90: The Somme Pt. 2


In early 1916 the British and French were gearing up for their next great offensive astride the banks of a little river called the Somme.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 90. Last episode we talked a lot about the events leading up to the British and French agreeing to attack on both sides of the river Somme in the summer of 1916. We also went into some detail about how both the French and Germans were preparing to play their parts in the coming attack. This week we will spend the entire episode discussing the British, their plans, and their efforts at preparing themselves for what would be by far the largest attack launched by the British up to this point in the war, and I think in the entire history of the British Empire. It would involve 20 divisions and this large number of troops would be utilizing the massive number of men who had volunteered after the war had begun. This fact would be much discussed in all stories of the battle because the experience of the British troops, coupled with some questionable decisions during the planning process would be huge factors in the coming disaster on July 1st.

Before we get to the planning, I realized that I completely forgot to give any sort of introduction to the area of the front on either side of the Somme River. So, I am going to rectify that mistake early in this episode by taking some time to discuss some of the geographical attributes of the area around the Somme river. If you just look at a map the area to the north and south of the river look like pretty decent country to launch an attack. The area was a rolling chalk plain that made for great digging conditions and did not have any massive changes in elevation. Most of the area was also nice and dry, except for right by the river, which was great when compared to other areas that the British were launching attacks in Flanders. The river in this area was also quite slow moving with wide marshy banks and this made any action right by the river impossible, but it did not have much of an effect once you got away from the river. There were a series of hills and valleys with spurs sticking out from the main German line and pointing to the west, if you put your hand on a table and spread out your fingers you get the basic idea, although they were not as pronounced. There had been little change in the positioning of the lines on this sector since they had settled down in 1914 and this meant that the Germans occupied the high ground and the British and French were forced to look up at them. The Germans had not made a perfectly straight front though, and they had arranged their positions to always take advantage of the elevation changes. The Entente then did not always push their front right up into the valleys, that would have been silly, and this meant that there was a wide variation in distance between the two sets of trenches along the front. Here is Martin Middlebrook discussing the arrangement “series of valleys and spurs running at right angles to the front. In every valley the German trenches ran right back keeping to the high ground and on every spur there was either a fortified village or a redoubt. An attacker faced a dreadful dilemma: he could make a short, but dangerous and uphill, direct assault on the spurs or a longer approach along the naked floors of the valleys, being overlooked on two sides and with an enemy trench waiting at the far end of the valley. Typical of these valleys were Sausage and Mash on either side of the main road, with La Boisselle village on the spur between them. No Man’s Land was 700 yards wide in Mash Valley and nearly as much in Sausage. Between them, where the spur pushed right up to the British trenches, the adversaries were only fifty yards apart.”

The British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, was still under the command of Douglas Haig in 1916. He had taken over from Sir John Frnech and since that time had overseen the massive expansion of the BEF from just a few corps to now a huge army. While some things can be criticized about Haig, he was a good organizer, and this was shown on the Somme which would be the largest military campaign ever undertaken by the British Army. We have discussed Haig before, so I do not think he needs a huge introduction, but sometimes I just run into quotes in my sources that I wish I would have had earlier in the series. This very lengthy quote from Somme: the Darkest hour on the Western Front by Peter Hart is precisely one of them. In his book Hart quotes Brigadier General John Charteris when he describes Haig’s daily routine, which he apparently followed almost every single day for his entire tenure as Commander in Chief of the BEF. “Punctually at 8.25 each morning Haig’s bedroom door opened and he walked downstairs. In the hall was a barometer, and he invariably stopped in front of the instrument to tap it, though he rarely took any particular note of the reading. He then went for a short four 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 one 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 ADC 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 eight 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 eight o’clock he dined. After dinner, which lasted about an hour, he returned to his room and worked until a quarter to eleven.” I find such a detailed and steadfast routine to be interesting, especially in such a stressful situation like leading an army in first world war. I think at time the Generals during the war get heavily criticized for their routines that they kept with many feeling that they were too detached from the front. I think they were indeed too detached at least mentally, and did not keep fully informed about the precise situation at the front during offensives. However, the size of the armies during the war necessitated the leaders being far back from the line in order to facilitate contact with units all along the front. Any closer and it would have been difficult for a Haig or a Joffre to properly communicate with everybody. It was the job of their subordinates to be concerned with their specific area of the front, and on the Somme that subordinate was General Rawlinson. He was the commander of the British 4th Army. He had a good reputation, and is generally well thought of by historians. Before the war he had been part of the Roberts Ring, which we discussed a bit during some of the supporter episodes on cavalry. Basically the Roberts Ring was just a group of military officers before, during, and after the Boer War that was under the leadership of General Roberts. Roberts generally looked out for the other officer’s promotions and they generally accepted his leadership. This allowed many of them to get into leading positions in the British Army, especially once Roberts became the last British Commander in Chief. His connections, and his general ability, had allowed Rawlinson to be named the Commandant of the Staff College from 1904 to 1907 and it also meant that by 1916 his was in charge of one of the British Armies on the Western Front.

