Battle of the Somme
The Entene forces attack the German Army on the river Somme
1 July - 18 November 1916
author Paul Boșcu, January 2018
During the battle of the Somme, the Entente attacked the German Army in order to quicken an allied victory. During the planning stages of the battle the French were supposed to carry out the main attack, with the British in a support role. Because the Germans attacked at Verdun the French were forced to divert reinforcements to that area, so the British had to carry out the main attack. After a first day in which the British failed to achieve most of their objectives and suffered heavy casualties, they slowly began pushing into the German lines. At the end of the battle the Entente penetrated some 10 km into German-occupied territory. The battle is notable for the importance of air power and the first use of the tank. It is also the largest battle of the Great War, with a million men wounded or killed on all sides.

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The Battle of the Somme, or the Somme Offensive, was fought during World War I on the Western Front. The battle was drawn between the Anglo-French forces of the Entente on one side, and the German Empire on the other. It took place on both sides of the river Somme, in France. More than one million men were wounded or killed during the battle, making it one of the bloodiest in history. At the end of the battle, the British and French had penetrated some 10 km into German occupied territory, taking more ground than in any of their previous offensives since 1914. However the Germans held their ground at Péronne and Bapaume, where they spent the following winter.

The choice of the Somme region in Picardy for the Franco-British offensive was largely determined by the fact that it marked the junction of the French and British forces. Its drawbacks were that no great strategic objectives, such as rail centers, lay close behind the German front. Also, because the sector had long been quiet, the Germans had constructed formidable defences in the Somme chalk.

The demands of Verdun had reduced the French contribution to the Somme assault to only 11 divisions. For the first time in the war, the British would therefore play the leading role in an Entente offensive on the Western Front.

In the high summer of 1916, operations on the Somme seemed to offer the front line troops nothing but unending sacrifice. With the slogging match at Verdun already in its fifth month, there could be no question of halting the Somme offensive.

The sheer size of the commitment demanded by the Battle of Verdun soon derailed any thoughts of the French Army making the major contribution to the planned offensive on the Somme. Instead, General Joseph Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, exerted increasing pressure on Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, to launch a British-led offensive as early as possible. Haig preferred to delay as he recognized that many of his new divisions would need time to evolve into a powerful attacking force. Yet Joffre was desperate and Haig had little option but to accept a start date of the 1st of July 1916.

Much has been written about what Haig was trying to achieve on the Somme, but his intentions seem clear enough: ‘My policy is briefly to: 1. Train my divisions, and to collect as much ammunition and as many guns as possible. 2. To make arrangements to support the French … attacking in order to draw off pressure from Verdun, when the French consider the military situation demands it. 3. But while attacking to help our Allies, not to think that we can for a certainty destroy the power of Germany this year. So in our attacks we must also aim at improving our positions with a view to making sure of the result of the campaign next year.’ (General Sir Douglas Haig, General Headquarters, BEF)

By this time Haig had settled his General Headquarters in the small château of Montreuil. There has been much criticism speculating on the life of luxury supposedly led by the ‘château generals’. But the GHQ was in itself a large organization of staff officers which required space and an excellent communications system if it was to function properly. Haig and his staff certainly had a stern and unwavering work ethic: ‘Punctually at 8.25 each morning Haig’s bedroom door opened and he walked downstairs. He then went for a short 4 minutes’ walk in the garden. At 8.30 precisely he came into the mess for breakfast. If he had a guest present, he always insisted on serving the guest before he helped himself. He talked very little, and generally confined himself to asking his personal staff what their plans were for the day. At nine o’clock he went into his study and worked until eleven or half past. At half-past eleven he saw army commanders, the heads of departments at General Headquarters, and others whom he might desire to see. At 1 o’clock he had lunch, which only lasted half an hour, and then he either motored or rode to the headquarters of some army or corps or division. Generally when returning from these visits he would arrange for his horse to meet the car so that he could travel the last 3 or 4 miles on horseback. When not motoring he always rode in the afternoon, accompanied by an aide de camp and his escort of 17th Lancers, without which he never went out for a ride. Always on the return journey from his ride he would stop about 3 miles from home and hand his horse over to a groom and walk back to headquarters. On arrival there he would go straight up to his room, have a bath, do his physical exercises and then change into slacks. From then until dinner time at 8 o’clock he would sit at his desk and work, but he was always available if any of his staff or guests wished to see him. He never objected to interruptions at this hour. At 8 o’clock he dined. After dinner, which lasted about an hour, he returned to his room and worked until a quarter to 11.’ (Brigadier General John Charteris, General Headquarters, BEF)

There were no major strategic objectives. The Somme battlefield had been chosen by Joffre simply because it was adjacent to his forces rather than for any more cogent reasons. The Fourth Army, commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, was charged with carrying out the Somme Offensive, while the Reserve Army, commanded by General Sir Hubert Gough, would exploit any breakthrough. The Somme operation demanded logistical preparations which dwarfed anything previously attempted by the BEF.

Rawlinson had a daunting task ahead of him and he naturally gravitated to a cautious two-stage approach. He aimed to overrun the German First Line system in the first assault and then pause for reorganization before making a separate attack on the Second Line system. He would have preferred a hurricane bombardment but there were still not enough guns, so he opted for a prolonged bombardment of several days to achieve his ends.

Rawlinson's plans were not well received by Haig, who insisted that Rawlinson include in the initial objectives an attack on the German Second Line system – fearing that early opportunities might be missed and then positions would have to be attacked when German reinforcements had arrived and were well set. Haig was employing a system of scenario planning although he would not have recognized the term. He wanted to ensure that the Fourth and Reserve Armies were prepared for different degrees of success – or failure. He insisted that they plan for a possible breakthrough, but he also allowed for a slower rate of progress. As part of this process, cavalry were to be held ready to exploit any breakthrough. In 1916 there was no alternative to cavalry.

Hundreds of thousands of men and horses had to be moved up to the front; millions of shells brought forward; millions upon millions of tons of food and stores provided; road and rail links greatly improved; concealed gun positions prepared; assembly trenches dug, tunnels carved out and huge explosive mines laid ready for detonation under the German strong points. Here was a learning curve based in practical skills that took time to master: it was no simple matter to achieve logistical coherence while maintaining a degree of secrecy, all the while under harassing fire from the Germans.

The British believed that they had digested the various lessons of the Entente 1915 offensives and taken due note of the methods employed in the German offensive at Verdun. However, they were still unable to resolve two incompatible requirements: the tactical necessity of attacking on a wide front was demonstrable, but there was a shortage of guns and ammunition which prevented a hurricane bombardment over such a length of frontage. And there was a further complication: they were learning but so were the Germans.

