers return, with sunny intervals. Low cloud prevents good aerial observation.

4th and 29th Divisions release gas at Beaumont Hamel, several others use smoke. The destructive shoot opens, adding to the wire cutting. 80 minutes intensive fire opens at 9am. RFC photographs appear to show good destruction of wire, but it was decided to increase shellfire on the wire. Some Divisions firing at rate of 4-500 shells per gun per day on cutting the wire. Ten infantry raids again bring mixed results, but interrogation of the few prisoners gives cause for optimism. Cowed by the shellfire, they are expecting only local attacks..

X and Y Days, 27-28 June 1916
Thick mist and heavy rain.

Observation of fall of shells and the effect they are having is almost impossible due to wather. Raids again bring conflicting reports of damage to wire, condition and manning of trenches. The last of the gas supplies is released, and the bombardment continues. Raiding parties found the enemy in greater numbers and more alert than previously.

Allies agree to a change of plan

In view of the bad weather and the uncertainty about the effect of the bombardment, French and British leaders - notably Foch, who was pressing for this - plans were changed at 11am on Y Day. There would be a 48 hour delay before the infantry attack went in. A nightmare for the staffs who had to hurriedly issue orders, for the supply units and for the infantry. For the artillery, some hard thinking about how to spin out the stocks of shells for another two days firing. For Germans in the shelters below the front lines, the misery continues..

The two extra days: Y1 and Y2 Days, 29-30 June 1916
The weather brightened although it was still far from perfect for observing the effects of the firing.

171 enemy batteries were spotted in action (but little counter battery work was done until 30 June) and fires were seen in many places in and behind the German lines. Smoke and some gas was released and the enemy reacted, firing machine guns and putting down barrages on no man's land and the front lines. Raids began to bring back brighter news of large gaps in the wire, although observers in the British front lines also reported much intact wire. On the Beaumont Hamel front, 4th Division and 29th Division reported that the wire was passable everywhere. A German deserter from Mametz said that they expected an attack and wished it would come, as the men had had no food for three days.

The last patrols report: Y2 Day and early on Z day, 30 June - 1 July 1916

Although it was only a matter of hours before the main assault began, infantry patrols were maintained. They brought conflicting evidence of the state of the enemy's wire. It appeared in general to be better cut on the right [opposite XIII and XV Corps, where the artillery was concentrating only on the first German defensive system, unlike on the left where it was tackling two systems]. It could be seen that efforts had been made by the enemy to close gaps with concertina wire and cheveux de frise structures. In some areas, patrols reported that there were few gaps, and where there were they were very narrow. All patrols reported that the enemy frontline was now strongly held. This was, with the clock ticking down to zero, hardly reassuring.

The basis of a disaster

The effects of the bombardment varied considerably, as will be seen from the individual battle reports mentioned above. In some places the wire was flattened and the enemy artillery silenced. In others, the attacking infantry faced virtually untouched and deep belts of wire, with alerted enemy gunners behind it. It became all too clear that despite the heavy and prolonged bombardment, it had been insufficient to destroy the defences and suppress the enemy as had been hoped and assumed. Even during the shelling, a nagging doubt began to become apparent: many of the rounds fired were "duds" (failed to explode). In addition, much of the bombardment had been of shrapnel, not high explosive, and it failed to make sufficient impact on blowing away the wire or damaging the deep enemy dugouts.

Another factor behind the poor results of the expenditure of effort and ammunition was the inexperience and immature state of training of the officers and gunners of the artillery of the New Armies. French pressure to attack early was already having baleful effects on the British Army and would lead inexorably to the deaths of many man.

Should Haig and Rawlinson and their staffs done something different, once they knew the bombardment had been only partially effective? Could they have avoided the tens of thousands of casualties of the opening attack?

It is easy in retrospect to believe that they should. But they faced an impossible situation. The major Ally was pushing hard for the British to make an attack. There had been no opportunity for surprise and the Germans knew full well it was coming. What could they have done? Not cancel or delay the attack, certainly. Fire an even longer bombardment? Not a practical proposition. The die was cast.

In retrospect

When the battle was later analysed, it was realised that despite the apparently colossal build up of artillery and weight of firepower, it was still insufficient to suppress the defences and destroy the enemy's ability to defend. The peak of artillery strength came just under a year later, at the Battle of Messines. In this highly successful battle, the British artillery had more than twice as many field guns per yard than at the Somme, and three times as much heavy artillery. In the first eight days of the Somme, 1.73m rounds were fired, of which a significant proportion were duds; at Messines, the comparable figure at Messines was 3.25m with far fewer failing to explode. At Messines, a much higher proportion of the effort was devoted to the destruction of the German artillery. It was at Verdun that the saying "artillery conquers, infantry occupies" was coined. And it was right: a hard lesson learned by all sides.

Duds

Sources

  • British Official History, Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1916, Volume 1.
  • "The life of General Lord Rawlinson of Trent" by Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, Cassell, 1928.
  • "Command on the Western Front", by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, 1992.