Episode 103: The Battle of the Somme Pt.14

1916 Somme Episodes

This week we come to the end. This will be our 14th and last episode on the Battle of the Somme as we look at the last two month of fighting in October and November. These would be rough months for all involved not just because of the continued casualty rates, but also because of the weather that would be the bane of the men in the trenches. We will then close out this episode by doing a review of the costs of the 5 months of attacks on the Somme and what it had accomplished.

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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


This week we come to the end. This will be our 14th and last episode on the Battle of the Somme as we look at the last two month of fighting in October and November. These would be rough months for all involved not just because of the continued casualty rates, but also because of the weather that would be the bane of the men in the trenches. We will then close out this episode by doing a review of the costs of the 5 months of attacks on the Somme and what it had accomplished. Coming out of September optimism on the British side was actually quite high. During the attacks in September, while they had certainly not met all of their objectives they had not been complete failures like the earlier efforts. This convinced Haig that the Germans were really close to complete collapse. He was not prepared to give the Germans any time to fully recover, and he was dead set on not making the mistake of coming within one step of victory, after months of sacrifice, and then calling off the attack on the brink of success. Here are his thoughts in his own words "We had already broken through all the enemy’s prepared lines and now only extemporized defenses 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." The plan was to keep attacking and this would result in multiple attacks throughout October. After the end of October these would continue but with a different purpose. At some point it became clear that the British no longer had the ability to decisively win the battle or to punch through the German lines in anyway. This caused a shift in focus away from these quick wins and instead a long term view into what might happen in 1917. Haig and Joffre both believed that they would recommence the battle in these same areas in the Spring, but to do this they needed to continue the attacks now. Every tactical gain that they could make, every hill or wood or village that they could take during 1916 would be one less that they would have to contend with in 1917. This pushed the attacks forward again and again as they were never satisfied with where they were and where they would have to stop for the winter. The cruelest irony for all of the men involved is that by the time that spring did come it would not matter at all, because the Germans would be gone.

These type of attacks may have made some sense if the Germans were as close to almost complete collapse as the British believed, so lets once again look at that question. The Germans had mounting problems on the Somme, the first was that the British were just in general getting much better at attacking the German positions, Haig was also correct that their positions by this point in the battle were not as good as they had once been, or as well constructed as they were in September. The Germans were also simply running out of combat effective units. There was more to creating effective units than just having warm bodies. As unit cohesion continued to drop those units became less effective, less well trained, less familiar with all of those around them and the continued grind of sending units to the front repeatedly in a short period of time just made everything worse. The reasons for this are varied, and you could probably have a whole book on small unit cohesion, but here is Lieutenant Wolfgang von Vormann of Infantry Regiment 268 to describe what he saw in his own unit. "We have been terribly mauled once more, even worse than the last time. It is hardly to be wondered at, because then we were a superb unit, welded together by the experience we gained during the hard days of small-scale action we had fought around the slag heaps of Saint Pierre. Commanders and men knew and trusted one another absolutely. This time we were simply a mob of soldiers. We received good reinforcements from Germany, but the interval between the first and second deployments was just too short. We lacked the proven junior commanders: NCOs and officers, who could hold the troops together. We enjoyed good success this time too, but we were not brilliant. We beat off about ten attacks, causing the British huge casualties, but we had to yield five hundred metres of ground. By then we were at the end of our tether, but we were relieved just in time…" There was also a change taking place in the German soldiers individually. The men that were in the trenches in October and November were just not the same as those in July, even if some of the men were physically still there. This change was most notable in their mental state. They became more detached from those around them and from their officers, as most of them were often new replacements anyway, and this meant that the optimism of earlier in the year was no longer present. Here is the commander of a battalion in a formal report that he made to his regimental commander "The daily returns of the past few days have seen a great increase in the number of reports stating that the strength of the troops is declining. Quite apart from the number of direct battle casualties, the number of sick, those rendered unfit to fight after being buried alive, the cases of diarrhea and those suffering extreme depression are mounting to such an extent that I regard it as my duty to bring this matter to your attention."

