The First World War entered its third phase at the beginning of 1916. Britain’s old Regular Army had been largely destroyed by the end of 1914. The Territorials had been wasted in a succession of futile mini-offensives during 1915. Now it was the turn of the new mass armies of Kitchener Volunteers.
The failures and frustrations of 1915 brought down ministers and generals at the year’s end. The great Liberal government formed as long ago as 1906 collapsed, to be replaced by a wartime coalition of Liberals, Tories, and Socialists. Kitchener’s role was diminished with the appointment of Sir William Robertson as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Sir John French was sacked as Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and replaced by Sir Douglas Haig.
In the tussle between ‘frock-coats’ (politicians) and ‘brass-hats’ (generals), the balance swung from the former to the latter, from support for ‘eastern’ adventures like Gallipoli to a ‘western’ focus on the main battlefront in Belgium and north-western France. Here was the main enemy. Here was the bulk of the Imperial German Army. Here was where a great swathe of Entente territory was occupied by the Central Powers. Here, the generals insisted, was where the war would have to be won.
Easterners and westerners
The argument between ‘easterners’ and ‘westerners’ was a re-run of the age-old argument between advocates of ‘maritime’ and ‘continental’ strategies. The British, traditionally, had maintained a strong navy – to guard against invasion, to protect overseas trade, and to build an empire – and only a small army. In consequence, Britain was usually obliged to try to avoid large-scale land warfare in Europe, the preference being to subsidise continental allies to do most of any essential fighting. The problem, repeatedly, was that this ‘strategy of evasion’ ran the risk that a single state might overturn the European balance of power, achieve Europe-wide hegemony, and thus come to threaten British maritime dominance.
The British deployed about three million men on secondary fronts during the First World War – primarily in the Balkans, in Palestine, in Mesopotamia, and in East Africa. The diseconomy of force was perhaps most extreme in East Africa, where General von Lettow-Vorbeck– the German ‘Lawrence’ – tied down 370,000 British Empire troops with a force of some 3,500 Germans and 12,000 Africans. Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s tiny army was completely cut off from the Fatherland and cost the German Government nothing to maintain. The East African campaign, which continued until after the Armistice in November 1918, therefore had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the war.
The British were trying to do what they usually did: seize the chance to expand their empire while others did most of the fighting on the main fronts. But the risk was always that the resistance of Britain’s continental allies would collapse. This was precisely what the German High Command intended should happen, and, in the first half of 1916, came close to achieving.
By the end of 1915, the French had lost a million men on the Western Front. ‘The strain on France has almost reached breaking-point,’ wrote Field-Marshal von Falkenhayn, the German Commander-in-Chief. Though a breakthrough on the
Western Front was beyond Germany’s means, he felt that something short of that might turn into a crippling battle of attrition if the right target was chosen, a place of supreme strategic and political significance, where ‘the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have’.
Here, Falkenhayn believed, was a war-winning formula, for if the enemy were to take the bait, ‘France will bleed to death – as there can be 110 question of a voluntary withdrawal – whether we reach our goal or not.’ His chosen target was Verdun, an ancient fortress-city which now formed an eastward-projecting angle in the long line of the Western Front stretching from Switzerland to the Channel.
The Battle of Verdun began on 20 February 1916. As Falkenhayn predicted, it immediately became a mincing-machine, consuming hundreds of thousands of men in an apocalyptic battle of attrition. One effect was to bring to a point of exceptional urgency the need for the British to launch a ‘relieving’ offensive against another part of the German line. It had been the intention all along to launch a massive Allied offensive on the Western Front in 1916, but the Germans had seized the initiative and struck first, so that now it was a matter not simply of driving the enemy off French soil, but of ensuring the very survival of the French Army in any form.
Choice of battlefield
That the intention was a massive combined offensive by both British and French more or less determined that it should take place either side of the River Somme, since it was here that the British and French sectors of the line met. That it needed to happen sooner rather than later – because of the pressure on the French at Verdun – meant that the offensive opened before Haig had achieved the level of build-up and training he judged desirable.
Lessons had been learnt from the failures of 1915 – about the mass of men and weight of artillery required for a successful offensive, and about the tactics necessary to cross no-man’s-land and contest control of the enemy trench system – but other strategic imperatives prevented those lessons being fully applied in the summer of 1916.
