Capt Eric Norman Frankland Bell, killed on July 1, 1916, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism:
When our front line was hung up by enfilading machine gun fire Captain Bell crept forward and shot the machine gunner. Later, on no less than three occasions, when our bombing [grenade] parties, which were clearing the
enemy’s trenches, were unable to advance, he went forward alone and threw Trench Mortar bombs among the enemy. When he had no more bombs available he stood on the parapet, under intense fire, and used a rifle with great coolness and effect on the enemy advancing to counter-attack. Finally he was killed rallying and reorganising infantry parties which had lost their officers.
The 12th Royal Irish Rifles (Central Antrims) were decimated when they went into battle for the first time on July 1, 1916:
German infantry was now filtering in from the flanks and soon the Ulstermen in both battalions were under fire from both sides and their front. The situation was even worse for those fighting grim little actions in the German trenches – they were also in danger of being totally cut off from their only avenue of escape. Nevertheless, the remnants of the Rifles twice re-formed under fire and renewed the attack. Led by the remaining officers they advanced but as the bodies began to cover no-man’s land, all chances of a successful attack melted way.
The men planning the July 1, 1916 attack wanted to take the pressure off of their French allies, who were being bled to death at Verdun. This was a rational strategic aim. The planning, however, was on a scale and of a complexity that they were not yet equipped to handle. Britain’s Army commander, Gen. Douglas Haig, was unable to provide unity of command or proper direction. The preparation for the attack proceeded in an ad hoc and extemporized fashion:
In the weeks before the assault on 1 July 1916 Haig visited all his divisions as was his duty and right. ? He did not pursue to an issue some of the vital and disturbing insights that he gained from these visits. These were that the quality of the infantry’s patrolling was uneven, that some divisions were aware that the pre-battle bombardment was not being effective in destroying the resistance of the enemy to fighting patrols, that some divisional commanders were concerned about the problem of crossing No Man’s Land despite the bombardment and, lastly, that the wide variation in the artillery plans for the actual assault directly reflected the degree of enlightenment of the several divisional commanders on these questions. ?
Some divisions planned a rapid advance with little hard fighting; others prepared to fight their way through the first German defence system. XIII Corps on the right flank and XV Corps next to them were two corps that treated the German defences seriously. They were the only two corps to achieve success. The former reached all its objectives on 1 July.
(From Fire Power: The British Army – Weapons and Theories of War, 1904-1945 by Shelford Bidwell and Dominick Graham.) Note that the units that prepared properly succeeded. Those that did not, died in droves, like the Irish troops mentioned above. Unfortunately, at this stage, there was not yet a consensus about what constituted proper preparation, and the administrative machinery was not in place to impose consistency, even if there had been.
People derive various “lessons” from the history of the Somme battle, especially its first ghastly day, on which the British suffered 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded, 2,152 missing and 585 prisoners for a total loss of 57,470. (From Wikipedia.) One is that the officers in command were “donkeys”, incompetents, who blundered in ways that common sense could have prevented. We have been taught to shake our heads in disdain at these dunderheaded officers.
The more modern scholarship tells a more worrisome tale, a tragic tale in which the commanders did about as well as they could have. They were not donkeys, they were not particularly stupid or deluded. They were doing, in most cases, what they believed to be right, and they could usually point to some coherent reason for their thinking. And yet they produced a disaster. Why?
They simply did not yet have the skills and knowledge to conduct war successfully under then-prevailing conditions. The senior officers were in the unenviable position of living at the time of technological revolution in military affairs. Moreover, they were the unhappy recipients of a new assignment from their government after the entente of 1904: Continue being an underfunded, all volunteer, imperial constabularly, but also prepare to fight on the Continent against the massive, well-trained, well-equipped conscript army of Germany. Not surprisingly, they did not do well faced with radical change and an incoherent mission. And their failures cost many thousands of lives
However, a forgotten fact is that the British officers, at all levels, learned from the disaster. Within days, even hours, they were performing better ? those who survived. But don’t take it from me. The German memoir writers demonstrate nothing but fear and respect toward the British, especially their artillery. (See, e.g. Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme 1916 by Christopher Duffy.) The British and Empire forces waxed mightily during the war after the disaster of July 1, 1916. They were constantly learning and improving in skill and training, and introducing novel and deadly weapons. They had become a formidable force by 1918. It was in the main the British Army which ultimately won the war in a remarkable 100 days of aggressive offensives culminating in the Armistice. This was probably the greatest campaign fought by the British and Empire Armies in their history. No one now remembers that 100 days, or virtually no one. Why?
