Episode 101: The Battle of the Somme Pt.12

1916 Somme Episodes

This week we take our Somme narrative out of the fateful month of July and into August. In his book The Somme: Darkest Hour on the Western Front Peter Hart would say that "In some ways the study of August and early September is the least rewarding and most utterly depressing chapter in the whole tragic epic of the Somme offensive. The British had the troops, the guns, the ammunition and even the weather – the perpetual enemy of British generals – was reasonably favourable. Yet the period went by unredeemed by anything that could be considered a success." This was in many ways very true. The British would just keep on attacking, and yet gain just as little as they had before. This would all be a build up to the attacks in September where they would unveil their new weapon, the tank, but that was still far in the future. Instead we will first take a look at the tactical problems that the British and French were having while trying to continue to attack against the Germans before digging into some German accounts of what precisely it was like at the front during this period of fighting. We will then discuss the situation in August and the conversations that were happening by all of the leadership teams both at army headquarters and in Paris and London. We will then close out this episode by taking a quick look at what Haig and Foch were planning for September.


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Sources

The First World War by John Keegan
A World Undone by G.J. Meyer
Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson
Pyrrhic Victory by Robert A. Doughty
Zero Hour: First Day on the Somme by Andrew Roberts
The Somme by Lyn MacDonald
Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 by Christopher Duffy
Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front by Peter Hart
The British Air Campaign During the Battle of the Somme April-November 1916: A Pyrrhic Victory by Thomas G. Bradbeer
The First Day on the Somme by Martin Middlebrook
The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson
Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott
The German Army on the Somme by Jack Sheldon

Transcript

This week we take our Somme narrative out of the fateful month of July and into August. In his book The Somme: Darkest Hour on the Western Front Peter Hart would say that "In some ways the study of August and early September is the least rewarding and most utterly depressing chapter in the whole tragic epic of the Somme offensive. The British had the troops, the guns, the ammunition and even the weather – the perpetual enemy of British generals – was reasonably favourable. Yet the period went by unredeemed by anything that could be considered a success." This was in many ways very true. The British would just keep on attacking, and yet gain just as little as they had before. This would all be a build up to the attacks in September where they would unveil their new weapon, the tank, but that was still far in the future. Instead we will first take a look at the tactical problems that the British and French were having while trying to continue to attack against the Germans before digging into some German accounts of what precisely it was like at the front during this period of fighting. We will then discuss the situation in August and the conversations that were happening by all of the leadership teams both at army headquarters and in Paris and London. We will then close out this episode by taking a quick look at what Haig and Foch were planning for September.

One of the problems that the British were having, and which would become even more apparent from August until the end of the battle was that the constant push and pull between launching attacks and waiting until they were able to then launch a bigger attack later was a balance that they found very difficult to strike. The problem was that every day that the British waited to build up their strength for an attack was one more day that the Germans could do the same. This became more prevalent as the British began to make some real gains and the battle lines pushed further away from where they started. As the British and French advanced they pushed further and further out into a devastated wasteland that they themselves had shattered with artillery in the opening days of the attack. Roads in these areas were almost nonexistent, and the terrain was just a landscape of overlapping shell holes. The intent had always been to push past these areas in the opening attacks and to get into the open, but that just never happened. On the German side there was some of this devastation right around the front, but as they were forced to give ground they were at least moving into areas that were less pulverized, instead of moving on top of it like their enemies. This made it easier for the Germans to re-establish their supply lines after every major engagement, this gave both their infantry, and more importantly their artillery the ability to recover just a bit faster than the British. The idea for the British was still to wear out the Germans, and there is a lot of talk in histories and in contemporary accounts of the battle that the situation in August was just a stage of the fighting where the British were wearing down the German front line troops and reserves and that soon they would finally break them. The British thought they were close, and while they were certainly grinding away they drastically underestimated the size of the German manpower mountain that they were chipping away at. This mountain would not be reduced in July or August 1916 and instead it would last until about midway through 1918. There were changes on the German side that we touched on previously, and this was the move away from the nicely defined front line and the move to a more spread out set of defenses. This involved moving the main positions and machine guns out of trenches and into scattered shell holes and fortifications around the battlefield. This required a different kind of and different level of preparation from the British and the French and they were slow to adapt their tactics to the new reality and were even slower to provide their artillery with the proper amount of supplies to take care of the larger number of square yards of the battlefield that they found themselves responsible for neutralizing.