By June 1916 the BEF comprised well over a million men. Its divisions were organized into five armies and included formations from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa. This expansion was the product of colossal feats of improvisation in Britain and her Dominions. The decline of voluntary recruiting had forced Britain to introduce conscription. However, compulsory service had not yet made an impact on the BEF, which, alone among the major armies in mid-1916, was still composed of volunteers. The problem was that relatively few had seen any real action.

The BEF's highly localised character was typified by its 'Pals' battalions, raised by civilian committees and made up of workmates, friends or men with a common social or geographical background. As the Territorials too were recruited from comparatively narrow geographical areas, in 1916 the BEF embraced many units which had close links with particular communities.

Though full of confident and enthusiastic volunteers, relatively few of these units had participated in a major battle. However, the New Zealand Division and the four Australian divisions that reached France did contain a fair nucleus of men who had seen action at Gallipoli.

The German trenches on the ridges of the Somme bore little resemblance to the single trench line at Neuve Chapelle, or even the series of lines and strong points at Loos. By the summer of 1916 the British were faced by a number of separate trench systems under various stages of completion. Behind belts of barbed wire up to thirty yards thick, the German Front Line System consisted of three trench lines, complete with deep dugouts and a system of linking communication trenches. There were intermediate positions of strong earthwork redoubts such as the Schwaben Redoubt lying behind the Front Line System at Thiepval.

After a careful review of best practice in the line, the Germans had decided that at least 6-7 yards of depth underground was needed to protect the dugouts’ occupants from the heavier British shells – any deeper and the men would run the risk of being trapped when the eventual assault came. It was also evident that more than one exit was needed to avoid their being buried alive.

By this time the Germans had also recognised the potential of concrete to give dugouts, command headquarters and observation posts a massively increased resistance to bursting shells. Rural villages were incorporated wholesale into the front line, with ordinary buildings and cellars reinforced with concrete that converted cottages into shellproof fortresses.

All this required a huge military investment by the German Army: the prior identification of possible points of weakness based on past experience; the intuition and skill necessary to devise the appropriate solutions; the allotment of scarce resources; and finally the hard grafting construction work required to carry out all the improvements.

Tactically the Germans depended heavily on the vigilance of their sentries to alert the garrison, giving them enough time to man the parapets and bring up their machine guns from the dugouts. They intended to hold their first line trenches if possible and their positions were carefully placed to allow concentrations of flanking machine gun fire to break up assaulting infantry in No Man’s Land. The second line troops would not only hold the line, but had well-trained bombing parties ready to countermand immediately any breaches in the front line.

The German artillery batteries had well-protected concealed gun emplacements, dugouts for the gun detachments and ammunition stores, concrete observations posts and deep-laid telephone lines. The gunners had practised their gun drill and fire control to perfection, while a simple squared-map system allowed the rapid identification of targets for a near-instant response. British gun batteries and other observable targets were carefully registered one by one. The overall combination of the strong physical defences and well-rehearsed defensive tactics was a considerable step beyond anything the British had hitherto encountered.

The British response to the complex German defences was to some extent simple: they would rely on the power of their massed guns. Yet the guns were required to clear the barbed wire, destroy several lines of trenches and strong points and eradicate the threat of far more numerous German gun batteries. One tactical innovation employed by some divisions was the ‘creeping barrage’. Another crucial British tactical advance was the integration of aircraft into the battle plans.

One method of artillery observation employed large kite balloons with specially trained observers dangling in the baskets below, communicating directly with the gun batteries on the ground via a telephone link. Although the balloons were far more inflexible than aircraft by dint of being tethered to one spot, they had the great advantage of being able to remain aloft for hours. Still, aircraft remained the key to success, especially in identifying targets set back from the lines.

Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard, commander of the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front, was in regular personal touch with Commandant Paul du Peuty of the French Air Service which was unquestionably at the forefront of aerial experimentation. The advice Trenchard received was entirely in accordance with his own aggressive instincts: to fight an air war well over the German side of the lines, pushing forward his RFC scouts to harry the German aircraft to destruction. This would prevent, or obstruct, German reconnaissance and artillery observation flights while leaving the front line sectors open for the operations of their British equivalents.

Creeping barrages demanded a high degree of theoretical and practical gunnery skills, which many senior Royal Artillery officers doubted their newly trained batteries could achieve. Also, some of the more conservative divisional commanders were unable to grasp the whole concept of why the barrage should commence in No Man’s Land before rolling forward. They preferred the simplicity of a direct trench barrage which would then lift according to a predetermined timetable, moving to alternative targets as the British infantry attacked.

The default plan for the infantry issued by the Fourth Army was fairly simple, involving the troops advancing at walking pace in a series of waves that would build up to finally storm any obstruction to progress. Yet at the same time considerable latitude was granted to commanding officers in how they should approach the problem of the advance across No Man’s Land.

The ‘creeping barrage’ consisted of a line of shells dropping in No Man’s Land and then moving slowly forward ahead of the attacking British infantry towards the German front line, thereby severely restricting the garrison’s ability to fire at the key moment as the British infantry drew near. This marked the beginning of a policy of suppression rather than destruction as an alternative role for the artillery.

The war in the air formed an integral part not only of military planning, but of the practical execution of the bombardments. As the reconnaissance and artillery observation aircraft of both sides became increasingly effective in fulfilling their functions, it became ever more important to thwart them. The most simple expedient was to shoot them down, thus both sides developed the use of anti-aircraft guns. Scout aircraft were also developed to shoot down enemy airplanes. In all the RFC amassed 185 aircraft in the Somme area, plus other aircraft flying on bombing missions. The German Air Force had only 129 aircraft. The Germans were soon struggling.

The anti-aircraft guns too were at a fairly primitive stage of evolution. Best practice consisted of little more than guessing the altitude and firing a shrapnel shell timed to burst where the aircraft would be by the time the shell got there. But as anti-aircraft gunners gained experience they became more accurate and the pilots had to take evasive action. The first really effective scout was the German Fokker E III monoplane. Fitted with a synchronised machine gun firing through the span of the propeller, it began to play an important role: not just in shooting down or protecting reconnaissance or artillery observation aircraft, but also in shooting down opposing scouts.

The imminent Somme Offensive made it essential that the RFC shake off any residual fears; in this it was greatly assisted by a new generation of aircraft that could compete on equal terms with the Fokker. The first was the FE2 B, a two seater ‘pusher’ aircraft in which the gunner perched precariously in a front passenger seat armed with Lewis guns. It proved a sturdy and combative aircraft which, by flying in formation and acting in concert, could keep at bay the marginally superior Fokker. The FE2 B pilots found that the best method of defence was to circle round to protect each other’s vulnerable tail from the lurking Fokkers.

The second new British aircraft was the DH2, a single-seater ‘pusher’ fighter armed with just one Lewis gun fixed in front of the pilot. The DH2 became an effective scout, preying on German reconnaissance aircraft and meeting the Fokkers head on.

