The Somme after 1 July


An account of the Battle of the Somme, 2 July - 19 November


Written by Peter Simkins in Chronicles of the Great War (Quadrillion, 1998) ISBN 1 85833 647 3.

(temporary file for Greenfield pupils to do their homework)


Slogging Match,    Debut of the Tank,   Grim Harvest,   



The first day of the Somme offensive was the nadir of the BEF's fortunes. The British had other bad days during the war, particularly in March and April of 1918, but none matched the scale and intensity of the tragedy experienced on 1 July 1916. With the struggle at Verdun having reached its 132nd day, there was no question of calling off the Somme battle which, in the end, would itself continue for a further four-and-a-half months. As July wore on, Haig began to think less of an immediate breakthrough and to regard the fighting more as a 'wearing-out' battle preparatory to the next decisive blow, probably in mid-September. Meanwhile, on 3 July, following Falkenhayn's order that not one foot of ground should be yielded, General Fritz von Below, then commanding the German Second Army, similarly decreed that the will to stand firm `must be impressed on every man in the Army' and that `the enemy should have to carve his way over heaps of corpses'. These policies set the pattern of incessant British attacks and equally determined German counterattacks which, as John Terraine points out, represented the true texture of the Battle of the Somme.

In the first three weeks, Gough's Reserve Army gradually took over responsibility for the northern half of the battlefield, until its boundary with Rawlinson's Fourth Army ran just to the right of the Albert-Bapaume road. Against the wishes of Joffre, who wanted him to renew the assault in the tough central sector between Pozieres and Thiepval, Haig decided to exploit the earlier success on the right. From 2 to 13 July, therefore, the focus of operations was on Rawlinson's front as the Fourth Army strove to capture Trones Wood, Mametz Wood and Contalmaison to cover the flanks of a planned attack on the German second position. Although Haig had serious doubts about the methods chosen, Rawlinson and the men of the New Armies showed something of their real abilities on 14 July when, after a tricky night assembly in No Man's Land, a 6,000-yard stretch of the German second position between Longueval and Bazentin le Petit was taken at one bound in a dawn attack. Considering the horrors of a fortnight before it was a dazzling and daring feat, yet it was not quite enough. Longueval fell by the end of the month, but not neighbouring Delville Wood where, in a bitter contest amid shattered trees and tangled undergrowth, the South African Brigade suffered over 2,300 casualties out of 3,153 officers and men from 14 to 21 July. The aptly-nicknamed `Devil's Wood' was not finally cleared until 27 August. A few hundred yards to the northwest, High Wood was apparently empty of Germans on the morning of 14 July. The commander of the British 7th Division was prevented from taking advantage of this opportunity by Lieutenant-General Home of XV Corps, who wished to leave the operation to the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. By the time its squadrons had arrived in the early evening the chance was gone. It took another two months for the British to secure complete possession of High Wood.

From 23 July the Reserve Army was engaged in a hard struggle for Pozieres on the Albert-Bapaume road. Pozieres offered not only splendid observation over the surrounding countryside, but also an alternative approach into the rear of the Thiepval defences. In this sector the Australian divisions of the I Anzac Corps amply demonstrated their fine fighting prowess, taking the village and the fortified remains of the windmill on the crest of the ridge beyond its eastern end by 5 August. Attempts to advance northwest from the tip of a cramped salient towards Mouquet Farm and Thiepval attracted concentrated German artillery fire and caused the Australians, who suffered losses of 23,000 in five weeks, to criticise Gough's narrow-front tactics. Coming so soon after a calamitous subsidiary attack, involving the 5th Australian Division, at Fromelles on 19-20 July, the Pozieres operations eroded Australian faith in British generalship. On the southern flank, as the French inched towards Peronne, Rawlinson tried to assist the progress of General Fayolle's Sixth Army by capturing Guillemont and Ginchy, but neither fell until early September.

Not all the suffering was on one side. Falkenhayn's decision to order a `strict defensive' at Verdun on 11 July was one sign that the effects of the British offensive were being felt. Throughout July and August Falkenhayn's insistence on unyielding defence placed the German divisions on the Somme under increasing strain. Their strength began to diminish alarmingly; there was less time for rest and training, and the quality of reinforcements declined. Fresh German troops arriving on the Somme were quickly depressed by the obvious Allied material superiority. The officers and men of the BEF could, however, be excused for failing to discern these trends. To them the Germans were still extremely stubborn and skilful opponents.


Slogging Match


The nature of the fighting on the Somme altered somewhat from mid-July to mid-September, taking on the character of semi-open warfare rather than siege­-type operations. The Germans were no longer always occupying continuous trenches and instead often held irregular lines of loosely-connected shell holes. As the battle went on, and particularly after Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to power on 29 August, the forward German positions were held more thinly, with greater emphasis being placed on defence in depth. Although the creeping barrage was now much more extensively employed, there was also a need for the British infantry to modify their linear `wave' tactics and pay more heed to the possibilities of fighting their way forward in smaller bodies with their own support weapons, like the storm troops and assault detachments currently being developed by the Germans. While British infantry companies and platoons should have been becoming more self-reliant in firepower and aiming to infiltrate between strongpoints rather than assaulting them frontally, there was still an unfortunate tendency to rely largely on heavy bombardments and rigid artillery programmes which were, in fact, unsuitable for attacks on separated groups of enemy fire positions. In addition, the changed conditions of the 'wearing-out' battle were not immediately appreciated by some divisional commanders and staffs who were called upon to organise what they saw as wasteful `line straightening' operations to secure elbow room or better jumping-off positions for the next major offensive effort. Others accepted `line straightening' as a necessary evil in a war dominated by artillery, so that a simple, and therefore accurate, barrage line could be established for subsequent assaults.

