Why were British losses so heavy on July 1st ?
Prologue: I am aware that a summary of the events of the Battle of the Somme been posted but in a series of essays I wish to convey a more objective understanding of why the events went the way they did. Not just what happened but WHY it happened
Even before the Battle of the Somme started it was destined to be a failure.
After the first day 20,000 British soldiers laid dead with 35,000 wounded. The following essay will explain what errors caused such an atrocity.
The Germans had anticipated the attack weeks before when their scout planes saw troops and weapons being moved towards the front line. This gave them time to prepare. They fell back and dug deeper dugouts up to twelve metres deep to shelter the soldiers from any shells. Weapons and soldiers were brought forward to help defend. Haig’s preliminary bombardment had not been such a success as he had hoped. It meant that the Germans could be sure that an attack was imminent and so they took even further precautions.
Germans had built different trenches to the British since the beginning of the war, they were more secure as they were built to last while British ones were built as temporary accommodation for soldiers. Also Germans had pick of the land to build trenches at first so in the Somme area they were on raised ground, a better position for defending. After they heard the bombing stop German troops left the trenches they were sheltering in and took position.
Haig could not be sure whether his bombardment had been successful even though it was extended for two extra days. The were low clouds and mist so aerial pictures were not available to tell whether targets had been hit. German artillery had stopped firing so Allied artillery bombardment was not able to pinpoint it’s location to destroy it. This meant another hindrance for the soldiers when they eventually “went over the top”. As they had stopped firing it was assumed they were destroyed. This lead to another surprise for the attacking soldiers. Although many trenches were completely obliterated by the shelling many Germans survived in their dugouts and when night raids were sent out mixed reports came back. Some said that the trenches were empty others said no damage. Some said that the wire was cut some said it wasn’t. The generals could not be sure how successful Haig’s bombardment had been. Many shells did not even explode on impact because of the wet and muddy terrain. These were called “duds”. Many times when a shell hit the barbed wire instead of cutting it, it just tangled it more.
The British creeping barrage was on a pre arranged unchangeable timetable. Artillery fire was to travel in front of the advancing soldiers to protect them from anything that may have survived the bombing. When the soldiers got held up by the German soldiers the barrage went on without them leaving them under no protection while the Germans set up their machine gun posts. In few cases because the artillery was so inaccurate soldiers were killed by their own shells. Also any troops that did get through the lines had no way to communicate back and overtook their barrage. They were therefore left surrounded by the enemy with no-one to exploit the break.
Most of the soldiers from the BEF (the original trained British soldiers who landed in France at the beginning of the war) had died before July 1916 and this meant that more soldiers were needed. Horatio Kitchener (the first member of the military to hold become Secretary of War) was given the task of recruiting soldiers into the army. With the help of his classic war poster over 3,000,000 men volunteered in the first two years of the war. However these soldiers received very poor training and Haig did not have faith in them. They were ordered to walk across to the enemy trenches no matter what the situation. Haig believed this would be safe because his bombardment had successfully destroyed any opposition.
When the Germans popped up with their machine guns line after line of allied were slaughtered. These men were all volunteers such as doctors and teachers and ironically Haig lead the cleverest army Britain had ever head to it’s violent death. Haig had said “one line never succeeds, two lines sometimes succeed while three lines always succeed” Haig decided to do one better and use four. This worked against him. The more lines he put up the more men got shot. Haig said he would try “to maintain a steady pressure on Somme battle” and this would eventually wear down Germans into surrender. However almost as soon as troops were sent over they were shot down. On July 1st Haig had thirteen divisions (20,000 soldiers) ready to send over the top . Haig was fighting a war of attrition. That is was trying to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible to try and run their army out of people, even if it meant self-sacrifice. Therefore if the battle of the Somme produced more German casualties than Allied it would be a success. Even with these standards it was a horrific failure. It was these ideas that earned Haig his bad reputation.
Another reason for the major loss of life at the Somme was bad communication. Haig’s original orders were followed but communications was very bad. The generals in command were situated miles behind the lines and the only way to communicate once the phones were down was by runner or pigeon. Hague could not assess the situation on the battlefield as he did not know whether it was a success or not. Many orders he gave did not even make it to the front line.