This did not mean that the Germans did not use dugouts where they were still available, and they were used to supplement other defenses, but they were not the focus. When the men were in them they found little of the rest, relaxation, and relative safety of the dugouts before the battle and instead they found them poorly lit, claustrophobic hell holes that were often seen as death traps instead of real protection. One constant on the battlefield was the supremacy of the Allied artillery, by mid-September the British alone had fired over almost 8 million rounds of ammunition and the Germans were desperately calling for more guns to be moved into the theater to try and provide some response, but this never happened on the scale required to alter the balance of power. Lieutenant Spielman of Infantry Reserve Regiment 151 would describe one way in which this situation would affect the infantry at the front "Everyone had to make do with what they had brought forward in their bread pouches and water bottles. An attempt during the morning of 7th August to supply the company with food and water cost several lives and succeeded only in delivering three loaves, some pieces of bacon and ten bottles of mineral water. By the third day the thirst was unbearable." Reserve Lieutenant George Will would have another perspective "During 19th and 20th August we find ourselves in the front line. There are no trenches, so we occupy shell holes, seeking shelter behind piled up banks of earth. Everyone tries to edge forward, as close to the enemy as possible, to escape from the shelling. During the hours of darkness we dig as hard as we can to link up the craters. The whole place is a charnel house, defying description." One string through all of this hardship was a general appreciation for the British infantry opposite of the Germans, especially in relation to how they fought on both offensive and defense, here is Oberstleutnant Alfons Bram of Bavarian Infantry Regiment 81 "the general situation and later clearance of British pockets of resistance, the British soldiers displayed great courage, coolness under fire and a striking reluctance to take cover. Their main strength in this type of fighting was their masterly use of grenades, with which they had evidently trained with sporting enthusiasm and their numerous machine guns." For some reason in my mind I always picture the Germans as the side using grenades, the big stick ones of course, but the British also had a ton of grenades. Also, I have read this before but I cannot find a source on it at the moment, but I have heard that the British were more skilled at throwing their grenades because of the prevalence of cricket before the war whereas the Germans did not have a similar throwing sport in their society. Again, I cannot find my source on this at the moment, so take it with a grain of salt because I could be misremembering. One reason that would constantly be used by Joffre and Haig as justification for continuing their attacks were the casualties that they were forcing upon the Germans. It was true that German casualties were high in a numerical sense, something we have discussed many times, but it was also true in a qualitative sense as well. By mid-September the German generals were reporting that more men were reporting sick, desertion and surrender numbers were on the rise, and the number of self-inflicted sounds was increasing as well. All of these were signs of reduced morale and reduced army continuity. These changes become much more understandable when you look at what the German units were going through. Lets take as an example the situation for Infantry Regiment 127. This regiment was sent to the front and in just a matter of days, after being the focus of some British attacks, found itself on the point of complete collapse and had to be moved off the line. However, there were not sufficient reserves to send a new and intact regiment to the front to relieve it so instead the only way to put men in the line was to send forward individual battalions of Infantry Regiment 123 and 124. This was bad enough on the surface, sending units to the front piecemeal would never produce the cohesion of one single unit but it was also bad because the men in regiments 123 and 124 had only been taken off the line 4 days before, after they themselves were heavily mauled by attacks. This type of churn, of barely getting off the line and having to go back because another unit was even worse, was a churn that would continue. This did not mean that the Germans were helpless though, and certainly were not as close to breaking as Haig and Joffre believed. In fact they were able to use some units to launch specific attacks against some key positions along the front like Delville Wood where they would move a specially trained unit into place to execute an attack. Here is Jack Sheldon from his book The German Army on the Somme to explain "There was one new feature which underlined the determination, or perhaps desperation, of Second Army to try to retake the wood and that was the use of the newly-formed Jäger Storm Battalion 3. This unit was one of the first to be converted from being a normal Jäger battalion into one which was specially trained in assault tactics and reserved for use in critical situations. Its exacting training had begun in mid June 1916. Large numbers of men deemed to be unsuitable for the new task had been transferred to normal line regiments and it spent July and early August on fitness training and mastering new tactics and weapons, such as the light mortars and flamethrowers, with which it had been issued." These type of units would become a much bigger piece of future attacks and it is interesting to see them come into the German arsenal at this point in the war.