Nor was that the only problem. A generation of colonial cavalry officers whose experience of war up until 1914 had been commanding brigades or, at most, divisions in distant outposts of empire was now handling corps and armies of unprecedented size. During the First World War, 22% of the entire British male population served in the armed forces. By the summer of 1916, Haig had one and a half million men under his command. These were divided into five armies, each of which alone was larger than any British army of the 18th or 19th centuries. War had become a vast logistical operation, the scale of it swelling with every passing month.
Between August 1914 and November 1918, the size of the British Army as a whole increased 14-fold, that of the British Expeditionary Force in France 20-fold. In 1914 the BEF had 830 motor-cars in service; by 1918 it had 56,000 trucks. It began the war with 200 medical officers assisted by 9,000 other ranks; by the end it was employing 10,700 medical officers and 115,000 others.
Servicing the war – providing the necessary accommodation, water supplies, food, R&R facilities, sanitation, hospitals, clothing, munitions, workshops, transport, communications, storage, administration, and so on – meant the rear-areas became a sprawling network of miniature temporary towns.
The scale of activity becomes clear when the Official History of the Great War reports such figures as this: ‘there were issued from Calais alone during the first ten months of 1915, 11,000 prismatic and magnetic compasses, 7,000 watches, 40,000 miles of electric cable, 40,000 electric torches, 3,600,000 yards of flannelette, 1,260,000 yards of rot-proof canvas, 25,000 tents, 1,600,000 waterproof sheets, 12,800 bicycles, 20,000 wheels, 6,000,000 anti-gas helmets, 4,000,000 pairs of horse and wheel shoes, 447,000 Lewis-gun magazines, 2,260,000 bars of soap…’.
‘Thus,’ comments Correlli Barnett, ‘the British army in France by 1916 was the largest, most complicated, and most comprehensive single organisation ever evolved by the British nation.’ That this was so was in part due to the static nature of the fighting front: ‘Although the Second World War was to bring new technical changes and developments, the organisation of the British army in France in 1916-1918 and of its bases and communications was never to be surpassed in scale and comprehensiveness.’
Even the Boer War – which had previously been the largest ever British overseas deployment – was dwarfed by the scale of operations on the Western Front from 1916 onwards. There had been half a million British Empire troops across the whole of South Africa at the height of the Boer War; now, in the summer of 1916, as many as that were massed to fight a single great battle.
The Kitchener Volunteers
But this vast mass was commanded by men who, relative to the task, were poorly trained, lacking in experience, conservative in outlook, usually too old, and rotten with the snobbery and prejudice of the British upper classes. Unsurprisingly, they lacked a military doctrine remotely adequate to the scale and character of the war they were fighting. The army that fought the Battle of the Somme was, as military historian Tim Travers puts it, ‘a commander and a force with 19th-century ideas and structure involved in 20th-century warfare’.
As for the men themselves, most of those who fought on the Somme between July and November 1916 belonged to New Army formations. Haifa million had responded to Kitchener’s appeal and volunteered by the end of September 1914, and the same number again by the end of February 1915 – far more than could be equipped and trained at the time. This unprecedented manpower mobilization was both ill-conceived and mismanaged.
Kitchener was often forward-thinking and visionary. His conduct of the Sudan campaign of 1896-1898 had been a logistical masterpiece. His management of the counter-insurgency war against the Boers in South Africa in 1900-1902 had been imaginative and effective. Almost alone among leading commentators, he had grasped at the outset the likely longevity of the European war when it began in 1914, predicting that it would last three years. As early as January 1915, he was writing to Sir John French ‘I suppose we must now recognize that the French Army cannot make a sufficient break through the German lines to bring about the retreat of the German forces from northern Belgium… If that is so, then the German lines in France may be looked on as a fortress that cannot be carried by assault and also cannot be completely invested.’
Despite this, Kitchener – an aloof, taciturn, Jovian presence in the wartime government – was a traditionalist at heart. He disliked the Territorials as the invention of a Liberal minister and an encouragement to amateurism. Instead, therefore, of utilizing this existing military framework to accommodate the flood of volunteers from August 1914 onwards, he preferred to construct wholly new formations. Though some men were sent as replacements to Regular and Territorial battalions already in the line, most were formed into new battalions, divisions, and armies, each 100,000 men forming one in a sequence of numbered ‘New Armies’.