While the will of the British troops and their commanders was still set on continuing the attacks, and the Germans may be running out of the ability to resist, more attacks were slowed significantly by a long set of bad weather. The first four days of October were filled with rain, endless and cold, and that would prove to be just the beginning. This lengthy period of bad weather actually started later than usual, and September had been abnormally dry towards the end and this had helped in the British attacks of the previous month. Now in October it seemed that Mother Nature was trying to make up for lost time and turn the Somme battlefield into a sea of mud. In such conditions it was impossible for either side to keep up any semblance of health and fitness standards. British Staff Officer Lord Gort would report after viewing conditions at the front that the men were 'living on cold food and standing up to their knees in mud and water.' He would also report that many were afflicted by trench foot and were certainly in no condition to continue the attack. As October continued it just got worse. By the time November arrived there was another challenge in addition to the rain because of the decrease in temperature. This resulted in rainy days and cold night that were hitting below freezing which played complete hell with the men's health and morale. In early November the commander of the 14th Corps would reply when ordered to attack that "No one who has not visited the front trenches can really know the state of exhaustion to which the men are reduced." The situation was just as bad on the German side as well, with Gefreiter Fritzsche writing that "We are lying in mud holes. There is filth on our clothing, in our food, all over our hands. Firing goes on ceaselessly. Everyone is exhausted by the approach march." One German Battalion would report about how difficult it was for the men to simply create and maintain any kind of defensive positions in the mud "Everything possible is being done to maintain the collapsed and unconnected trench system. But the term ‘trench’ is illusory. A line can barely be detected. The entire garrison, down to the last man, is fully occupied in ceaseless work to dig out what little remains. Those involved are literally stuck fast in the mud, so the useful work obtained, in proportion to the energy expended, is only slight. The gluey mud sticks to the shovels and is difficult to shake off…"

While the weather made life at the front miserable it also made effect use of artillery extremely difficult. We have discussed many times how important the artillery was for any attack to be successful and during October and November it became very difficult to maintain that level of artillery support. There was a nearly insolvable problem of how to get the thousands and thousands of shells to the gun lines when everything was so muddy. Horses and mules would not move through it, trucks bogged down immediately. Even if the shells could have found their way to the gun lines somehow the artillery founds it ability to move to new positions to support advances to be almost non-existent. Here is one artilleryman discussing how long it took to move the guns "Orders received at 11AM gave me three hours to pass a certain cross-roads; but although we started getting the guns out as soon as the teams arrived my last vehicle only managed to clear the point in question at 6PM the following day" By November it was basically impossible to bring a gun to the rear for repairs or to bring replacements forward. So instead of moving batteries of the lines with their guns for repairs and replacements new artillery batteries were told to leave their guns to the rear and instead they would just rotate men through onto the same guns to keep them firing. This had obvious negative effects on the ability of the guns to continue firing as they slowly wore out, broke down, or were disabled by enemy fire. It also had a perceptible negative effect on the morale of artillery units as Lieutenant Kenneth Mealing of the Royal Field Artillery explains "We got our orders to leave horses and guns and to take our gunners and officers up the line to take over the battery we were to relieve in situ. We knew it meant handing over our good, well-tended weapons for old, filthy, worn out guns, and we didn’t like it. A subaltern from the other battery arrived to guide us up. We didn’t quite like the undue haste he showed to get us up there, nor his relief at handing over. In fact he gave the impression that all he wanted was to get away out of it as quickly as possible." The only good news for the British was that all of these same factors affected the German artillery as well, although in general they always experienced them to a lesser degree because they were retreating onto areas that were far less destroyed by previous artillery bombardments while British were moving right on top of the destructive they had rained down in earlier attacks.

Another bit of bad news for the British artillery was problem for the Royal Flying Corps in the air. During the last few months of fighting on the Somme the British began to lose their aerial superiority which they had enjoyed for pretty much the entire battle. This was due to a combination of German aircraft finally being moved off of the Verdun front and also the introduction of a new series of German scout planes in the form of the Albatros D1. This new plane completely outclassed anything that the British could put in the air because it had two machine guns firing through its propellers each of which could put out 1,600 rounds per minute, this at a time when most British scout planes were still using Lewis Guns with their 47 round drum magazines. This would put the British artillery in a position that they had not had to deal with much on the Somme, being observed from the air and feeling the power of air directed counter battery fire. Here is Captain William Bloor "Enemy aeroplanes were very active and flew over our batteries at a great altitude. Very soon an intense bombardment with 5.9-ins and 8-ins was started on the Delville Valley, no doubt directed by their planes. We escaped loss, but my old battery (C/149th) had a direct hit on ‘E’ gun, killing the detachment, B/149th lost two guns and several men, A/149th had a direct 8-in hit on a gun, and D/149th (the howitzer) battery had a gun blown up and several dugouts also. A terrible day for my poor brigade." Unfortunately for the British German command of the air would not be ending anytime soon.