All soldiers had to take equipment with them. This weighed a minimum of sixty pounds. This slowed the down and limited their movement.
In some places such as, Lochnagar and Fricourt mines were detonated just before the attack underneath the German front line. It was the plan to use the crater as a starting position. However at Hawthorn Ridge the mine was blown ten minutes before the attack so the Germans had time to set up machine gun posts to shoot soldiers advancing through it.
In conclusion all the problems that led to the loss of British soldiers are linked to bad planning on the part of generals in charge, mainly Haig. However it was originally intended to be a joint attack with both French and British troops, the Somme area was chosen (against Haig’s wishes) because of it was the only position where the French and British lines meet. As the French losses were so heavy at Verdun they were a lot less French troops available. This meant a major change in the planning was needed.
Although from evidence later on in the Somme battle, if Haig had had control of more French troops it would have probably meant higher casualty rate. The German’s explained the losses in a sentence. The British were “Lions led by donkeys”.
The obvious question to be asked after reading this is: So what? History is the collective memories of the human race, it is said that the way to conquer the future is to look to the past. Did the British do this? Did Haig and his generals learn from their mistakes?
In order to answer this question it is necessary to highlight the mistakes made on July 1st at the Battle of the Somme.
However before we can see what mistakes were made we must first summarize the object of the Battle of the Somme and how the British planned to execute it. The plan was to shell the German trenches constantly for a week before the attack so as to destroy all trenches, bunkers, troops and artillery. The allies would then advance unchallenged over no-man’s land and through the German trenches and finally into Germany itself forcing the Germans out of France. The soldiers advancing would be protected by a creeping barrage of shell fire as a precaution against any surviving German troops.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme is known as the worst day in history for the British army with 58,000 casualties. This means that there had to have been some very serious mistakes made.
During the fighting most of the original soldiers from the BEF and reserve force had been killed or injured, to get more soldiers conscription had been introduced and civilians made up most of the attacking soldiers. As time and funds were low these men received only basic training. Haig did not trust them to perform any complex military manoeuvres (although charging isn’t that complicated!) so he ordered them to walk across no-man’s land in straight lines. This would have been fine if the initial bombardment had succeeded but it hadn’t. The troops were mowed down by German machinegun fire.
Why did the bombardment not work? The Germans had known about the attack for weeks before it happened and had time to prepare. They built deep trenches and machine guns in their second and third lines. Apart from the obvious constant artillery fire (always used before an attack) they had seen soldiers and ammunition being transported to the front lines in vast quantities. The British had no “tricks up their sleeve” – they had no new technology to surprise the Germans with. When the allies started to pinpoint German artillery to destroy, usually very inaccurately, the Germans stopped firing and the allies couldn’t locate them. Lastly the protective shell fire was on an unchangeable timetable – it moved forward in steps calculated by estimated advancement times. Because opposition was not expected, when the soldiers got held up the barrage went on and left them behind or in the unlikely event of the soldiers gaining land faster than expected they were hit by their own shells. Examples of this are the 36th Ulster Division, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, the 10th Battalion West Yorkshires and the 1st Essex Regt who made it into the German lines but then, as they had outrun their protection and had no way of communicating to their own lines, were surrounded and obliterated. The soldiers that did make it to the enemy trenches still faced uncut barbed wire because many shells that were fired to destroy were duds and didn’t explode or were shrapnel shells which just tangled it even more. As Haig was an ex-cavalry man he was very keen to use a cavalry charge in battle even with modern weapons. On July 1st behind the lines was kept cavalry for when the allies broke through. Even when the battle was obviously a failure the generals still kept on fighting.
To find out whether the British learned from these mistakes we must compare them to later battles fought after July 1st.