The disadvantage is obvious: instead of rookies being teamed up with the trained and experienced cadre of established units, they were grouped together in their own battalions, representing a pooling of innocence, a disaster in the making. The counter-argument – that recruitment would be enhanced and esprit de corps fostered if men from the same neighbourhoods and workplaces were able to enlist, train, and serve together – could never compensate for the fact that what was needed above all was comprehensive preparation for the realities of the modern battlefield. The annihilation of the Pals Battalions on the First Day of the Somme was a tragedy conceived in August 1914.
The shocking failure of military doctrine that the British Army displayed in the Battle of the Somme therefore extended from the highest echelons of the command to the hundreds of thousands of ordinary men waiting in the trenches to go over as zero hour approached. What amplified the muddle and chaos was the contradiction between the huge scale of industrialized warfare and the increasingly atomised experience of the combat zone itself.
Haig’s orders for the battle illustrate this problem: instead of simply specifying general strategic objectives and leaving officers on the ground to work out how best to achieve them, there was too much prescriptive tactical detail and too little grasp of the inevitable frictions of trench warfare. The same can be said of the orders issued by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army, which was to carry the main burden of the coming offensive. Because ‘neither our new formations nor the old divisions have the same discipline that obtained in our army of a year ago’, he complained, it would be necessary to keep the assaulting troops well in hand; thus, they were to ‘push forward at a steady pace in successive lines’.
Here was the ultimate insanity: men walking upright across no-man’s-land in the face of fire from modern artillery machine-guns, and magazine-rifles. The Old Guard generals ordered it thus because they did not trust their citizen-soldiers, because their men were only half-trained, and because the realities of the modern battlefield were less apparent to those ensconced in comfortable chateaux far behind the line than they were to junior officers and NCOs in the trenches.
The confident assumption was that the artillery would destroy the barbed wire, bury the German defenders in their dugouts, and then ‘creep’ forwards across the enemy trench system as the attack proceeded according to a preordained timetable – another comfortable assumption of those who would not be advancing across no-man’s-land on the morning of 1 July; an assumption that ignored Napoleon’s dictum that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
So it was. The British fired more than five times as many shells in the preparatory seven-day bombardment before the Somme as they had before the attack at Loos the previous September; but the front was longer and too few of the guns were of sufficient weight. In consequence, in most places the attacking troops faced uncut wire, while their opponents, having sheltered in deep dugouts during the bombardment, easily won the race to the parapet when it lifted and commenced a raking fire along the ranks of Tommies coming steadily across no-man’s-land.
As the disaster on the first day of the Somme unfolded – some Pals Battalions losing three-quarters of their men in ten minutes – it was compounded by an over-centralized command system dependent on primitive communications that was hopelessly at odds with the realities of trench warfare.
Combat and communications
On the vast and ’empty’ expanses of the modern battlefield, commanders could not see what was happening in the front-line. Field radios did not exist, and telephone lines could not be laid quickly, and anyway were easily cut. Intelligence therefore depended on flags and flares, aircraft and tape laid on the ground, and runners trying to make their way across fire-swept ground or down a maze of clogged trenches. Consequently, it tended to be patchy, confused, and slow, and orders issued in response tended to be misconceived and too late.
There was, in short, a yawning contradiction between the pace of front-line combat and the pace of battlefield communications. Tactics had jumped ahead of communications and left senior commanders stranded like proverbial beached whales. But this contradiction was compounded by the stupidity of the British high command, which refused to recognize the problem, decentralize command, and delegate authority to the men on the ground.
Where men did succeed in getting into the German trench system, often small groups of survivors from decimated battalions, they soon found themselves scaled off by enemy forces. Yet they were unable to communicate their position and summon support. Typically, their own artillery bombardment would be disappearing into the distance as it continued forwards in its series of timetabled ‘lifts’, while the enemy artillery shelled the captured trenches and the ground behind them across which supplies and reinforcements would need to come.