A further valuable multi-purpose aircraft was the Sopwith 1½ Strutter, a two-seater tractor biplane with a synchronised Vickers machine gun firing through the propeller. The final piece in the jigsaw was the single-seater Nieuport 16 Scout provided by the French, which, with a speed of up to 110 miles per hour, was both more maneuverable and faster than the Fokker, although it was only armed with a Lewis gun fixed on the top wing and firing over the propeller.

For the RFC the Battle of the Somme began months before the first shells of the preliminary bombardment. Ever since the British Army had taken over the Somme sector from the French back in 1915, the RFC had as a matter of routine been engaged in photographing every inch of the ground. But this process was given an added impetus by the imminent offensive. Thousands of photographs had to be taken mapping every German trench. Experts then pored over blown-up prints to tease out hidden details behind the German veil, identifying machine gun posts, dugouts, headquarters, ‘minenwerfers’ (mine launchers) and gun batteries.

The Germans’ first great ace, Max Immelmann, was killed in combat with FE2 Bs, and the other best known German Fokker ace, Oswald Boelcke, was promptly removed from the line. Soon the Germans were near-helpless in the air, which therefore left them vulnerable on the ground. All this effort was in aid of the guns: the photographic reconnaissance enabled them to identify targets; the artillery observation helped them to destroy them.

The preliminary barrage was intended to last for five days, but overcast weather hampered the crucial work of the RFC and there was a two-day postponement. From the British perspective the barrage seemed devastating. At first some of the German garrison looked upon the barrage as little more than a minor inconvenience. Any such attitudes did not survive long as the constant barrage wore away at their defences, slowly eroding their numbers and severely testing their morale. Overall the visual impression of the barrage proved far more devastating than the truth on the ground.

‘A storm of artillery broke with a crash along the entire line. As far as the eye could see clouds of shrapnel filled the sky, like dust blown on the wind. The bursts were constantly renewed and, toil as it might, the morning breeze could not sweep the sky clear. All around there was howling, snarling and hissing. With a sharp ringing sound, the death-dealing shells burst, spewing their leaden fragments against our line. The balls fell like hail on the roofs of the half-destroyed villages, whistled through the branches of the still green trees and beat down hard on the parched ground, whipping up small clouds of smoke and dust from the earth. Large caliber shells droned through the air like giant bumblebees, crashing, smashing and boring down into the earth. Occasionally small caliber high explosive shells broke the pattern. What was it? The men of the trench garrison pricked up their ears in collective astonishment. Had the Tommies gone off their heads? Did they believe that they could wear us down with shrapnel? We, who had dug ourselves deep into the earth? The very thought made the infantry smile.’ (Lieutenant M. Gerster, 119th Reserve Infantry Regiment)

‘Armageddon started today and we are right in the thick of it. There is such a row going on I absolutely can’t hear myself think! Day and night and all day and all night, guns and nothing but guns – and the shattering clang of bursting high explosives. This is the great offensive, the long looked for ‘Big Push’, and the whole course of the war will be settled in the next ten days – some time to be living in. I get a wonderful view from my observing station and in front of me and right and left, as far as I can see, there is nothing but bursting shells. It’s a weird sight, not a living soul or beast, but countless puffs of smoke, from the white fleecy ball of the field gun shrapnel to the dense greasy pall of the heavy howitzer HE. It’s quite funny to think that in London life is going on just as usual and no one even knows this show has started – while out here at least seven different kinds of Hell are rampant.’ (Captain Cuthbert Lawson, 369th Battery 15th Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery)

The final reports from the front that filtered back to the British High Command were generally positive in tone. British progress had been more than discounted by German improvements in their defences. But that was not known at the time on the British side of the wire. In any case, they had no choice; the offensive had to go ahead as the future of the alliance with France depended on it.

Although the shrapnel shells had little effect on the front line trenches, the ever-increasing deluge of trench mortar shells caused severe damage and tested the resilience of the defenders: ‘Of course seven days of drum fire had not left the defenders untouched. The feeling of powerlessness against this storm of steel depressed even the strongest. Despite all efforts, the rations were inadequate. The uninterrupted high state of readiness, which had to be maintained because of the entire situation, as well as the frequent gas attacks, hindered the troops from getting the sleep that they needed because of the nerve shattering artillery fire. Tired and indifferent to everything, the troops sat it out on wooden benches or lay on the hard metal beds, staring into the darkness when the tallow lights were extinguished by the overpressure of the explosions. Nobody had washed for days. Black stubble stood out on the pale haggard faces, whilst the eyes of some flashed strangely as though they had looked beyond the portals of the other side. Some trembled when the sound of death roared around the underground protected places. Whose heart was not in his mouth at times during this appalling storm of steel? All longed for an end to it one way or the other. All were seized by a deep bitterness at the inhuman machine of destruction which hammered endlessly. A searing rage against the enemy burned in their minds.’ (Lieutenant M. Gerster, 119th Reserve Infantry Regiment)

The barrage swelled up to a crescendo and the men got ready to advance across No Man’s Land. This is the moment that has come to symbolize the whole of the Great War. The attack was a disaster. On the left and in the center of the advance the artillery had not achieved its objectives. The German defences, although battered, were still functioning. Further south, the situation was more mixed as British troops attacked the fortress villages of Fricourt and Mametz. Only in the far south of the British line was there any real success. Here the British captured the village of Montauban.

The experience of Lieutenant William Colyer and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers was not untypical: ‘Here goes. I clamber out of the front of the deep trench by the scaling ladder, and face my platoon. I am smoking a cigarette and superficially am serene and cheerful – at least, I hope I appear so. As I give the order to advance a sudden thought occurs to me: will they all obey? This is instantly answered in the affirmative, for they all climb out of the trench, and the advance begins. We are on top of the ridge and under direct fire. I am trying not to mind it, but it is impossible. I am wondering unpleasantly whether I shall be killed outright or whether I shall be wounded; and if the latter, which part of me will be hit. A traversing machine gun rips up the ground just in front of us. That’s enough for me; we can’t remain in this formation. “Extend by sections!” I shout. The men carry out the movement well. The Bosche artillery and machine guns are terrific. The anticipation of being hit has become so agonising that I can scarcely bear it; I almost wish to God I could be hit and have done with it. I have lost some of my men. I feel an overwhelming desire to swear, to blaspheme, to shout out the wickedest oaths I can think of, but I am much too inarticulate to do anything of the kind. A shell bursts near and I feel the hot blast. It seems to me this is a ghastly failure already. A trench runs diagonally across our path. Half of my remaining men are already in it. My whole being cries out in protest against this ordeal. I am streaming with perspiration. I think I shall go mad. I am in the trench, trying to collect the rest of the men together. Where the devil have they all got to?’

