Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Retrospective of the Somme 1916 II

The Tanks
There is also little doubt the properly coordinated use of tanks and infantry, over suitable ground, could have achieved major success. But hindsight, while interesting, does not alter the facts of history, and it must be appreciated that no one in 1916 – not Haig, his generals, line commanders, or even the enthusiastic officers and men of the Heavy Branch, Motor Machine Gun Corps – had any real idea of what the tanks could do in battle. It is to Haig’s credit that he believed in this new technology, and was prepared to use it: though there was doubtless an element of desperation behind the decision. However, the tactical knowledge of the tank officers was minimal. Sent prematurely into battle over poor ground, with half-trained crews, it was remarkable the Heavy Branch achieved anything worthwhile at all. When tanks were used properly the results spoke for themselves, but it would be some time before they were trusted by the infantry. By 1917 annual tank production was almost 1,300, and it was the adoption of coordinated tank and infantry attacks, with proper artillery backup, which achieved success in the latter part of the war. The Battle of Messines Ridge in 1917 was a textbook example of how to plan and wage a successful campaign. There were treble the number of artillery pieces compared to the Somme, and high priority was given to silencing enemy artillery and demolishing strongpoints. In a remarkable break with tradition, attacking troops were even shown scale models of the ground over which they were to attack, and the result was the capture of the ridge with minimal casualties.

The Artillery
The Royal Artillery too, were to benefit from the lessons learned on the Somme. The increased use of Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) in the front line, who were in direct contact with their batteries quickly enabled corrections to be made for inaccurate shellfire, and drastically cut the number of casualties caused by ‘friendly fire’. Initially, artillery units had done exactly as they were ordered, plastering German lines with shells and using ineffective shrapnel to try to clear the wire. The increased awareness of the necessity for using the correct fuzes to destroy wire was a small but significant step forward in assisting attacks. These had not only to be manufactured in vast numbers, but sent to shell factories, fitted to shells, and then shipped to the front. Needless to say, this took time to organize. Gas and smoke shells were also to become much more widely used, assisting infantry assaults of the future. The same may be said of more effective counter-battery work, aided by the watchful eyes of the Royal Flying Corps. In fact, the RFC lost 782 aircraft and 578 pilots during the Somme campaign: testimony to the high level of involvement they had in the progress of the battle. The use of the creeping barrage was effective when executed correctly, but difficult to coordinate in an era when speedy battlefield communications were virtually non-existent. This meant that precise staff work – often sadly lacking – could make the difference between success and failure. The broader tactical use of machine-guns to lay down barrage fire, would also become commonplace after 1916.

For the infantry, the Somme was to prove that pre-war tactics had become not only outmoded but downright dangerous. By 1916 most of the old Regular Army soldiers were dead or wounded. The men who replaced them – mostly Territorials – were of a different breed: better educated, less willing to accept an order unquestioningly, and not wedded to the ethics of a pre-war army. They were mindful of the need to adapt their tactics to the situation. And by late 1916 new training manuals were being developed, which owed much to lessons learned by Allied forces on the Somme and at Verdun. Marching forward in line abreast, with rifles at the port, was a recipe for disaster and troops were trained to move in short rushes, using the far more effective ‘diamond’ formation. The old infantry section was deemed too clumsy and was split into four units: riflemen, grenade men, rifle bombers (using rifle propelled grenades), and Lewis gunners. These men had specific tasks to perform and it is from this period that the concept of the infantryman as a battlefield specialist began to emerge.

As to Kitchener’s men, what impact did the Somme battles have on their strength and morale? Of those who entered the Somme campaign in July 1916, few remained to see in the new year of 1917 who had not suffered during those traumatic months. Many were simply worn-out with the fighting, the incessant mud, the monotonous diet, and the constant loss of comrades. They became fatalistic, often outwardly callous and uncaring, in an attempt to provide themselves with an emotional shield that would enable them to continue to function as soldiers. For some this fa├žade was to last a lifetime. Most simply gritted their teeth and tried to survive as best they could. Some sixty years later, one infantryman from a Pals Regiment said that after the Somme, he just concentrated on one day at a time, avoiding anything that involved extra risk:

‘I was going to bloody well get home, all my chums were dead or in Blighty wounded and there were only four of us originals left in the whole battalion. I’d done nearly three years, with only thirteen days leave and I felt it was the turn of those who had been sitting out the war to do their bit. I didn’t care if some other poor sod copped it, if it kept me out of trouble.’

Others proved unable to withstand the stress and they resorted to self-inflicted wounds or faking sickness. Few of their friends blamed them. It was to the great credit of the amateur army that despite the casualties and the appalling fighting conditions, morale generally remained good and a grim determination to ‘see the job through’ pervaded all ranks. So much had been lost, the men believed the sacrifice of the dead could not go unrewarded, and they would continue to fight the Germans until they had been defeated.

For their part, the Germans were also exhausted by the fighting and their spirit of optimism and defiance began to weaken after 1916. Lieutenant Gustav Sack, who survived the Somme campaign to be killed in December 1916, wrote: ‘We, the “good soldiers”, fight because we are here to save our skins and want to survive at all costs. We are not fighting for an aim, not for the Fatherland, nor for a united Germany – that is all stuff and nonsense.’ It is a fact the Somme battles, while they did not become the graveyard of the German Army, were to witness the start of its sickening: an unravelling of a hitherto tightly knit military machine. If Haig’s battle could not be claimed as a heroic victory, neither can its critics justifiably claim it to have been an utter failure, although the price paid was unacceptably high. After the Somme, battles began to be fought on a far more professional footing.

It cannot be disputed that Haig and his generals had initially been found wanting. No one could accuse Haig of being a visionary. Perhaps if generals of the stature of Allenby or Plumer had been given an opportunity to command, things might have been different: but ‘perhaps’ is not a very useful word in history. Haig and his staff, like the unbloodied soldiers under their command, had learned a great deal from the campaign and this was to help the Allies defeat Germany eventually. It surprises many people to learn the level of Allied casualties sustained in the final 100 days of the war was far higher, proportionately, than during the Somme, being some 3,645 men a day. Ironically, the ground fought over was almost the same as that where the war had begun, five years and 11 million casualties earlier.

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