The Somme offensive 1916 and ‘Pointlessness’

The Somme offensive, “a gargantuan effort by Field Marshall Haig to move his drinks cabinet 6″ closer to Berlin” and with 1.5 million casualties over the 3 months of fighting vies with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Verdun as the bloodiest battles in history, and is consistently held up as an example of the futility of war. What was the point, people ask, of throwing all those men, thoughtlessly over the top, which achieved nothing. To which I always reply, it wasn’t thoughtless, nor did it achieve nothing. The image of men marching into machine guns an inaccurate caricature of the first day, not the whole battle. Indeed contrary to popular imagination of thoughtless Generals piling ever more men into ever more murderous offensives, enormous thought was put into the battle as many approaches to end the stalemate which had existed since 1914, were tried. That many failed should not reflect badly on the men desperately seeking solutions. Whether the objective was worth the cost, you decide. Those making the decisions, and those obeying the orders which flowed from them at the time clearly thought the cost was ‘worth it’, and thought it ‘worth it’ for a further two and a half years.

First, the strategic point of the battle was a little more sophisticated than that parodied in ‘Blackadder’. It was to relieve the French on the Meuse, who were at that point being bled white by a massive German offensive at the fort of Verdun. The French Army was close to collapse which if it occurred would see the British Army surrounded, cut off from the channel ports, and nearly a million men would have been captured. The war would have been lost, and the British Empire would probably have been carved up between Germany and Austria-Hungary, to the detriment of, I think, every citizen of the Empire. France would have been over-run. The light of democracy in Europe would have been snuffed out. The British Army HAD to relieve the French and the only way to do it was to launch an offencive themselves. In this ultimate strategic goal, the battle was a success, despite hasty preparations. The German army immediately ended its offensive at the Meuse to concentrate on reinforcing the Somme front to the North-West. The French stayed in the war.

Second: the tactics. This was the first major offensive involving Kitchener’s citizen soldiers, many of whom were hastily trained. They were not the “Old Contemptibles” who so surprised the German Army on the Marne two years earlier with accurate rifle fire of such a rate that the Germans thought every man was armed with a machine-gun. Complex small-unit tactics such as section and platoon fire & manoever were just not possible with such raw troops. So the army tried a new tactic, one still in use today the Creeping, or Walking Barrage. Prior to this, the enemy were to be annihilated by a massive bombardment lasting several days, that it was hoped, nothing could survive. And if they did, the still new mine warfare led to detonations under the German Lines 2 minutes prior to the men going ‘over the top’ would finish off the survivors. The attacking British wore full kit, because they were expected to occupy positions they took, perhaps without resupply. These were new tactics: The troops following on day one were too far behind their own gunfire (to protect from self inflicted casualties) allowing the Germans to come out from their dug outs and man the Guns before the British troops got into the German lines. The mines weren’t numerous or big enough.

Blackadder, set in 1917 has the guns fall silent before they go “over the top”, because it’s “more sporting” to let the Germans do the killing. A gag, but telling about the world-view of the writer, and ultimately inaccurate. The heavy guns would have switched to depth postions o prevent reinforcement and still be firing, and the ligther guns would be raining fire down ahead of the advancing troops, who would, by 1917, be taking more casualties from “dropshorts” than enemy action: 10% casualties from your own guns was thought better than 15% casualties from the enemies’. It still is.

The German defences were hard, and well-constructed. And the German soldier is always tough. And this has led to the idea that the pre-bombardment didn’t work. It did, in places: the Germans who faced the French to the south of the British, for example faced an army much better equipped with really heavy artillery (and with the right shells, see comments). As a result, the French bombardment of the Germans worked. The Somme is not seared into the french consiousness as it is the British because they achieved all their day one objectives, and more and at much lower cost. The popular image of the futility of the pre-attack bombardment is false. The British guns were just not big or numerous enough. Lessons were learned.

There were examples of inflexible behaviour from officers, as there are in any war, sticking to the plan at all costs, but there were also examples of excellent leadership successfully exploiting local successes. You only need to look at the survival rates of officers compared to their men to see that the British officer led from the front. These were not “lions led by donkeys”, but brave men doing their best in all ranks. The myths of the first world war do disservice to the men who fought.