Throughout October and the early part of November the attacks continued with the several attacks launched during this time, regardless of the problems with the weather. These attacks made some progress, and the line was pushed forward, but always at such a high cost. This would continue until November 18th when the last major attack was launched. This would be made by the men of the 5th Army under General Gough, who was one of the leading voices among the British generals advocating for more and more attacks. Peter Hart would say that at this time Gough "seems to have been caught up in the kind of frenzy that afflicts gamblers unwilling to accept defeat; just one more throw of the dice might rescue the situation." He was able to talk Haig into the attack on the 18th being a good idea even though even Haig was a bit concerned about the prospects for success. On that day the II and V Corps would go forward and what would end up happening, due to the weather, was somewhat tragic. When I hear about the weather I cannot help but feel that the situation was just impossible. Here is Private C. Reuben Smith of the 18th Division to explain "It was snowing hard and freezing, and pitch dark. We were guided by the star shells from the firing line. It was impossible to follow the trench and too risky to get in it. I did get in it once and got stuck up to my waist in mud and ice-cold water. The water in the trench had a covering of ice about an inch thick, and snow on top of it. But as soon as your weight was on it – in you went! That was enough for me!" The snow that had been falling over then night was replaced by freezing rain, sleet, and then normal rain, just a cocktail of wintery nastiness, which just seems completely miserable. Here is Private Arthur Wrench to describe what it was like "The suffering is terrible and some of the men are about mad with the cold and the exposure. Snow in the morning followed by rain all day has made things pitiable. What I am seriously thinking now is that those boys lying stiff and cold all around Beaumont Hamel, insensible to it all, are perhaps lucky, and better off now than we are. This is what is called dying for your country, but it is actually selling your soul to a few profiteers for a shilling, and being massacred to satisfy their selfish purposes. And they call it WAR – and a legitimate thing at that." With the failure of this attack, the main efforts on the Somme, after 4 and a half months of fighting, were over.

While we can look back and say that November 18th was the last of these attacks, it is not as if there was a huge sign that appeared on the battlefield telling everyone that the round was over and they could stop fighting now. However, it became clear to both sides that they were now settling into winter fighting conditions and commanders on both sides would write about what they saw for the months ahead. Rawlinson believed that his troops had reached the absolute end of their abilities. He would repot the following "All the divisions allotted to the Fourth Army for the winter operations have taken part in the Battle of the Somme twice, most of them three or four times. They have had very heavy losses amounting in some cases from 7,000 to 10,000 men, and have suffered very severely in officers, NCOs and specialists. Experience proves that after severe periods of fighting in which divisions have had heavy losses, the time taken by a battalion to recover and regain its state of efficiency depends almost entirely on what nucleus of trained officers and NCOs remains available to train and weld together the old and new elements. In every offensive action that is carried out an ever increasing toll is taken of these priceless instructors and if battalions are bled dry there is serious risk of lowering the standard of fighting efficiency to a point which may render doubtful the success of the operations in the coming spring campaign." On the German side Ludendorff, in one of his pessimistic musings would take a rather bleak view of both what had happened on the Somme and what it meant for the German Army moving forward "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."

In terms of total casualty numbers there are some numbers that seem very solid, like the sum of British casualties coming in at 419,654 which seems extremely, and oddly specific, but it is the exact number that was used in all of the sources that I have seen. This is a staggeringly large number really, but it was just one piece of the puzzle. On the French side the number is less solid but they hover around 200,000 with some numbers being a bit below and some being a bit above. When we get to the German numbers things start to vary wildly. The Allies estimated them at 650,000 which was almost certainly far too high. The official German history puts the number at 500,000 which most historians still seem to think is too high. For more recent accountings I have seen numbers ranging from 237,000 to 430,000 which is a pretty wide margin, my guess is that the truth is somewhere in between. While the numbers are not perfectly certain there is one thing that is certain, they are very large. I think it is important to put them into context though. For example, even with the casualties on the Somme and Verdun and the other fronts the Germans still lost more men total during 1915 than in 1916. For the French and Germans their casualty rates had been much higher in 1914 and for all three armies their casualties would be worse in the last 6 months of the war. I wanted to mention that not to minimize the sacrifices of the men on the Somme, it is incredibly tragic that there were a million casualties for what amounted to a few square miles of territory on either side of a river in France that most people had never heard of.