All along the line the moment of decision had come for the German front line garrison troops. Rushing headlong from their dugouts they began to avenge their last few days in hell. Corporal Otto Lais of the 169th Infantry Regiment was facing the ‘Pals’ Battalions of the 31st Division as they made their ill-fated attack on the village of Serre: ‘Wild firing slammed into the masses of the enemy. All around us was the rushing, whistling and roaring of a storm a hurricane, as the destructive British shells rushed towards our artillery which was firing courageously, our reserves and our rear areas. Throughout all this racket, this rumbling, growling, bursting, cracking and wild banging and crashing of small arms, could be heard the heavy, hard and regular ‘Tack! Tack!’ of the machine guns. That one tiring slower, this other with a faster rhythm – it was the precision work of fine material and skill and both were playing a gruesome tune to the enemy.’ It became an utter slaughter. His men had to change the worn-out machine gun barrels again and again. They also ran out of cooling water and had to resort to urine to refill the water jacket. But the guns were kept firing and he noted that one gun fired some 20,000 rounds in the course of that awful day.

In a sense the story of the 1st of July has been inverted. This was not a tale of incompetence by the British, but rather a reflection on the strength of the German defences, coupled with the malleable resilience of their soldiers. Where the British overran their front line system, the Germans just moved smoothly into the next phase of their defensive plans: robust counterattacks pressed home diligently, covered by a barrage that cut off the attacking British troops from reinforcements and then gradually eradicated these enclaves in the German lines.

In the south the German artillery had been better targeted and, to some extent, silenced. The attacking troops were supported by a series of small mines being detonated and also covered by a creeping barrage with the wall of shells edging forward. However, the barrage was too thin to have the required suppressing effect.

At Montauban the configuration of the line was such that the Maricourt Ridge behind the British lines provided good observation over the German lines. The Entente achieved an artillery domination that eradicated the German batteries. Not only was the German artillery silenced, but the wire was cut, their trenches badly battered and the German garrison was caught sheltering for too long inside its dugout, leaving little or nothing that could seriously threaten the British troops as they crossed No Man’s Land. As a result, the troops soon captured the village of Montauban. When the Germans tried to counterattack, the British guns came into their own again, pouring down an effective defensive barrage of shells to bar their way.

South of the British, the French attack was launched on both sides of the River Somme by their Sixth Army under the command of General Émile Fayolle. The Germans were not expecting an assault here. The French also had the inestimable advantage of copious experience of offensive action over the last eighteen months, in contrast to the British troops. In particular the French artillery was a truly lethal beast which ruthlessly targeted and then silenced the German batteries. The French infantry smashed through the German front lines and soon overran the villages of Frise, Dompierre, Becquincourt and Fay, before pushing on to Herbécourt and Assevillers by the late afternoon. Here they were hit by vicious counterattacks which for the moment stemmed the tide.

The French were able to deploy a far greater proportion of heavy guns than the British, which meant that the destructive force of their shells was magnified accordingly. The German guns were soon put out of action or rendered incapable of firing, leaving their infantry to resist as best they could from their smashed trenches and dugouts.

Many of the dreaded German machine guns were out of action well before the French infantry emerged. The French had also delayed their start time, which had confused the defenders, who were well aware that the assault north of the river had already begun. The French infantry were by this time possessed of a collective experience that greatly advantaged them in comparison to the British.

‘Our artillery preparation was wonderful. It completely destroyed the German defences and our assault waves managed to cross the lines without much resistance. Only an enemy counter-barrage claimed a few victims. As soon as the first wave had set off, we advanced over the heavily cratered ground, ready to help out those in front. The enemy continued to send over a heavy barrage so we dug in when we reached the outskirts of Fay to avoid taking too many casualties. The shells fell very close by, but we were right at the bottom of our trench and they didn’t touch us.’ (Joseph Foy, 265th Infantry Regiment)

Aware that the British were falling behind, the French paused. By the time they were ready to resume the offensive the Germans had reinforced their positions and the Somme had become as hard a slog for the French as it was for the British.

The pattern of the fighting appears clear enough from our perspective, but the breakdown in communications on the day was such that few of the senior British generals had much idea of what was happening to their troops. Certainly, the briefings forwarded on to Haig lacked both detail and accuracy – yet he had to make an almost immediate decision as to what do next. What Haig did not know was the scale of the disaster that had befallen the Fourth Army, which had suffered 57,470 casualties. The British tactics were not ill-considered, but they proved inadequate to cope with the augmented strength of the German defences.

The millions of shells expended in the bombardment might have been sufficient to deal with the German defences at Neuve Chapelle, or even Loos in 1915, but that was last year. The new German concrete reinforced deep dugouts proved resistant to all but the very heaviest shells – and heavy artillery was still in short supply. Also, many of the shells failed to explode. This was not surprising given the rapid expansion of British munitions factories in order to meet demand, with a commensurate reduction in quality control standards.

In essence Haig had two choices: reinforce success in the south where, for all their achievement, the Germans’ Second Line System on Bazentin Ridge still lay ahead, or make a second attempt to storm up on to the more significant tactical objective on Pozières Plateau, Thiepval Spur and Redan Ridge in the north.

There was no question of abandoning the offensive. To abandon that was to abandon France. Without the benefit of hindsight, rightly or wrongly, Haig was determined to resist tactical interference from Joffre and decided to reinforce the relative degree of success attained in the south. To this end he reorganized his forces, directing the Fourth Army under Rawlinson to push on in the southern sector, while Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army – later recast as the Fifth Army – was given the northern sector.

The French likely reaction to any backsliding can be judged from the strongly expressed views of Joffre when he met Haig two days after the battle had begun. Joffre considered that the value of the high ground in the north far outweighed the likelihood of further savage casualty lists. In this he may well have been right: the Germans themselves certainly knew the importance of the Schwaben Redoubt behind the Thiepval front lines.

The Germans, meanwhile, had their own tactical issues to consider. Falkenhayn had a clear and simple dictat: that any lost ground should be recaptured immediately, no matter the cost. This intransigence would cost the Germans dearly.

An order was issued by General Fritz von Below, the Second Army commander: ‘The outcome of the war depends on the Second Army being victorious on the Somme. Despite the current enemy superiority in artillery and infantry we have got to win this battle. The large areas of ground that we have lost in certain places will be attacked and wrested back from the enemy, just as soon as the reinforcements which are on the way arrive. For the time being, we must hold our current positions without fail and improve on them by means of minor counterattacks. I forbid the voluntary relinquishment of positions. Every commander is responsible for making each man in the Army aware about this determination to fight it out. The enemy must be made to pick his way forward over corpses.’