The first day of the Somme was Britain’s bloodiest day, seared into the folk memory of the communities who were ripped apart by the losses suffered by the pals battalions which went over the top. Newfoundlanders, Ulstermen and men from the New Army formations, mainly from the Midlands and The North were shattered in a way hopefully never to be repeated.

As the battle wore on new tactics were tried, new technologies rushed into service, such as Landships (codenamed ‘tanks’ to fool the Germans that they were mobile water supply vehicles). This was not an organisation which was throwing men’s lives away lightly. Nor was it without point.The citizen-soldiers facing each other across the Somme in 1916 were not victims of stupidity. They were soldiers fighting a total war of a sort that perhaps, if we are lucky, the likes of which the world has seen the end.

Those men died so France would remain in the war, eventually so that the Democracies of Britain, France, the Dominions, and later the USA would triumph over the totalitarian monarchies of Central Europe. Their legacy, and that of their Children who fought for the same goals 23 years later, is the basic human freedom we still enjoy to this day. Our freedom to say what we will to those who would rule us did not come free.

Wear your poppy with pride, and protect dearly that for which they fought. For that is the best memorial to the young men who died 94 years ago.

19 replies
  1. Robert Edwards
    Robert Edwards says:

    Alan Clark did a great disservice to history when he used the expression 'Lions led by donkeys'; it gave us that awful piece of crap 'Oh! What a lovely war' as well as the Blackadder school of analysis.

    But in truth, he made it up. No German general ever said any such thing.

    Good piece! The war was necessary because the Kaiser was a shit.

  2. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    The lack of effective artillery fire in the Somme was the higher use of shrapnel rather than High Explosives. The Royal Artillery as a % had a much higher ammount of shrapnel shells than the French or Germans. Great for armies in the open, dug in bugger all use.

    Recommend "Mud, Blood and Poppycock" if you want a realistic view of the battle.

  3. Cuffleyburgers
    Cuffleyburgers says:

    Well researched, argued and deeply moving post. They were truly a race of heroes.

    The Blackadder analysis (for want of a better term) is however, like the Germans, deeply entrenched – in my case the indoctrination began at primary school with Oh what a lovely war.

    The first world war is too important to be left to teachers – the most tragic event in history, signalled the end of a genuinely golden age of scientific advancement, free trade and generally beneficent pax britannica.

    Pax Americana after the second WW was hardly the same, and fuck knows what Pax Cinesa (or whatever) will look like.

    I can hardly wait.

  4. Robert Edwards
    Robert Edwards says:

    Corrigan's book is excellent. As is 'Happy Odessey' by General Carton de Wiart. There were more than 250 Officers of General rank (Brigadier and upwards) who were casualties through the whole war.

    I should used the word 'analysis' more sarcastically.

  5. Demetrius
    Demetrius says:

    Thank you for this, the trouble with our perspectives of this war and battle is the propaganda it has been used for long after. What happened on the first day was very variable. The 30th Division, for example, achieved its objectives with few casualties. One thing that did (or did not) happen was that support elements to follow up successful sectors were too slow in bringing up and often in the wrong places. You are right in saying that the general situation meant it was not enough simply to defend given the battering the French had taken but that a major attack of some kind was needed to check the Germans.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I may recommend "Battle Tactics of the Western Front" by the late Paddy Griffith. It is quite the eyeopener and debunks the theory that the British Army simly engaged in futile industrialised slaughter. True the 1916 Kitchener army was barely trained or ready and Lloyd George removed a significant element of the Army just prior to the battle beginning. The British Army developed through 1916 and early 1917 to become the most formidable and efficient fighting force on earth.
    An excellent article, thank you.

  7. Andrew Zalotocky
    Andrew Zalotocky says:

    We are very unlikely to see a total war of this kind again because it is only possible at a certain level of technological development. A less advanced society does not have the technological or economic capacity to mount such a huge and relentless campaign.

    But a more advanced society has the means to end the war quickly, whether through precision bombing, a nuclear holocaust, or even a cyber attack that reduces the enemy nation to chaos without a shot being fired. Tanks, aircraft and missiles also make it impossible to fight the kind of static warfare seen on the Western Front.