On the Allied side everything was going, in a word poorly. For the French, while they had advanced and reached their objectives early in July were now stuck in a narrow salient out into the German lines with the Germans to the south and the river to the north. They made some effort to widen this salient to make everything easier on the troops but they found it difficult, as Robert Doughty in Pyrrhic Victory explains "In late July and August, Sixth army operations would take on a regular pattern: an advance of several hundred meters, maybe as much as a kilometer; a vicious close-quarter fight to occupy the objective and then retain it again German counter-attacks; costly small-scale line straightening operations to retake what had not been held and secure the jumping-off line, with its vital observatories, for the next forward move; and several days of heavy preparatory bombardment before the process was repeated. " For the French it was clear that what they needed was for the British to help them if they were ever to break out of their little are on the Somme and really accomplish something. Joffre was very away of this and he needed Haig's assistance for another reason as well. It was in the late summer of 1916 that the first resistance to Joffre's command started to be heard in the corridors of power in Paris. The whispers were saying that at the very least Joffre's power should be curtailed to a more reasonable amount. The reasoning was clear, after all of their sacrifices the French had very little to show for them. There were even the faintest beginnings of discussions about replacing Joffre with somebody else. Andre Maginot, yes that Maginot, as in Line, was one of the loudest of the politicians when speaking out against the French commander, he would say that "Verdun proves that the Commander lives from day to day. He yields the initiative to his adversary instead of imposing his will on him. He has neither method nor energy. He counts on a miracle. He has shown us what he can do. It is necessary to replace him." All of these discussions got back to Joffre and for the Somme it meant that he needed action and for good things to happen, and soon. Joffre did not trust the British to be able to launch any effective attacks by this point without French prodding and his estimation of Haig had seemingly dropped to a new low. He thought that the only way to get the British going again was for the French themselves to be more energetic and active. His hope was that through this French activity he would be able to drag the British along as well. This would result in many discussions during August of a forthcoming great battle on the Somme, a renewal of the effort seen on July 1st. He hoped to convince Haig to launch this effort before the end of August, however the attempts to make this happen would instead drag on through most of the month. By August 20th it was clear that the French were not going to be able to get the British to buy into this plan, and the earliest that they could participate in an attack on the size that the French wanted would be the middle of September. Haig was already pinpointing September as his next big attack anyway, and he had been planning this since the beginning of August, so the French just ended up going along with that. Haig would acknowledge, to his credit, that his army needed a good amount of time to prepare for another large attack and this would only be allowed to occur if no large attacks were launch for some period of time. This was the correct evaluation of the situation, however, the idea, no matter how valid, never really got put into practice. You see while Haig was thinking that he needed to husband his strength, he never really changed his plans to make a bunch of small attacks all along the front each with its own little objective. That could mean attacking in the south with the intention of helping out the French, like in this memo written by Haig "The first necessity at the moment is to help the French forward on our right flank. For this we must capture Guillemont, Falfemont Farm and Ginchy as soon as possible. These places cannot be taken, however – with due regard to economy of means available – without careful and methodical preparation. The necessary preparations must be pushed on without delay, and the attack will be launched when the responsible commanders on the spot are satisfied that everything possible has been done to ensure success." And this also included renewed efforts to capture German positions on Pozieres Ridge, something that had already cost the British thousands of casualties So how precisely were the commanders supposed to both husband their strength and launch attacks at the same time, well Haig thought it would be easy "The operations outlined above are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and of munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack undertaken a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible, and to secure the objectives won against counter-attack. Economy of men and munitions is to be sought for not by employing insufficient force for the objective in view but by a careful selection of objectives." Let me just take a moment to repeat one piece of that for emphasis "operations are to be carried out with as little expenditure of fresh troops and munitions as circumstances will admit of, but in each attack a sufficient force must be employed to make success as certain as possible." Talk about wanting to have his cake and eat it too. He was essentially asking his generals to be perfect, to attack with precisely the right number of men, precisely the right levels of artillery, precisely the right amount of preparation time. Too little of any of those three things would result in failures all too familiar for the British army, too many of any of those things would prevent the troops from properly preparing for the larger attack with larger more important objectives in September. It was an impossible situation, and much like most impossible situations it ended in failure. Most of the time the men and resources were not available to launch the efforts necessary to achieve the set forth objectives and so the attacks got nowhere, just like they had been in all those small attacks in July. In the rare case that there were enough of both men and artillery they were then on too small of a front to hold their gains against German counter attacks. Haig had created a no win scenario for his officers and men, a manufactured Kobayashi Maru on the Western Front. It was not just a failure for August though, the effects of these failures would continue to be felt until the end of the battle.