As July wore on, Gough's Reserve Army took over the northern half of the British zone on the Somme, its junction with Fourth Army running just to the south, or right, of the Albert-Bapaume road. Haig rejected Joffre's pleas for him to renew the assault in the tricky central sector of his front from Thiepval to Pozieres and decided instead to try to exploit the early gains on his right, near Montauban. Accordingly, Rawlinson's Fourth Army tried to take Contalmaison, Mametz Wood and Trones Wood to secure the flanks of a forthcoming attack on the German second main position.

Like Verdun, the Somme was becoming an arena of attrition, to which fresh divisions were sent in monotonous succession only to waste their energy in bloody struggles for tiny patches of ground.

The next few days saw a series of piecemeal British attacks intended to improve the tactical position prior to the next ‘Big Push’ against the German Second Line System on Bazentin Ridge. Many of these attacks were hopeless affairs, characterized by a lack of artillery coordination, and with foolishly staggered start times which allowed the Germans to destroy the attacks in sequence. What the British had been working towards was the Battle of Bazentin Ridge. This marked an overdue lurch forward for the British tactical rollercoaster. The instigator of the new plans was Rawlinson.

The corps and divisional commanders were fighting each small battle in isolation and no one was fusing their efforts to positive effect. The losses in some fifty or more of these attacks came to 25,000 casualties.

Rawlinson was determined to concentrate sufficient artillery tailored to the basic requirements to cut the German wire, smash the trench lines and disable their batteries by means of a three-day preliminary barrage followed by a massive hurricane bombardment of just five minutes. It was also proposed that the attack should be made at night, with the attacking troops creeping out under cover of darkness into No Man’s Land to take up positions closer to the German lines.

When the barrage began it was far more concentrated than before. It was also concentrated on a frontage of just 6,000 yards and against trenches which were far less developed than the original German front line. Behind the bursting shells the British infantry moved forward ready to close with the Germans a few seconds after the barrage lifted. When they reached the German trenches there were varying degrees of resistance. The British managed to breach the German Second Line System and capture the villages of Longueval, Bazentin-le-Petit and Bazentin-le-Grand. Yet British attempts to exploit partial breakthrough proved stillborn.

‘I shouted at the gunner of a heavy machine gun of the 6th Company that he should bring down fire on the British soldiers who were heading for Longueval, but he did not respond. So I dashed from the trench to the gun– my men meanwhile kept the heads down of the British in front of the obstacle with heavy small arms fire. I threw myself down by the gunner and saw that he was dead, shot through the temples. Hardly had I prised his cramped grip off the handles of the gun, pushed him to one side and tried to fire at the British platoon in the hollow road, than the weapon jammed. It had been hit in the breech by a rifle bullet. I yanked the belt out of the gun, grabbed another from the ammunition box, wrapped them around me and raced back to the trench through the fire of the British infantrymen, who were only 25 to 30 metres away. Meanwhile the British were firing at us from windows and holes in the roofs of Longueval. Then things got very serious. I was standing behind a parapet when simultaneously British grenades landed on the parapet and the edge of the trench and fell down into the trench next to me. I only escaped from this hopeless position by instinctively grabbing the grenades which had fallen in the trench and hurling them out. They were still in the air when they exploded.’ (Lieutenant E. Gerhardinger, 16th Bavarian Infantry Regiment)

The cavalry, the only available rapid exploitation force, were stymied by a combination of broken ground and stiffening German resistance. When the German counterattacks developed later in the day it was clear that the British had succeeded in breaking into the German system but not in breaking through it.

The success of the new tactics unveiled at Bazentin did not set the pattern for subsequent British attacks. Instead, there was a failure to concentrate sufficient artillery during a plethora of narrow front attacks which provoked thousands more casualties and only minor gains. Haig railed from the sidelines, but he seemed unable to get a grip on his subordinates too immersed in the day to-day complexities of fighting the battle to look at the bigger picture. The Germans, outnumbered, sent reinforcements from Verdun to the Somme area.

There was a fear that spending time organizing and concentrating British forces would allow the Germans time to do the same. The Germans were indeed sending reinforcements to the Somme area, including many batteries from the Verdun Front. They were also mutating their defensive tactics as they began to occupy improvised defensive positions with machine gun teams lurking in shell holes away from the actual trenches which were being deluged with shells. This massively increased the area of ground that had to be thoroughly covered by the British barrage.

Creeping barrages became a necessity, not a luxury, and they had to be thickened to form a true wall of bursting shells edging forward across the battlefield.

During this first phase on the Somme, the cumulative developments and experimentation that pushed forward the boundaries of air warfare severely disadvantaged the Germans, whose air force was found wanting at this crucial moment. This did not go unnoticed by elements of the German High Command, who were appalled at the consequences of this inability to contest for dominance of the skies on behalf of their troops on the ground. But the Germans were already moving fast to correct the aerial imbalance with a new generation of fighter scouts. Soon the RFC would face a sterner challenge in the skies above the Somme.

‘The beginning and the first weeks of the Somme battle were marked by a complete inferiority of our own air forces. The enemy’s aeroplanes enjoyed complete freedom in carrying out distant reconnaissances. With the aid of aeroplane observation, the hostile artillery neutralised our guns and was able to range with the most extreme accuracy on the trenches occupied by our infantry; the required data for this was provided by undisturbed trench reconnaissance and photography. By means of bombing and machine-gun attacks from a low height against infantry, battery positions and marching columns, the enemy’s aircraft inspired our troops with a feeling of defencelessness against the enemy’s mastery of the air. On the other hand, our own aeroplanes only succeeded in quite exceptional cases in breaking through the hostile patrol barrage and carrying out distant reconnaissances; our artillery machines were driven off whenever they attempted to carry out registration for their own batteries. Photographic reconnaissance could not fulfil the demands made upon it. Thus, at decisive moments, the infantry frequently lacked the support of the German artillery either in counter-battery work or in barrage on the enemy’s infantry massing for attack.’ (General Fritz von Below, Headquarters, First Army)

The fighting became more and more attritional as the British ground their way forward. Intensive fighting flared first of all around the village of Longueval and Delville Wood. The power of the massed guns allowed the British infantry to capture a local objective; but the German guns allowed them to counterattack successfully. The wood was not completely in British hands until well over a month of fighting. The neighbouring High Wood finally fell to Rawlinson two months later.

Overcoming the reservations of Haig and the French, Rawlinson and the New Army units gave a glimpse of their true capabilities when, after a challenging night assembly in No Man's Land, a section of the German second position between Bazentin le Petit and Longueval was seized in a few hours. This brilliant feat, which owed much to a more intense artillery bombardment than that used before, had a disappointing sequel. At Delville Wood, near Longueval, the South African Brigade of the 9th (Scottish) Division lost over 2,300 of its 3,153 officers and men in a bitter struggle.

The attack was expanded to the north, where Gough’s Reserve Army began a series of operations designed to capture the German Second Line System on the Pozières Ridge and thereby weaken the German grip on Thiepval Spur. The 1st Australian Division, newly arrived from Gallipoli, was flung into the fight. They would find it a brutal awakening to the grim realities of industrialized warfare. The fighting ended with the British taking the plateau north and east of the village.