Over the course of 2 years the British army had went from about 500,000 men, evenly divided between active full time soldiers and part time Territorials to an army of 1.25 million men in the field. This massive expansion had begun when Lord Kitchener asked for 100,000 volunteers after the war started. This would be followed by other requests for sets of 100,000 volunteers as it became apparent that the war would not be over in a month. Here is a Colonel of the 7th Green Howards discussing that early days “Nobody who had anything to do with the raising of “Kitchener’s Army” will ever forget August and September, 1914, when vast hosts of men, without officers, without N.C.O.’S, without uniforms, arms, camp equipment, rations, tents, or anything except the clothes that they stood in, were assembled in open spaces called camps, and there embodied as units of the British Army.” This outpouring of volunteers was great for the British Army, and something that they desperately needed, and these early volunteers were given some perks for their enthusiasm. The one that is most important to our story is the fact that when men volunteered together they were given the option of serving together. This created the infamous Chums or Pals battalions that are so intimately tied to the story of the Somme. These battalions were often made up of around 800 men and these men were often from the same villages or the same neighborhoods in the larger cities. They would also make up a large number of the troops that were used on July 1st. In hindsight the problem with this method of organization seems obvious, when these units went in to attack, and some of them were straight up massacred the burden of the war hit some communities and neighborhoods extremely hard. With all of their eggs in one basket, when that basket was dropped, some areas lost almost their entire young male population. As a whole these new units of volunteers were referred to ask Kitchener Divisions and the Somme would be their first large scale action. They had been given somewhere around 9 months of training in Britain, and then they had spent the next 6 to 12 months in France receiving more instruction. For many there had been time to send them to a quiet sector of the front to give them at least some experience in the trenches. While these divisions made up a good portion of the troops of the 4th Army there were also a number of regular and territorial divisions from before the war, but by this point these divisions were sort of regular in name only. The normal system of replacements had broken down and the divisions had to be filled with raw recruits straight out of the training depots that had just as little experience as the Kitchener men. The one benefit of these regular and territorial units was that they generally had at least some core of experienced men, and more importantly officers even if their numbers had been decimated. This sort of solid core simply did not exist in the Kitchener Divisions. There is generally a lot said, and I guess I just spent a few minutes on it as well, about the inexperience of the infantry, but it is also equally important that the artillery was just as inexperienced. It had grown, proportionally, even more than the infantry and its role had greatly expanded from before the war. We will take way more about the artillery next week, but it is something to keep in mind, especially when it came to the firing after the attack started when there was not months and months to prepare for the scenarios that the guns found themselves in. while the troops were not very experienced, there were sure a hell of a lot of them, and Haig would have at his disposal 20 divisions for the attack, and two thirds of them were put under the command of Rawlinson in his 4th Army. This represented half a million men when the artillery and support troops were taken into account.

In most histories, after the level of experience of the troops is discussed, the next topic is always a conversation and a criticism of the tactics used by the British on the Somme. On the surface, it does look pretty bad. The decisions about how to carry forward the attack were driven by the fact that the commanders did not believe that their troops were sufficiently trained and conditioned to be able to execute any complex attacking maneuvers. This meant that they were generally instructed to move out from their lines in relatively straight lines and relatively compact groups. The hope was that as the lines moved forward, when one line was stopped the next would move forward and carry the attack on forward. This is not that unfamiliar for us, and it is similar to what the French, Russians, and Italians were all doing for most of 1915. however, it was not what those countries were doing in 1916. The men were also weighed down by around 66 pounds of kit and this included everything that they would need when they had executed the attack, including extra ammunition and food. So yeah, that sounds pretty bad right? However, while this demonstrates the worst areas of the attack, these were not the tactics used by all of the troops along the front. In many areas the units did not just wait in their trenches until zero hour but instead crept forward in the darkness to get as close to the Germans as possible before the official beginning of the attack. Also, in many areas where the men moved forward slowly, at a walk basically, was supposed to be protected by the artillery. There was supposed to be a rolling barrage in front of them that kept the Germans from being able to fire back, if the men moved too fast they thought they would be running into their own artillery. Now the fact that the coordination between the infantry and the artillery just was not there, is a problem but that does not change the fact that following the artillery closely was a wise strategy if they could have executed. I say these things to try and convince you to try and forget about all of the things you have heard about the battle before and to let the actions speak for themselves once we get into in a few episodes.