The killing grounds
It was not unusual for the leading echelons to get into the enemy’s front-line trench. Even on 1 July 1916, many did so. Most of the killing on the Western Front occurred not on the open ground of no-man’s-land but inside the actual trench systems. A heavy bombardment lifting at the last minute, a rush from saps and shell-holes close to the enemy wire, and often enough the assailants would be on top of their opponents before they could reach their parapets and loopholes.
But the front-line trench was a mere outpost line. Behind it was a support trench and then a reserve trench. Behind this first line, three trenches in all, was a second, also three trenches, and maybe a third, three more. So perhaps the defended zone as a whole was two or three miles in depth. And, increasingly, it was carefully engineered to comprise an intricate network of bunkers and machine-gun nests with interlocking arcs of fire.
The deeper attackers penetrated into the enemy trench system, the further they strayed from their own artillery, from reinforcements, and from their sources of resupply. Often enough, they would find themselves cut off, the ground behind them raked by enemy fire, their ability to advance further down the enemy trenches blocked by barricades manned by growing numbers of opponents.
The matter would then be decided by ferocious close-quarters fighting in confined spaces by small groups of men armed with machine-guns and trench-mortars, rifles and grenades, spades and clubs. Gondii Barnett calls it ‘the paradox of modern war’ that ‘while it was generally an affair of great organizations, on the battlefield it was a question of small groups of men fumbling in a featureless desert of destruction’.
More than that, with the fighting dispersed and subterranean, with communications primitive and slow, and with movement across the battle-space painfully slow, whether for supporting artillery or fresh supplies of food, water, and munitions, it proved impossible to break the stalemate -impossible, that is, to carry an attack right through the enemy trench system into his rear areas.
‘Breakthrough’ or ‘bite and hold’
This much, at least, was recognized by Rawlinson, who favoured limited ‘bite and hold’ operations; though not by Haig, who, in a continuing triumph of hope over experience, continued to plan ‘breakthrough’ battles.
The French were more realistic. South of the Somme, in contrast to the British, they surged forwards. There, some 85 heavy batteries had been pounding 8,000 yards of enemy line for eight days, largely obliterating his wire, churning his front-line trench into a series of shell-craters, and blocking the entrances to virtually all his dugouts. The French infantry, moreover, advanced in a series of fire-and-movement’ rushes, the men racing from crater to trench to ruined wall, always covered by the weapons of stationary comrades.
By 9.45am on 1 July, the French had reached almost all of their objectives (in some cases pushing 800 yards beyond), had taken over 3,000 prisoners, and were within easy striking distance of the German second line. The British, on the other hand, had made no gains at all in their northern sector, managed only minimal advances in the centre, and even in the southern part of their front had fallen far short of achieving their objectives. They had, moreover, suffered almost 60,000 casualties, almost one in three of them fatalities, making the first day of the Somme the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army.
Yet the offensive continued, with a relentlessness as unprecedented as the carnage. While Loos had been a battle of weeks, the Somme became a battle of months. There were two more full-scale attacks, on 14 July and 15 September, but most of the battle comprised a series of smaller attacks and counterattacks to secure possession of a local terrain feature – a crest, a wood, the remains of a village.
‘A necessary sacrifice’?
By the end, when winter finally forced an end to the fighting, the British had clawed their way onto the top of the low north-west to south-east ridge that dominates the battlefield of the Somme. By then, more than a million men had become casualties, perhaps 400,000 British, 200,000 French, and as many as 600,000 German.
Revisionist historians try to pretend that this was ‘a necessary sacrifice’ and that the Somme was ‘the graveyard of the German Army’. To claim anything as monstrous as the Somme as ‘necessary’ is a shocking failure of historical imagination: the twisted logic of a world gone mad. Equally unconvincing is the judgement that it doomed the German Army. It might just as well have doomed the British or the French; indeed, the French Army came closer to breaking-point far sooner than the German, the mass mutinies in the spring of 1917 condemning the French high command to remain on the defensive for the remainder of that year. Attrition cuts both ways.
And nothing can exonerate the British high command of the callous stupidity with which they fought both the Battle of the Somme and, in the summer and autumn of the following year, the Third Battle of Ypres. They continued to plan for impossible breakthroughs. They continued to order pointless attacks which gained no ground and killed thousands of men. They continued to issue orders from headquarters miles behind the line, orders based on maps and hope, not on the tactical realities of a combat zone that they rarely, if ever, visited.