With members of the War Committee at home beginning to question whether the gains on the Somme were commensurate with the casualties, Haig was under pressure to produce good results from his planned mid-September offensive. Misled - not for the last time - by exaggerated reports from Brigadier­-General Charteris, his Chief of Intelligence at GHQ, concerning the supposed near-exhaustion of the enemy, Haig was optimistic of achieving the desired breakthrough. The forthcoming push, against the German third position, would involve a reversion to the big set-piece assault, but now Haig was able to unveil a new weapon - the tank. Conceived by Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Swinton in 1914 as a tracked armoured vehicle capable of surmounting barbed wire obstacles, crossing trenches and destroying machine guns, the tank had been developed - with the active encouragement of Winston Churchill - under the wing of the Admiralty Landships Committee. Two variants of the Mark I Tank, designed by William Tritton and by Lieutenant W.G. Wilson of the Royal Naval Air Service, were sent to France in late August 1916: the `Male' version, armed with two 6-pounder guns for attacks on strongpoints, and the `Female' variant, carrying four Vickers machine guns for trench­-clearing and dealing with close-quarter rushes by enemy infantry. Swinton had advised against using tanks in `driblets' but Haig wanted to employ them to tackle separate strongpoints that might delay the infantry advance, and therefore distributed them evenly along the line instead of launching them together in a concentrated body. The actual breakthrough would, he hoped, be brought about by the artillery and infantry, the density of guns being double that of 1 July. Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army had the main role, proposed attacking in stages on three successive nights. This time Haig overrode him, forcing Rawlinson to adopt a bolder approach.

The objectives of the attack, which took place on 15 September, included the capture of the German third position at Flers and the subsequent seizure of Gueudecourt, Lesboeufs and Morval. On Rawlinson's left, the Canadian Corps of Gough's Reserve Army was to take Courcelette. Of the 49 tanks available to support the infantry on the morning of the assault, only 36 arrived at their starting points. Helped forward by a creeping barrage, they caused some alarm among the German defenders. Four of the tanks assigned to the 41st Division reached Flers and one entered the main street, while the others engaged strongpoints and machine gun posts on the village's eastern outskirts. Flers duly fell to XV Corps and the Canadians took Courcelette but, although High Wood and Martinpuich were also secured, the advance on 15 September was limited to about 2,500 yards on a front of less than three miles. The Germans held on to Morval and Lesboeufs for another ten days, and Gueudecourt and Combles were not captured until 26 September. The offensive stalled as the breakthrough once more eluded Haig.


Debut of the Tank



Criticisms have often been levelled at Haig for committing the tanks prematurely in September 1916, and for using them in `driblets' rather than in mass formation. There is, perhaps, some substance to the latter charge although, given the small numbers, slow speed (less than 4 mph) and mechanical unreliability of the Mark I tanks, it might have been an equal or bigger mistake to risk them all in one narrow sector of the front before their capabilities were better known. One should remember that Haig firmly believed in the prospects of a breakthrough and that, on the same day, simultaneous Allied offensives were in progress in the French sector to the south, on the Italian Front and in Transylvania. He can therefore be excused for thinking that another chance to use tanks might never occur. Even if it did, there was no guarantee either that their existence could be kept secret much longer, or that such untried weapons would be any more successful if their debut was delayed until they could be employed on a larger scale.

It is harder to explain why Haig persisted with the Somme offensive after mid-September. The principal reason appears to have been that he was genuinely convinced the Germans would ultimately collapse, provided that he maintained the pressure on them. On 26 September the Reserve Army began an attack on the Thiepval ridge from the Schwaben Redoubt to Courcelette. Mouquet Farm fell to the British 11th Division and Thiepval to the 18th Division on the opening day, but it was 14 October before the 39th Division cleared the surviving defenders from the hated Schwaben Redoubt. To the right, or east, the Canadians became involved in a desperate struggle for Regina Trench which lasted until 10 November. In the meantime, between 1 and 20 October, the Fourth Army was crawling painfully towards Le Transloy, capturing Le Sars on 7 October. During October rain turned the battlefield into a quagmire, which some soldiers thought was as bad as that at Ypres a year later. The final phase of the offensive took place on the Ancre from 13 to 19 November. Despite the dreadful conditions and repeated postponements, this operation went ahead, partly because of the favourable impression which a late advance would create at the imminent inter-Allied conference at Chantilly. Gough's Fifth Army - as the Reserve Army was now known - attacked astride the River Ancre, north of Thiepval, to reduce the German salient between Serre and the Albert-Bapaume road. Although the 51st (Highland) Division took Beaumont Hamel and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division captured Beaucourt, the village of Serre - an objective on 1 July - remained in German hands when the offensive ended. Overall, since 1 July, the BEF had seized a strip of territory approximately 6 miles deep by 20 miles wide, yet was still 3 miles from Bapaume.

For Britain and the Dominions, the cost of the offensive was an appalling total of 419,654 casualties, while the French lost 204,253. Estimates of German casualties vary widely between 450,000 and 680,000. What is certain is that the continuous British attacks forced the Germans to modify their strategy on the Western Front, a Hindenburg memorandum of 21 September 1916 declaring that the Somme front was all-important and must have first call on available units. There were also signs of improved tactical thinking at divisional level in the BEF, with commanders like Stephens of the 5th Division and Maxse of the 18th Division beginning to advocate the abandonment of long lines or `waves' in attack, and to urge the increased use of Lewis light machine guns so that infantry platoons might become more self-supporting in an advance. As Britain's citizen army learnt its trade, the Imperial German Army was undoubtedly being weakened. The shrewd Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria remarked that what was left of the `old first ­class, peace-trained German infantry had been expended on the battlefield' and Ludendorff himself conceded that the Army `had been fought to a standstill and was utterly worn out'.


Grim Harvest