‘Down came our barrage on to the enemy lines and Pozières village, the Germans replying with artillery and machine-gun fire. As we lay out among the poppies in No Man’s Land we could see the bullets cutting off the poppies almost against our heads. The flashes of the guns, the bursting of the shells and the Very lights made the night like day and, as I lay as flat to the ground as possible, I was expecting to stop one any time. Jamming my tin helmet down on my head I brought the body of my rifle across my face to stop anything that might happen to drop low. In the tumult it was impossible to hear orders. My ears were ringing with the cracking of bullets. A man alongside me was crying like a baby, and although I tried to reassure him he kept on saying that we would never get out of it. Suddenly, I saw men scrambling to their feet. Taking this to be the signal for the charge I jumped up and dashed across.’ (Sergeant Harold Preston, 9th (Queensland) Battalion, AIF)

The Reserve Army strove to capture the village of Pozières, which, from its dominating position on the Albert-Bapaume road, provided an alternative line of approach into the rear of the Thiepval defences. The Australian units in the area underlined their excellent fighting reputation by capturing both the village and the fortified ruins of the windmill on the crest of the ridge beyond, but subsequent efforts to move north-west from a constricted salient in the direction of Mouquet Farm and Thiepval were subjected to concentrated German artillery fire.

To the south, Rawlinson did his best to assist the French Sixth Army as it crept towards Peronne, but the Fourth Army was unable to capture Guillemont and Ginchy until the beginning of September. Rawlinson was left in no doubt about Haig's dissatisfaction with repeated attacks by inadequate forces on narrow frontages.

Command errors, mounting losses and relentless demands on front line troops were also to be found on the German side of the wire. Falkenhayn's order that a strict defensive posture should be maintained at Verdun was a sure indication that British operations on the Somme were having some effect. His insistence on a tactical system of unyielding linear defence and immediate counterattack – a policy backed by General Fritz von Below of the German Second Army – only added to the strain felt by German divisions.

After Pozières, the next objective that lay ahead was Mouquet Farm, hitherto an insignificant name on the map that was to become the graveyard of thousands of young Australians. The farm was won, then lost, then won again. This was the wearing-out phase of the battle. Both sides would come to realise that the Somme – when added to the equivalent attritional blood-letting of Verdun – was a crucial battle in the grim process of grinding down the German reserves. But it was an inhuman business all the same: this was the pity of war. The German soldiers at the front were suffering just as much as their opponents, with the prevailing mood one of despair.

Private Rabe of 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment described the fighting at Mouquet: ‘Because there were no dugouts, we sheltered in shell holes. With the help of a mate, I dug mine down a bit deeper. Lying flat out, we carefully lifted thistles and other shrubby weeds, which we planted around the rim of our shell hole to give us cover from view. We lay in this hole for three and a half hours, unable, because of the heavy fire, to move or be relieved. Frequently we also sheltered in foxholes with our legs drawn up, or we would scrabble our way from shell hole to shell hole, linking them together. The water was green and full of muddy clay but we had to use it to brew coffee, because the ration parties could not get through to us. We were always short of bread. On one occasion the section was able to share a bottle of wine. Once came the shout, “Tommy is attacking!” We waited in painful impatience and looked forward to giving him a warm reception, but not a single Tommy appeared! What a shame, what a bloody shame!’ The message is clear: Rabe and his comrades were suffering. But as long as they survived and still had ammunition they were dangerous opponents. As such, he symbolized the whole German Army during the long agony of the Somme.

One British artillery officer summed up the prevailing mood: ‘I am afraid we are settling down to siege warfare in earnest and of a most sanguinary kind, very far from our hopes in July. But it’s always the same: Festubert, Loos, and now this. Both sides are too strong for a finish yet. God knows how long it will be at this rate. None of us will ever see its end and children still at school will have to take over.’ (Captain Philip Pilditch, ‘C’ Battery, 235th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery)

At the level of High Command, the Germans were showing signs of the incredible strain not only of operating on two fronts, but of fighting two major attritional battles at the same time: Verdun and the Somme. When the Brusilov Offensive burst upon the Austro-Hungarians on the Eastern Front, Falkenhayn’s overall strategy was already unravelling. Although his reasons for launching the Verdun Offensive had been cogent, he had underestimated the French will to resist. Falkenhayn was called upon to resign and Paul von Hindenburg was appointed Chief of General Staff, with Erich Ludendorff appointed to the new position of Quartermaster General.

Falkenhayn had also anticipated that the French infantry would be minced by the collective power of the German guns. But here too he had been disappointed. The French had deployed their own massed guns and the attritional fighting had affected both sides equally.

Falkenhayn’s failures had not gone unnoticed among the military and political establishment, so Hindenburg and Ludendorff, sensing their chance, resumed their campaigning for Falkenhayn’s dismissal. When Falkenhayn made the mistake of erroneously assuring the Kaiser that Romania would not join the Entente – which it promptly did – it proved his undoing. Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg, the most popular general in the country, a man widely seen as a hero of Germany, was his obvious replacement.

The next major offensive on the Somme would be the battle of Flers-Courcelette. This was the battle intended to reap the rewards from all the hard graft that had preceded it. Success here might foreshorten the war; failure would certainly prolong it. Over ten divisions of the Fourth and Reserve Armies would advance together on the German lines. This was a battle the scale of which would have been unthinkable for the BEF just a year before. It also marked a significant step forward in the British tactical approach to the offensive with the first use of the tank. In the event, the sheer unreliability of the tanks proved greater than expected.

The gestation of the tank has been much debated, but it originated in the clear necessity for some kind of armored vehicle that could cross No Man’s Land, brush through barbed wire and use its onboard armaments to assault German strong points. There was much experimentation before the emergence of the lozenge-shaped Mark I ‘tank’, an armored tracked vehicle based on the Holt tractor which came in two variants: the ‘male’, armed with two 6-pounder guns and four machine guns, and the ‘female’, with six machine guns.

No one knew the tank’s capabilities or drawbacks: this could only be discovered in battle. What better time to test them out than at the crucial Battle of Flers-Courcelette, the climax of the main Entente offensive of 1916?

Of the forty-nine tanks intended to be used in the attack, only thirty-six reached the starting lines by the time the final barrage burst out. When they went into action they often broke down or lost their way, which left the infantry in the ‘lanes’ left by the creeping barrage advancing into uncurbed fire. For the Germans it was the new British barrage techniques, not the tanks, that had the biggest impact.

Communication was almost non-existent between the tanks and the infantry. Often the tanks were left behind by the infantry, which was desperate to keep up with the more certain protection offered by the creeping barrage. The much-advertised tank proceeding along the main street of Flers was a journalist’s dream in the days following, but the tank concerned did nothing more than trundle up and down the road before breaking down.