Because of how the war is remembered. Another purported lesson is that the First World War was in general a stupid idea, a waste, a pointless squandering of lives. This view led to a strongly pacifist stance regarding future military actions. But the men who fought in it did not think they were fools who fought for a worthless cause. They believed in the justice of their cause. The British public shared this view for some years after the war, too, believing that Britain had paid an awful price to defeat a great evil. It took a concentrated and persistent propaganda campaign by the intellectual community in Britain to finally get the idea that the sacrifices were wasted to be generally accepted.
The people who actually fought in it were better judges of its meaning. Opposing the German Empire, which destroyed the long Victorian-Edwardian peace of Europe by unprovoked and aggressive war, justified only by power, was a morally just cause. The cost and the methods employed are other questions. But the British were on the morally right side of the war.
What people believe is determined by who writes the history, and what is taught, and what agenda is being served. The entire history of World War I in the English-speaking world has been presented as one continuous First Day on the Somme. It wasn’t. And the men who died in the battle did not die for nothing, but in the service of a worthy cause.
10 thoughts on “The Somme: 90”
I disagree. The German goal was to take down France a peg or two, just like in the Franco-Prussian war 1870/71. If the British had kept out of it, the war would have been a repeat of that earlier conflict. And a war towards that limited goal was hardly unprovoked.
I also think that that the German defeat is great historical tragedy, and the whole world is worse off for it. Germany was the leading economic, industrial and scientific nation at the time. A lot of scientific and technological advances that German scientists and engineers would have created without her defeat never happened.
You feel otherwise, for the Anglosaxon nations became relatively stronger because of Germany’s dfeat, and because it led to the world we know now, but don’t forget that things would turned out much differnetly, and almost certainly much better with that war.
The German army wasn’t anything to sneeze at either, German losses were considerably less that that of the Entente. It would still have led to a honorable peace for both sides, if the US had stayed out. As Winston Churchill himself put it in 1936::
Without the prospect of facing endless numbers of American soldiers coming over the Atlantic, Germany would never have capitulated.
The need to adjust to tactical and technological changes in warfare is merely the flip side of the expression ‘they trained to fight the previous war’. Military formations are better at learning the verities of their conflict on a smaller scale, which is why large scale operations have tended to turn into bloodlettings. If the lessons learned at the edge of combat can’t be spread out fast enough, everyone has to learn it over again for themselves.
Mr. Goergens: With all due respect to your seemingly well thought out post; there is absolutely no certainity as to what would have happened had the U.S. not entered the war. You don’t know and Winston Churchill, for all his brillance and greatness (and I believe he was the greatest man of the 20th Century) didn’t know.
As the great Dandy Don Meredith once said, “When ifs and buts are candy and nuts, it’ll be Christmas every day”.
Ralf, I responded here
an equitable peace wouldn’t have been assured, but it would have been much more likely in this case. There never are any certainties.
I’m about halfway with Ralf on this one, but mainly for other reasons. This war is often portrayed as a fight against tyranny, but Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were hardly tyrannies. Probably the only participants that qualified for that distinction were Russia and Turkey, and they were as incompetent at despotism as at everything else.