One interesting feature of the First World War battlefield was the resurgence of mining as a common tactic used by the attackers. For the attack on the Somme there would be a million pounds of explosive used in various underground mines that would be setup off before the attack began. These had been created by special mining units, mostly made up of men who had been miners before the war had started. They had a very special set of skills and their experience was invaluable for the army. On the Somme the mines were mostly targeted at various major German strongholds. One of these was the Hawthorn Redoubt which was targeted by a mine that was 75 feet below the service and at the end of a 1000 foot long tunnel. One interesting feature of the ground at the Somme was that it was hard and chalky, this made it really easy and stable to dig into, as I mentioned in the last episode when discussing the German defensive positions. However, it also made it very difficult for the miners to dig quietly. Since the Germans were trying to find the British tunnels and put a stop to the digging silence was critical. So, they had to find a solution to the problem of digging quietly. The solution that they came up with was to soak the chalk in water and then slowly prying off chunks of it. This took a long time, and made the digging rate only about a foot and a half a day, but it was really the only way that it could be accomplished. Here is Normal Dillon of the 178th Tunneling Company discussing his turn at listening for the Germans while he was at the end of the tunnel “You had to listen to what the Germans were doing; you had to outsmart them. You had listening posts deep down in the chalk, I took my turn in listening. Sitting down in the bowels of the earth listening for what was going on. You had primitive listening instruments, electrified earphones and you could easily hear people tapping away a long distance through the chalk. Then if you listened carefully if they were making a chamber to put the explosive charge in you could hear the much more hollow noise of digging. Following that you would hear the sinister sliding of bags of explosive into the chamber. Following that you got out!” Even though all of this effort was put into the tunneling and mining, it was thought that it would just be a backup plan, the artillery would pretty much take care of everything, these mines would just be an insurance policy.

Now, the last topic we will dig into before we look at the British plans, and it is what many consider to be a boring one, logistics. Logistics are incredibly important, especially when getting ready to launch a massive offensive. The task of arranging everything fell on the Staff officers of all of the units and they created, processed, and distributed a mountain of paperwork. This included documents on larger concerns, like what kind of railways would be needed to supply the offensive. It was calculated that the 4th Army would need 14 trains for ammunition, 11 trains for supplies, and 6 trains for reinforcements and miscellaneous equipment, so that is about 31 trains per day. It was also estimated that once the attack got rolling, this would probably jump to at least 70 trains per day. This meant that a huge effort had to be put into improving the railways and roads behind the front just to make sure this amount of supplies could be transported forward at all. Not only did they need to worry about getting supplies to the front, but they also had to worry about housing the troops and getting them used to the area. This would be supplemented by maps of the areas of the front where each unit would be attacking, but the maps would be handed out only right before the attack. What the troops really needed was time in the line to see the lay of the ground themselves. This meant that the troops had to be housed close behind the front, especially in the last few weeks before the attack. They basically took over entire villages and wooded areas and turned them into tent and hut cities. Then there were the added problems of trying to find time to move the units to the front, let them stay for a bit, and then bring them back to their camps. This becomes very problematic when you consider the fact that a single brigade took up 3 miles of roads when marching and if two brigades met at a crossroads it would be a serious traffic jam for hours. When not in the lines the men would spend their time practicing and rehearsing their attacks against dummy trenches behind the lines. To facilitate this and other large projects there had to be over 100 miles of water pipes laid down, and hundreds of new wells dug to try and get water to the men. However, the water situation paled in comparison to the concern and thought given to communications. Communication breakdowns had been a huge problem in every major attack of the war and to try and facilitate communications after the infantry went forward the British had a few different plans. The first was, of course, telephones, and for this purpose seven thousand miles of telephone lines were buried to connect the front line to the rear areas. All of these were buried to try and protect them from German artillery fire. Even if this did not prove to be enough telephones were just the primary method of communications. Groups of signalers would be sent forward with almost every wave of infantry and they would be reeling out cable as they went, and also carrying signal lamps, black and white discs for Morse code, and even semaphore flags with them. Even this was thought to be insufficient and colored flares were passed out to the officers and NCOs of the leading units and they were instructed in their use.