    More advanced technology is also more expensive, so eventually it becomes impossible to equip a huge citizen army and impossible to replace key pieces of equipment. For example, during both World Wars many aircraft types were designed from scratch, put into service, and then replaced by something better. Modern combat aircraft take years to design and months to build. A modern air force cannot expect to even replace its losses during a war, let alone get anything new.

    It's hard to see how it would be possible for any modern nation to ever fight such a large-scale war of attrition again.

  8. lost_nurse
    lost_nurse says:

    "The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still."


    As a south-western lad, I remain profoundly grateful.

    We will remember them.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Generally a good article. However, it should be highlighted that the battle of the Somme lasted for several months; it was not just the one day on July 1st.

    According to most sources, the "creeping barrage" tactic was not used on the first day; it was a tactic that was developed after an analysis of what happened that day. It should be said that it also lead to the development of much closer operational control beteen the various branches of the military.

    Although the "New Army" divisions featured quite heavily, they were not perhap as green as might be imagined. Many of them had in fact been in training for well over a year; some had even been in France for very many months before the battle started. In many cases they achieved their objectives, but were ill prepared for the counter offensive, and had to give up ground that had been taken.

    However, you are correct that it was essential to start a major offensive at that time. The French had indeed been very heavily attacked around Verdun and it would have potentially been a disaster; once through, the Germans would have been in Paris within a few days.The Somme Offensive relieved that pressure and ensured that the French were able to keep fighting.

    "At the going down of the sun, and in the morning; we will remember them"

  10. Rob
    Rob says:

    Concur with the comment re creeping barrage being used later than 1st July but nontheless a a very good and thoughtful posting.
    These men in 1916 were volunteers (pre Derby Act) and willingly made the sacrifice and should always be remembered with honour.

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Excellent commentary! If you read Richard Holmes's outstanding book, "Mud, Blood and Poopycock", it basically details how the Somme Offensive plus the creattion of Kitchener's conscript army saved the day as the French were near collapse in 1916 and not entirely combat effective for the rest of the war. Wear those poppies with pride.

  12. TonyF
    TonyF says:

    Good post. There was a lot of 'politicking'going on at headquarters at that time, and the histories that were written at the time were coloured to show certain officers in a poorer light than was actually the case. Also the fact that the French were on their uppers was not widely known, and the subsequent mutiny by French troops (who to be honest, had been decimated) was also kept quiet for morale reasons.

    There are now many good books written about the first world war. I have just recently read one about the mine warfare and their uses by all combatants, even in Gallipoli.

  13. lost_nurse
    lost_nurse says:

    "I have just recently read one about the mine warfare and their uses by all combatants, even in Gallipoli."

    My Great Grandfather (later a Lt Col RE) was a sapper at Gallipoli, where – needless to say – there was plenty to do in addition to blowing things up (not least sorting out water supplies). In his diary from the campaign one entry reads, simply: "Under heavy fire all day. Made jam."

    Which is a triumph of British understatement – except that he was actually half-German. 🙂

  14. Tim Newman
    Tim Newman says:

    The Somme offensive, "a gargantuan effort by Field Marshall Haig to move his drinks cabinet 6" closer to Berlin" and with 1.5 million casualties over the 3 months of fighting vies with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Verdun as the bloodiest battles in history

    Leningrad was something quote different, though. Being a siege, there was not much actual combat going on, and the German casualties were fairly light, being content to bomb and shell the city and starve it into submission, rather than actually fight for it. In terms of casualties, the siege took a terrible toll on the population of the city which suffered unimaginable hardships. But as a battle in comparison to Verdun and Stalingrad, it was not on the same level of intensity or combat. It thoroughly deserves its status as hero city, though.

  15. Darsalon
    Darsalon says:

    I'd also recommend Peter Hart's book on the battle. General impression I get is that it was very mixed results on the first day with utter slaughter in some areas in comparison with success in others. It was really by September (the battle lasted until November 1916) that battlefield tactics were much better. British artillery by that time was becoming much better with the use of creeping barrages and co-operation with reconnisance planes to knock out German batteries.
    In my mind, Passchendale was the more futile battle where heavy shelling in ground that had a high water table was a recipe for disaster.

  16. ad
    ad says:

    To get some idea of the German view of the Somme, you may want to read Storm of Steel.

    The image it gives of the battle is memorable…


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