Regardless of any other battles for the British would go down as the greatest military tragedy the history of the British Army. It quickly became apparent that the battle was different than the others and not just because men were dying in staggering numbers, but they were also seemingly accomplishing nothing. It was made just worse by the fact that this was the first large action for that first group of the most eager British volunteers who had flocked to volunteer stations in late 1914. That such optimism, enthusiasm, and patriotism was wasted on the Somme is one piece of the story that is often retold, focusing especially on the Pals battalions of July 1st and the cruel fate that awaited most of them John Keegan would explain partially why these groups are often put in such focus "The regiments of Pals and Chums which had their first experience of war on the Somme have been called an army of innocents and that, in their readiness to offer up their lives in circumstances none anticipated in the heady days of volunteering, it undoubtedly was. Whatever harm Kitchener’s volunteers wished the Germans, it is the harm they thereby suffered that remains in British memory, collectively but also among the families of those who did not return. There is nothing more poignant in British life than to visit the ribbon of cemeteries that marks the front line of 1 July 1916 and to find, on gravestone after gravestone, the fresh wreath, the face of a Pal or Chum above a khaki serge collar staring gravely back from a dim photograph, the pinned poppy and the inscription to “a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.” The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered." The Somme would in many ways become the battle of the war for the British, like Verdun was for the French, or Gallipoli for the Australians, or Vimy for the Canadians. It was not the most costly in terms of casualties and it almost certainly does not top the list in terms of human suffering and overall pointlessness, that honor almost certainly has to be on Passchendaele.

For the Germans the Somme had been just another costly defense in a year of costly defenses. When it became clear in December that the British were not going to continue their attacks Crown Prince Rupprecht would write to his troops that "Operations appear to have come to a halt in the Battle of the Somme. It is not clear when or if they will be resumed. I am making use of this pause to express my gratitude to and recognition of all commanders and troops. The battle lasted almost five months. Exploiting their numerical superiority and deploying an extraordinary quantity of matériel, the enemy sought to break through and attacked repeatedly. In the face of the heroic courage displayed by the First and Second Armies, each attempt failed; the only gain being a narrow strip of utterly ruined terrain. Everyone who was there can be proud to have been a warrior of the Somme. The greatest battle of the war, perhaps the greatest of all time, has been won. Each individual man may be assured that he has the thanks of the Fatherland. It is entirely due to the fact that our front on the Somme remained unbroken that we have been able in the meantime to defeat Romania. “My thanks are also due to the other fronts of the Army Group. Fully recognising the situation, the Sixth and Seventh Armies self-sacrificially kept their demands to a minimum, released every available man and item of matériel and accepted the greatest difficulties, so as to support the fighting on the Somme." While they may have held the line, the German army on the Somme sacrificed what was left of the old German Army, what was left after the first years of the war and Verdun. While there were still men in the line, while they were still resisting, the casualties were beginning to change the German army. Never again would the German army be as good, with morale as high, as what it had been when entering 1916. Even in the heady days of Spring 1918 they would never be as effective. In his book Through German Eyes Christopher Duffy would explain a bit of why this was the case "The best and longest enduring type of German soldier emerged from the grinder 'to all appearances unbroken and healthy. What we could not see that inside he had become another man. He knew nothing of it himself. His psychological constitution had become more sensitive to the effects of the battle of material. His resilience had diminished." If you consider what the Germans accomplished as a win on the Somme, with the definition of winning being the traditional battle definition of the defender holding the ground, it would mean that the Germans were winning their way to defeat.

The question that it seems like everybody has been asking for the last century is not whether or not the Germans won, but whether or not all of the British and French effort on the Somme actually accomplished anything. This seems to be a question that has fluctuated about as much as casualty estimates. After the war it told strictly as a tragedy and a complete waste of time, effort, and manpower. But with distance came perspective and most historians now consider it a critical step, although a costly one, on the long road to wearing down the German Army. At the end of the war it would be manpower problems that would cause the Germans to eventually lost the war and losing 300,000 men as casualties on the Somme certainly did not help. That is not to say that there were not giant, massive, horrible mistakes made on the Somme or that there may not have been better ways to spend the summer of 1916, however, the attrition afflicted upon the German Army coupled with the lessons that British Army learned on the battlefield, and how they were able to use those lessons to their great benefit in the future. That is what long wars are, as cold hearted it may sound, they are a long series of battles that represent a compendium of lessons to be learned and a bill to pay in the form of lives. If these did not need to be done then there would be no long wars.

And on that somber note, our Somme episodes have come to an end, although we will revisit this battlefield next year when we discuss the evolution of the war in the air. This also brings us to the end of our episodes for 2016. It has been along year, the year of the great battles, and our episode structure has been different than what I planned. You can expect a lot more jumping around to various theaters and topics next year as half of our episodes will not be focused on two battles. There will also be a 1916 retrospective episode, but it will be delayed until next spring as there are a few more important stories to tell before we can really put 1916 in perspective. Over the next month you can expect a special episode to discuss our path forward along with a very special announcement. As always, thank you for listening and I hope you will join me in a little over a month when the History of the Great War continues.