Finally we arrive at the plan, first lets talk about what Haig thought the goals were for the attack. It is important to understand that questions before we look at the exact plans that were created and how they evolved over time. Haig, in short, still believed that a huge breakthrough that would end the war was possible. He thought that the men and material that were now being massed on the front had the ability to not just push the Germans back but also to decisively rend the front in two. This would then allow not only infantry but cavalry to go through the gap and sweep to either side. This was very reminiscent of the hopes for the Western Front offensives of 1915, and Haig still would not let them go. However, this view was not shared by Rawlinson, he believed, like Falkenhayn and the French generals, that a breakthrough was simply not possible anymore. He favored a slow bit and hold attack that would give the British less impressive gains to start with, but it would create more certain and consistent progress. This clash of views would never be fully resolved, as will be very evident as we discuss how the plan for the attack came into being and how it evolved.

No plan survives first contact, I feel like, as a podcast that covers a military topic, I am somehow required to say that every few months. That saying is discussed so much, and is generally 100% accurate. However, the process of developing a plan, and the theory behind it, and the changes that are made to it before it is put into action is always interesting and enlightening. For the Somme the plan detailed the action down to the minute with precise positions that every unit needed to reach described down to the meter. It was thought that this was the only way to allow the proper level of coordination between the artillery and infantry. But where did the planning start? Well, the first draft for the attack was produced by Rawlinson and his staff before the beginning of April. This plan, when looking back, actually seems pretty realistic. This was because when Rawlinson had toured the battlefield he had noticed that the British could see, quite clearly, most of the German first line positions. This would make them quite easy to neutralize and capture. However, beyond that he wanted to be very cautious with what he tried to do. The final plan that came out of the initial phase would be an attack by 10 divisions on a front 18 kilometers wide, Rawlinson planned a bite and hold offensive, with the first attack aiming strictly to take the first set of trenches, which meant that his infantry would have to advance a maximum of 2,000 yards. After this line was taken, hopefully cosing the Germans a significant number of men, a break would be taken. During this break the guns would be brought forward, casualties would be replaced, and everything would be prepared for the next step. Rawlinson firmly believed that this was the correct course of action, mostly because the British could not see the second German line, which was quite distant from the first. Only the larger British artillery pieces could reach it since it was out of range of many of the field guns. Even before he submitted this plan to Haig on April the 3rd, Rawlinson knew that he probably would not like it, he would write in his diary that “I daresay I shall have a tussle with him over the limited objective for I hear he is inclined to favour the unlimited with the change of breaking the German line.” And in this assessment he was definitely not wrong. When Haig was shown the plan he found its goals to be completely insufficient. Even after he would convince Rawlinson to double his planned objectives he would still say that “I studied Sir Henry Rawlinson’s proposals for attack. His intention is merely to take the enemy’s first and second system of trenches and ‘kill Germans’, He looks upon the gaining of three or four kilometres more or less of ground immaterial. I think we can do better than this by aiming at getting as large a combined force of French and British across the Somme and fighting the enemy in the open.” Haig was adamant that the second set of trenches be included in the first set of objectives and that they be captured in the opening effort. His goal was of course to kill some Germans along the way, but he believed the best way to do this was not to slowly grind out advances but instead to punch through the entire series of defenses. Only in this way could the battle be pushed out into the open field. Now, when I got to this point in my research, I was a bit confused about why this distinction really mattered. So what if he wanted the infantry to go that far, they would only go as far as they could, so why did extending the goals matter? Well, just like in many of our discussions it all came down to artillery. The British had a finite number of artillery pieces available to them, and for those guns they had a finite amount of ammunition. But extending the depth of the objectives the British also had to spend artillery ammunition and time preparing those positions. This meant that as the goals got further and further away the density of fire available for the front line got less and less. Every single shell that was fired into the German second line, or in the area in front of it, was one less shell that could be laid down on the first line of trenches. When Haig’s response came back to Rawlinson he did not agree with Haig’s assertions and his optimism. He continued to argue that it was impractical to try and push to the second line. After a considerable amount of back and forth Rawlinson requested that he be given the order to extend the attack in writing, and only then would he include in his planning. At some point it just became one of those situations where, even though he did not agree with it, Haig was Rawlinson’s superior and there was only so much he could do. This was not the end of the discussions about the goals of the attack and at some point in June there were discussions about extending the goals of the opening attack even further, to the point where Douai was starting to be mentioned, and it was 70 miles behind the front. These were just fever dreams that did not end up being implemented. The one thing that Rawlinson would not budge on, was that if he had to try and take both lines in the first attack he wanted at least 5 days of bombardment. This went against Haig’s initial wishes, because he wanted a short bombardment but Rawlinson would win that argument and the bombardment would be planned to be about 5 days long. Next episode will be all about these artillery preparations as we look at the week-long preparation for the infantry attack on July 1st.