The British were still faced by three defensive trench systems on the Somme. Among the British High Command there was considerable debate as to tactics. In the end the attack was to be carried out on a wide front, but with the main thrust centered on the village of Flers-Courcelette. By now the concept of using a creeping barrage as the troops attacked was fully accepted. But the importance of counter battery fire to silence the German guns was still not properly grasped, and the guns assigned to the task were nowhere near sufficient. The tanks were spread out in small groups with the task of breaching the enemy trenches.

The press of events meant that the Germans did not have time to dig a sophisticated interconnected system of trenches and switch lines, nor to build the mass of concrete reinforced fortifications and deep dugouts to stiffen the line. But they still presented a formidable series of trenches, with the added threat of the hidden shell hole machine gunners.

The artillery guns were still at the very center of the plans, with the tank just a promising addition. Indeed, integrating tanks into the existing tactical mix posed a complex series of problems to which there were no obvious solutions. Should they be concentrated together? Was it best if they moved in front of, alongside or behind the infantry? In the end the tanks were spread out in small groups, sent ahead of the infantry to breach the German front line and tackle machine gun posts.

To facilitate the tanks’ advance, 100-yard gaps were left in the creeping barrage tracking the planned route of each tank as far as the front line, after which the infantry and tanks would advance together behind another creeping barrage. Once they were beyond the range of the supporting field artillery the tanks would be used to flatten the German barbed wire while their guns would attempt to provide close support for the infantry. This was an ambitious program for untested weapons.

Haig was sufficiently encouraged by the development of the tank to order a thousand shortly after the battle. He was also consoled by the success of the latest version of British offensive tactics. Many of the German First Line positions had been overrun all along the 9,000-yard front, while in the Flers sector the Second Line had been breached to such an extent that a couple of days later the Germans retreated to Le Transloy Ridge. The Germans were in deep trouble, but the British had still not broken through.

As the battle progressed, another weakness of the tanks was becoming apparent: they were susceptible to well-directed artillery fire. All told, the tanks achieved little that would not have been gained by more conventional means – yet at times they did also give an inkling of what might be. They certainly made an impression on the Germans: ‘A man came running in from the left, shouting, “There is a crocodile crawling into our lines!” The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.’ (Sergeant Weinert, 211th Infantry Regiment)

Within ten days the British had assimilated some of the lessons learned. In their plans for the Battle of Morval they reined in their ambitions, aiming for an advance of about 1,500 yards to take the latest German front line. The tanks were also used in a more focussed way, following the infantry in order to assist in the destruction of troublesome strong points – in other words, as a useful but secondary weapon. The result was a dramatic success. Indeed, in most places the tanks could not keep up with the infantry as they advanced across the ground razed by the barrage.

The British scale down of the attack allowed for a more concentrated artillery bombardment with no gaps in the coverage, a much greater attention to counter-battery work and a return to the concept of a standing barrage dropping in front of newly captured ground to break up any attempted German counterattacks.

Similar tactics brought equal success when Gough attacked Thiepval Spur and Schwaben Redoubt. This triggered an intensive period of vicious fighting, but slowly the British were inching forward and loosening the German grip on the high ground that had remained inviolate since the start of the Somme. Yet there was a price to pay: whenever they captured a German position there always seemed to be more lines ahead of them. In the time it took to organize and execute a ‘bite and hold’ attack, the Germans could dig new trench lines; and so the process rumbled on ad infinitum.

A new development in German tactics was the placing of concealed machine gun posts well behind their lines, beyond the range of British field artillery, but still able to cover open ground near or just behind their own front line. As the tactical rollercoaster ride hurtled on, each side adapted their methods to counter the other, and every step forward only seemed to preface a step back.

Haig, aware that his embattled armies were creeping closer to tactically significant battlefield features, concluded that the Germans were ready for the taking; ‘We had already broken through all the enemy’s prepared lines and now only extemporised defences stood between us and the Bapaume ridge: moreover the enemy had suffered much in men, in material, and in morale. If we rested even for a month, the enemy would be able to strengthen his defences, to recover his equilibrium, to make good deficiencies, and, worse still, would regain the initiative! The longer we rested, the more difficult would our problem again become, so in my opinion we must continue to press the enemy to the utmost of our power.’

Haig was determined to press on, trusting that the twin hammer blows of the Somme and Verdun would undermine German resolve. This time his plan was fairly simple: keep attacking in order to exert all possible pressure. But the Germans responded to the challenge by moving up more gun batteries and sending in fresh divisions. Once again the campaign degenerated into a series of small-scale assaults launched to ever-diminishing effect throughout October. Failure again became the norm for the British attacks.

As they edged forwards the British were suffering from the diminishing effectiveness of their main weapon, the massed guns of the Royal Artillery. The over-worked gunners were becoming physically exhausted; their guns too were wearing out and losing accuracy. The increasingly wet autumnal weather amplified the logistical problems of moving millions of shells across the devastated wasteland behind the British lines. The guns themselves sank deep into the mud, creating unstable platforms which made a nonsense of precise adjustments of angle and range. The all-pervading mud even smothered the explosive effects of the shells as they burst.

By this time the Royal Artillery was relying heavily on the RFC to photograph and chart the exact locations of German trenches and gun batteries before using the aircraft artillery observation to eliminate them. But flying was often impossible due to the inclement weather. Also, the German Air Service was starting to offer more vigorous opposition. The first step was a deadly new aircraft, the Albatros DI. Just as deadly was the codified version of aerial tactics prepared by Captain Oswald Boelcke. Facing these new threats, the British decided to rely on numbers and accept casualties as best as they could.

Boelcke was placed in command of the newly formed Jasta 2 based at Bertincourt. He inculcated his pilots with the simple principles of combat fighting in the air which included the importance of taking an opponent by surprise, preferably from behind coming out of the sun, and only shooting at close range. The first inkling the British had of this new force on the Western Front came when Boelcke led his ingénues into action against the British in a raid on the railway junction at Marcoing.

One of Boelcke’s young pilots, Lieutenant Manfred von Richthofen, was desperate to shoot down his first victim. Despite his inexperience, the tremendous superiority of his Albatros allowed him to get behind an FE2 B flown by veterans Lieutenant Lionel Morris and Lieutenant Tom Rees: ‘A struggle began and the great point for me was to get to the rear of the fellow. Apparently he was no beginner, for he knew exactly that his last hour had arrived at the moment I got at the back of him. My Englishman twisted and turned, flying in zig-zags. At last a favourable moment arrived. My opponent had apparently lost sight of me. Instead of twisting and turning, he flew straight along. In a fraction of a second, I was at his back with my excellent machine. I gave a short burst of shots with my machine gun. I had gone so close that I was afraid I might crash into the Englishman. Suddenly I nearly yelled with joy, for the propeller of the enemy machine had stopped turning. Hurrah! I had shot his engine to pieces; the enemy was compelled to land, for it was impossible for him to reach his own lines. The English machine was swinging curiously to and fro. Probably something had happened to the pilot. The observer was no longer visible.’ Both Morris and Rees were killed; all their experience could not save them.

