Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Retrospective of the Somme 1916 I

Although further attacks were planned, the weather again intervened and on 19 November it unexpectedly turned milder, which heralded a rapid thaw that soon turned the entire battlefield into an impenetrable quagmire. It was beyond the abilities of man, animal or machine to cross the battlefield, as trenches collapsed wholesale and troops were forced from their meagre shelters into the open. So appalling were the ground conditions that even the British Official History – not noted for its emotive use of hyperbole – was moved to comment: ‘Our vocabulary is not adapted to describe such an existence, because it is outside experience for which words are normally required.’ Private W. Wells, who went on to serve in the Passchendaele battles of the following year, commented of that Somme winter:

‘The conditions were impossible – no one could live in it. We couldn’t get hot drinks as the ration parties couldn’t get up. Most of us were soaked through and it was too wet to light fires even if we had something to cook. We heard that some men had shot themselves rather than go through anymore of it. Passchendaele was bad, but by then they [GHQ] knew how much a man could stand of those conditions. I think the Somme was worse, much worse.’

The Losses
So what had all the sacrifice achieved? In total the battle had advanced the British lines a little over 6 miles (9.6km) and in the course of the fighting some important objectives had been captured, such as Beaucourt, Beaumont Hamel, Eaucourt L’Abbaye, Lesboeufs, Le Sars, St Pierre Divion, and Thiepval Ridge. But at what human cost? Obtaining accurate figures for the casualties of the campaign is easier for the Allied forces, as the gathering of statistical information was generally more organized. The number of casualties from 1 July to 19 November was officially quoted as 498,000 with an additional 20,000 estimated to have subsequently died of wounds. A particularly sobering statistic is that during the battle, British losses averaged 2,943 men a day, the equivalent of about three line battalions. For each division it was 8,026 men over the entire battle. The Commonwealth Divisional losses were proportionately greater, bearing in mind the far smaller number of troops employed: the Australians 8,960, the New Zealanders losing 8,133, and the Canadians 6,329.

German figures are harder to estimate, as they did not include in their casualty returns heavy losses sustained through shelling prior to the 1 July attack. However, all indications are that they suffered considerably both before and during the battle. The figure for losses from June–November is now thought to be probably somewhere between 460,000 and 600,000 men. This should be compared with the casualties at Verdun of some 336,000 men, which at the time the German High Command regarded as unacceptably high. This was only a part of the overall picture, however, for the total losses for Germany in 1916 was over 1 million men, as the fighting on the Eastern Front had also been raging unabated. France did not come out unscathed either, losing some 210,000 men. By any standards, this meant the rate of British, French, and German casualties on the Somme was unsustainable. Like so many men of the old Regular BEF, most of the Germans who were killed or wounded on the Somme were tough, experienced soldiers who could not be readily replaced. 

Ludendorff was being candid when he stated that after the Somme: ‘The army had been fought to a standstill and was utterly worn out.’ After the campaign there was considerable analysis in Germany about why their superior army had not comprehensively defeated the British at the outset, but the reasons were many and complex. The amateur soldiers of the new BEF proved a far tougher proposition than anyone had expected, and British tactics had improved considerably during the campaign’s five months of fighting. After the Somme, Ludendorff was under no illusions about the ability of Germany to win a decisive victory on the Western Front, and he feared the constantly aggressive behaviour shown by the British High Command would simply prove beyond the ability of even the German Army to contain: ‘even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest.’

For the British, the campaign had highlighted some serious shortcomings in both tactics and planning, as well as underlining the fact that, like Germany, the country was unable to absorb the levels of casualties sustained on the Somme. To attempt to do so would not only put an unbearable strain on the country to provide sufficient men, but would also stretch the ability of industry to produce sufficient war matériel. As it was, conscription had been introduced in January 1916, and by the latter months of that year, it was becoming obvious the standard of men entering the ranks was not the same as it had been in 1915. The ceaseless demand for manpower also meant there was no longer the luxury of retaining men at home until their training was complete. Private Clarrie Jarman had enlisted on the outbreak of war in 1914 and spent almost a year and a half in England training, before embarking for France. While this was exceptional, a year for training was considered normal. By mid-1916 this had dropped to six months, and by 1917 this had further been reduced to four months. In 1918, men were being sent to the front with under three weeks training, some never even having fired their rifles. It was clearly a situation no country could support indefinitely, and embarrassing questions were being asked in Parliament about exactly what General Haig’s long-term strategy was? Some suggested wryly that is was to wait until we had two men left and the Germans one, then declare a British victory.

Whether the Somme was the ‘ghastly failure’ that David Lloyd George had declared it to be is a moot point, for it had undoubtedly sharpened the High Command’s perception of how to wage efficient warfare on a massive scale. The tactics of early 1916 were essentially the same as had been used at the start of the war and were about as effective. Sending masses of men into machine-guns, uncut wire, and shellfire was not a recipe for military success. But the lessons of the Somme meant even those most remotely situated from the fighting had seen graphic examples of how well-planned attacks could work (as evidenced by the 27 July assaults): yet these lessons were not applied wholesale: some of the more traditional commanders remaining unconvinced. So the question must be asked, by what methods could things have been improved?

If there was one area in which technology could have radically altered the course of not just of the battle, but the entire war, it was communications. The methods employed had not materially improved since the days of the Greeks. Runners were still used by commanders to carry messages to units in the field: but by 1916 the chances of them reaching their destinations unscathed were slim indeed. During the battle for High Wood, one commanding officer sent six runners simultaneously to take a vital message back to GHQ and not one arrived. Not for nothing were runners among the most frequently decorated soldiers in the field. Wireless telegraphy was employed, but relied on a network of cables that were vulnerable to shellfire and passing traffic. Wires could even be snapped unwary infantrymen moving to and fro. Thus repairs were a constant nightmare for the linesmen of the Royal Engineers. The invention of the short wave radio came too late for the war. It would revolutionize battlefield communications, enabling instant decisions to be made and passed to combat units. Until then, semaphore and signalling lamps were the most commonly used means of communicating. Not unfairly has it been said that the availability of just one pair of walkie-talkies could well have altered the course of the war.

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