Haig was not disheartened by the heavy losses made on the first day and wanted to carry on with the offensive. On July 13th he decided to do something different. With General Sir Henry Rawlinson Haig planned a night attack for the 13th July. Haig made various dummy bombardments and each time the Germans thought there was an attack coming. This scheduled bombing was made every night until the Germans thought it was just procedure. At 3:15 Haig sent over his troops in the dark. This surprise attack allowed the allies to break through the lines but unfortunately the gap they made was closed up by German reinforcements before Rawlinson was able to take advantage of it.
The unorthodox, yet successful, attack meant that further advances could be made such as the capture of Pozieres on 23rd July, however the allies could never really take advantage of the breakthroughs they made.
Although a few mines were used on July 1st such as the one at Hawthorn Ridge they were not very successful, in fact more of a disaster. The mine blown at Hawthorn managed to devastate the German front line but the allies waited ten minutes after they had detonated it before they advanced. This was their crucial mistake. The Germans had already made a recovery and set up machinegun points while they waited. Other mines had been found by Germans and destroyed. In June 1917 at the Battle of Messines at another ridge the allies had definitely learned their lesson. Twenty one mines were laid strategically under the German trenches, a lot more than had ever been used previously. So that they went undetected all the waste dug up from the tunnels was secretly transported away at night.
The mines were all detonated at the same time and two minutes after (to allow the debris to settle) the attack went ahead successfully. A major breakthrough was made that morning.
Probably the biggest success after the Somme came at the Vimy Ridge. The Canadians who fought there had a full size replica of the battlefield behind their trenches and the battle was rehearsed many times. Unlike at the Somme all units were briefed on the objectives of the offensive and many even had maps. Underground tunnels were built to bring troops and supplies to the front line and the wounded back safely. Other smaller tunnels were built coming within a few metres from the German front line. When the attack started the Canadians advanced directly into the German front line as well as over no-man’s land. To go along with the good planning there were many artillery and howitzer guns supporting from behind giving a more developed “creeping barrage” than at the Somme. It was also more concentrated as they were attacking over a much smaller area. Aircraft were also used in to keep German air support from coming forward.
On September 15t the first tanks were used in the Battle at Flers. Only 49 tanks made it to the battle field, many broke down and only 9 made it to the German front line. The tanks provided a good shelter for infantry to advance behind as the tanks crush everything in their path. The disadvantage was that they were little more than prototypes and had not been field tested which meant they had various faults including almost unbearable conditions for the operators. At a maximum speed of 3 mph they were slow enough to be hit by infantry. Although the tanks may have been used too early, they had left their mark. The German soldiers had never seen anything like it before and were extremely scared of this noisy bullet-proof machine coming towards them. This would lead us to believe that the generals had realised that the Battle of the Somme was a failure and were trying something new. Although it may not have been as successful as was hoped it still proves that they were learning.
Although it seems that all the evidence above supports the claim that the British did learn from their mistakes on July 1st, one battle totally undermines the whole idea. The Third Battle of Ypres or “Passchendaele”. On July 18th 1917 Haig wanted to capture the Passchendaele to Gheluvelt Ridge - a strategically valuable town in Belgium. The generals insisted on a full artillery bombardment before the infantry could go in. Nothing had been learned, the artillery would once again be the downfall of the attack. At first the battle was relatively successful and the British gained 2 miles. But at this time the battleground had become one big muddy puddle.
Even through the heavy machinegun fire and mustard gas the soldiers still had to fight on. Unlike the Somme, Passchendaele was taken by the Canadians in October. The price was expensive though and a further 250,000 casualties were taken. The generals refused to stop the attack even in the worst conditions possible where men were literally being eaten alive by the mud.
In conclusion the British generals must have learned from the Battle of the Somme. Such attacks as the attacks on Messines and Vimy are proof of this. However it seems that they didn’t seem to learn from their big mistakes such as pushing troops into almost certain death for such little gain. If the British had truly learned the Third Ypres Battle would never have happened. We can say that certainly after the Somme (but perhaps not because of it) things started improving such as better informed soldiers, training before attacks, an improved artillery accuracy, new technology developed and used such as tanks at Flers as well as more efficient mines and better planning. The British learned many little things on July 1st but not the essential planning that would have saved thousands of lives in future battles.
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