The Albatros DI was the first scout to be armed with twin Spandau machine guns firing through the propeller; it also had a powerful 1 Mercedes engine which gave it a top speed of nearly 110 mph. The Albatros more than compensated for lack of combat skills. It allowed the fledgling German pilots to take their kills almost at will. But Boelcke did not stint in his training, constantly going through the minutiae of every aerial encounter with his young charges.

Manfred Von Richthofen, who made his debut at the Somme, would go on to become the most famous flying ace of the war. He was credited with 80 air victories and earned the nickname ‘The Red Baron’.

It was becoming apparent that the RFC would have to suffer severe casualties if they were to continue carrying out their functions in the face of this new scourge. Brigadier General Hugh Trenchard was well aware of the problem, but he was determined that the RFC would continue to carry out its duty to the men on the ground, come what may.

The conditions on the Somme in the late autumn of 1916 began to match the horrors of Verdun. Morale was declining among the British soldiers called to endure impossible conditions of service. And in front of them the Germans seemed as implacable as ever. By November it was apparent that there was no longer time for the BEF to finish their grim business that year. With the depths of winter looming, it was evident that the German Army was simply too strong. The war would continue deep into 1917.

By the end of October, the Somme had become a place of utter horror beyond all normal human comprehension: ‘I will never forget that trench – it was simply packed with German corpses in the stage where face and hands were inky black with a greenish tinge from decomposition and whites of the eyes and teeth gave them a horrible appearance. How so many came to be in one trench I cannot tell, unless one of our tanks caught them there. Fritz had tried to get rid of some, for they were laid in rows on the parapets at the level of one’s head, stuck into walls, buried in the floor and felt like an air cushion to walk on, and one was continually rubbing against heads, legs, arms etc., sticking out of the walls at all heights. The floor one walked on was in a fearful state, in some parts covered several deep with bodies or a face with grinning teeth looked up at you from the soft mud, and one often saw an arm or a leg by itself and occasionally a head cut off. Everywhere are Prussian helmets with their eagle badge, belts and equipment, many bodies had wristwatches etc. We did not collect many souvenirs, for our own skin was the best souvenir we could think of that day.’ (Signaller Ron Buckell, 1st Canadian Artillery Brigade, CEF)

The priorities of the British High Command changed: now they sought to gain the best possible tactical positions for the winter, ready for the resumption of fighting in the new year. And so there was to be one final attack: the Battle of the Ancre. This time they attacked north towards St Pierre Divion to finally clear the south bank of the Ancre River, while at the same time an assault was made along the line from Serre to Beaucourt on the north bank of the river. During the fighting that followed, Beaucourt fell and the British also made ground on Redan Ridge.

The preparations were commendably thorough: the troops sapped forward to narrow No Man’s Land, while underneath the surface the tunnellers once again laid their mines deep under the German lines. This time when the mines exploded under Hawthorn Ridge a powerful creeping barrage chaperoned the troops of the 51st Division as they swept forward to capture Beaumont Hamel.

The German tactical position was rapidly deteriorating but it was too late in the year for the British to exploit this. By the time their last attack was made it was on a freezing ice-bound battlefield. As such, little was achieved as both sides had fought themselves to a standstill. Haig accepted that no further progress was possible and the offensive was formally closed down.

On the Somme, as at Verdun, both sides suffered terrible casualties. By the end of 1916 it was the very nature of war that had changed. Success in battle was not necessarily measured in terms of ground gained, unless it included objectives of supreme tactical significance or threatened a genuine breakthrough of prepared fortifications. Perversely, such success only provoked a wild intensification of counter-attacks. Young men had become a national resource to be measured in millions. But millions at arms meant millions of casualties. Germany was a mighty industrial state, its army second to none, and it was not done yet.

British losses on the Somme totalled 419,654 (131,000 dead), while the French lost 204,253. The German figures have been endlessly debated, but they probably totalled between 450,000 and 600,000. Ludendorff was all too aware of the implications of the situation: ‘GHQ had to bear in mind that the enemy’s great superiority in men and material would be even more painfully felt in 1917 than in 1916. They had to face the danger that ‘Somme fighting’ would soon break out at various points on our fronts, and that even our troops would not be able to withstand such attacks indefinitely, especially if the enemy gave us no time for rest and for the accumulation of material. Our position was uncommonly difficult and a way out hard to find. We could not contemplate an offensive ourselves, having to keep our reserves available for defence. There was no hope of a collapse of any of the Entente Powers. If the war lasted our defeat seemed inevitable. Economically we were in a highly unfavourable position for a war of exhaustion. At home our strength was badly shaken. Questions of the supply of foodstuffs caused great anxiety, and so, too, did questions of morale. We were not undermining the spirits of the enemy populations with starvation blockades and propaganda. The future looked dark.’

Verdun and the Somme had raised the threshold of horror but there was far worse to come. For the men caught up in Armageddon there was little to look forward to: ‘I do not think we are any nearer the finish than a year or so ago, except for the fact that many hundreds of thousands more are dead on both sides. I am convinced that the end can only come that way and that at the end there will be nothing but an enormous barrage of enormous shells on both sides and that whichever side has the last few infantry to face it will win. That is if both sides don’t get nerve shattered to death before and give in from pure exhaustion and hatred of it all.’ (Captain Philip Pilditch, C Battery, 235th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery). This was the authentic voice of despair: Captain Pilditch was not alone.

The Somme and the equally ugly Verdun have come to symbolize the Great War: futile battles fought with people’s lives by incompetent and uncaring generals. In particular, for the British, the disaster of the first day on the Somme has become the sole prism through which the conduct of the whole of the Great War has been viewed. Explanations of what went wrong and why are thrust aside; indeed in the past, subdued references to a ‘learning curve’ for the generals have been seen as an insult to the dead. There remains a widespread belief that ‘there must have been a better way’; something else could, or should, have been done; someone must be blamed.

Much of this opprobrium has fallen on the head of Douglas Haig, who has at times been reviled as a mass murderer. Yet this was the inevitable price of engaging in continental warfare on the main field of battle against the primary enemy. France was well accustomed to the pain of continental warfare, but for Britain it was a new experience.

Germany had no exposed flanks, just the imposing fortifications of the Western Front defending their 1914 gains wrested from France and Belgium. For all their tactical improvements and technical innovations, the British were simply not yet able to breach those defences or kill sufficient Germans, even in concert with the French at Verdun, to bring Germany to its knees.