While the politicians were becoming a bit uncomfortable in Paris, the same thing was happening in London. Just the sheer number of casualties that were reaching the ears of British leadership was enough to cause a moment of pause. This brought about new pushes for actions outside of the Western front or for some change to be made to actions in France and Belgium. But these movements would not instantly change the thinking of the War Committee. However, General Robertson who was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff would write Haig to say that "The Powers that be are beginning to get a little uneasy in regard to the situation. The casualties are mounting up and they are wondering whether we are likely to get a proper return for them." Haig, being quick to recognize the very thinly veiled dig at his decision making abilities, would fire back a message to London that outlined what he believed to be the purpose of the Somme, this would be a lengthy note, and this is just an excerpt with a good outline of the purpose of further attacks. "(a) Pressure on Verdun relieved. Not less than six enemy Divisions besides heavy guns have been withdrawn. (b) Successes achieved by Russia last month would certainly have been stopped had enemy been free to transfer troops from here to the Eastern Theatre. (c) Proof given to world that Allies are capable of making and maintaining a vigorous offensive and of driving enemy’s best troops from the strongest positions has shaken faith of Germans, of their friends, of doubting neutrals in the invincibility of Germany. Also impressed on the world, England’s strength and determination, and the fighting power of the British race. (d) We have inflicted very heavy losses on the enemy. In one month, 30 of his Divisions have been used up, as against 35 at Verdun in 5 months! In another 6 weeks, the enemy should be hard put to it to find men! (e) The maintenance of a steady offensive pressure will result eventually in his complete overthrow." At the end of the day the initial bark of London would prove to be far stronger than its long term bite. While there would be a few further questions for Haig, which he was always good at having an answer for, the initial questioning of operations would devolve into nothing more than a somewhat muted conversation about trying to find a different theater in which to launch the next effort. Rightly or wrongly the London leaders just did not have the confidence, power, or ability to take bold steps to change the course of actions on the Western front, and they would not for some time to come. What would change very suddenly was that Romania would enter the war on August 27th by declaring war on Austria-Hungary. This really got the British and French into gear as they looked both to short term benefits, like the fact that more German and Austrian troops would have to mvoe to the east, and also they looked into the future and how they could take advantage of the situation in 1917. They believed that Romania would pull enough German troops away to give them a decisive advantage on the Western front and so their plans for September began to solidify with that advantage in mind. Little did they know that Romania would be at best a minor distraction, and it would be almost completely out of the war by the turn of the year.

The attack for September was, sort of as always, planned to open up the front, but this time there was at least going to be one thing different and that would be the presence of a new weapon, the tank. The tank by this point was a vehicle that, while it looked menacing and impressive was deeply flawed. The biggest problem was that they were simply impossible to keep running long enough to be really useful on the battlefield. They broke down all the time, but even with this dramatic downside, they still had their benefits. On the testing grounds of Britain and France, whenever Haig saw them demonstrated he believed that their performances were encouraging, even if others did not share this belief Haig was always strongly pushing for their further development. While some of the most difficult issues were being worked on in workshops at the front and in Britain there was also the problem of how to use the things and integrate them into the attacks in the 1916 battlefield and these were proving to be even harder to solve. It is important to remember that the tank was not just an improved version of an older weapon, this was an entirely new weapon system and concept that did not have an easily identifiable analogue on the battlefield. So there were simple questions to answer like, how many were needed for an attack? How concentrated should they be on the front? Should they go forward in groups or alone? Should they target enemy strong points, or the weak points where they could move through the enemy line? This is just a small sample of the questions that British staff officers were asking themselves. They would get their first battlefield test in September 1916, and it would not go very well. It did not help that the goals of the upcoming attack were again greatly inflated with Haig wanting to capture all of the German positions to break his army out into the open in one go, while Rawlinson was once again preaching caution. Once again Haig would win. This would have the same effects as on July 1st, spreading the British artillery far too thin. As I am sure you can tell, the September 14th attacks are going to not go as planned for the British and French, and that is a story we will tell next week. For those of you who want a far deeper, some might say too deep, of a dive into the development of the tank before it made its debut in September 1916, head over the Patreon where I did 2 episodes looking with quite a bit of detail into its path through design and production in 1916. I hope you will join me back here next week as the battle of the Somme grinds on.