Germany was brought into the fight by its treaty with Austria. Austria miscalculated by sending an ultimatum to Serbia, Serbia conceded all but one of Austria’s demands, and the czar (who considered himself the guardian of all Slavs) first ordered his army to mobilize, then cancelled the order, then ordered mobilization again. Once Russia mobilized, war was inevitable. The minor players – Russia, Serbia, and Austria – brought the war on. Britain, France, and Germany had no stake in the matter other than treaty obligations. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Even then, the US tried to stay out of the fight. Europeans like to forget that we are not Europeans at all, let alone junior Europeans, and we had spent most of our existence as a country opposing Europe (Emperor Maximilian, anyone? Cuban independence? War of 1812?). Isolation (which implies neutrality) was our foreign policy. We would have been happy to skip the whole thing, but that was not permitted to happen. The Zimmerman telegram, unrestricted submarine warfare – what on earth were the Germans thinking? Were the military driving German diplomacy? Remember, the US at that time had a large German minority, the “special relationship” with Britain was new and tentative, and the influential Irish bloc was fiercely anti-British. A little restraint and finesse by Germany’s government would have kept the US out of the war.
The whole war, from start to finish, conception and execution, was a complete mistake.
Mitch, disagreement on one detail.
Germany was not bound to support Austria-Hungary’s excessively aggeressive response to Serbia. Had someone remotely competent been in control in Germany there would have been no “blank check” to the Austrians. Instead a sensible German foreign minister would have told the Austrian’s “declare victory, and cool it.” Bismarck, to invoke the gold standard, would not have brought on a general European war over Serbia and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He’d have worked it out. The Serbs would have been suitably chastened and all would have gone on as before. Instead the Germans decided that now was the time to push things — but they were half-hearted and panicky about it. The Kaiser and his entourage were about the worst leadership of a major country in centuries. (Only Napoleon III’s incoherent conduct comes to mind as an equal.)
The Germans could have stopped it. They didn’t want to. They chose war.
Lex, that’s true, but it doesn’t vitiate my main point: that the war was caused, prolonged, and ultimately decided by stupidity (more properly called folly – I’m with Tuchman on this one). There was no Bismarck in the line-up for Germany, no Metternich in Austria, and no Talleyrand on the French side. As in chess, the winner was the side that made the second-to-last mistake.
No one on either side realized that the Napoleonic wars were no longer the model. The reality was something far more hideous than could have been imagined outside a madhouse.
Mitch, I really don’t agree that the military leaders thought it would be like Napoleon’s day. I don’t see any evidence that anyone really thought like that. The books by Robert Citino, among others, demonstrate that the military leadership of all the countries studied the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War and tried to figure out what they would need to do. They were acutely aware of the recent developments, and worried about them, and in all armies there were officers who made good predictions of what would happen. It was an overwhelming level of change that hit them, and they had to respond on the fly. It is noteworthy, for example, that on the Eastern front, mobility never entirely went away, and to some extent the old rules still worked. Only in the constricted zone of the Western Front was the mass of materiel and manpower so compacted that it became a sort of mutual siege. Take a look at the Bidwell and Graham book I cited. It shows how the British Army’s artillery arm prepared for war, then fought the war. It was just monumentally hard to foresee what would need to be done, then get trained, organized and equipped to do it. Meanwhile, the butcher’s bill was getting longer and longer.
I also think the war was less about stupidity than about fear. And the source of that fear was mostly of what Germany would do. The Germans had so much going for them, and they misplayed their hand so badly. The Germans, too, were motivated by fear. But it was fear of circumstances of their own making. But, certainly, the Kaiser and his entourage made bad decisions. But I don’t even like to call them stupid. Bad institutions generate bad information and bad analysis, even if the people in them are not necessarily stupid. IF they were stupid in fact, that was just the last additional bit of deficiency leading to the final bad outcome.
To say historical actors were “stupid” seems to me to be another way of saying “I could have done better.” I’m not at all sure that is true.
The best orienting military history of the Great War I’ve come across are the relevant slides of John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict.
Both the British and the Germans figured out how to fight blitzkrieg in the trentches. Both of their General Staffs buried this information because of their mental inflexibility. Hence the bloodbath.
On another note, I don’t think Austro-Hungary’s response to the execution of their future Head of State was extreme. The US enforced a much stricter order on Afghanistan for less.
The greatest villian was probably Nicholas II, but the ghastly nature of his family’s extermination turned the entire thing into foreshadow.
The 20th Century: A Tale
Prolog: The Great War
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