19/11/1916 Winter brings the Battle of the Somme to an end

British and Canadian troops attacked on the Somme yesterday, taking heavy losses and making minimal gains. Now winter is descending onto the battlefield, with snow and sleet making conditions in the mud-drenched trenches intolerable. Further attacks are nigh impossible. Haig had hoped to keep assaulting the Germans through the winter, but yesterday’s carnage has unnerved him. Rawlinson, the Somme commander, has already warned that the scale of Somme losses means that the British may not have enough men left to mount a large-scale offensive in the spring. The losses suffered yesterday only reinforce the point.

So Haig calls a halt to major operations on the Somme. Raids and skirmishing will continue, to keep the men on their toes (and to maintain some kind of pressure on the Germans), but there will be no more attempts to smash through the enemy lines. After four and a half months the Battle of the Somme is effectively over.

Haig had hoped that the battle would see the British break through the German defensive lines. In this regard the battle has been a failure. The Germans have been pushed back as much as five or six miles in some areas but the British have not made it through to open country. Nor have their French or Commonwealth allies.

These gains have been paid for in prodigious quantities of blood. British and Commonwealth forces have suffered some 420,000 casualties. Half of the men sent to the Somme will never fight again, either because they are dead or else too severely injured to continue serving in the army. The French, meanwhile, have taken some 204,000 casualties in the fighting, a considerable figure when added to the losses they are still taking in the fighting at Verdun.

Total German casualties at the Somme are around 429,000. They have also suffered considerable losses this year at Verdun and elsewhere, making these losses hard to sustain, though their total losses for this year are still likely to be lower than in 1915. Though they never came close to the kind of general collapse dreamed of by Haig, the Germans have felt the psychological strain of the fighting, with increased incidents of shell shock and men surrendering rather than fighting to the end.

For the Allies, the one notable success of the Somme is that the pressure there forced the Germans to halt their attempts to take Verdun. Apart from that the benefits of the battle have been minimal. Despite the pressure of the Somme fighting, the Germans were still able to divert men from the Western Front to counter the Brusilov Offensive in the East.

Haig plans to renew the offensive in the spring. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, meanwhile, are determined not to fight another battle of this kind again. They have their own plans for next year.

image sources:

map (Wikipedia)

18/11/1916 The Somme: one more push

At their recent conference in Paris Allied leaders decided to hit the Central Powers with simultaneous offensives in May next year. In the meantime Haig wants to keep the pressure on the Germans by launching more attacks on the Somme. His hope is that the winter will be sufficiently mild to keep the battle going without a break until next year. So today Gough launches another assault on the Ancre sector of the Somme, hoping to exploit the previous capture of Beaumont Hamel.

British and Canadian troops make some gains, but as always there is no breakthrough. And losses are high, with the assault troops taking some 10,000 casualties. Considering that this is an attack in just one sector of the Somme rather than the whole battlefront, these losses are considerable.

As well as the guns of the Germans, the attacking troops now must battle the elements. Autumnal rain has turned much of the battlefield into a quagmire. There are reports of men dying from exhaustion as they try to extricate themselves from the mud.

And by now snow is starting to fall on the Somme. The men attacked this morning in sleet. Worse weather is clearly coming. Haig’s plan to keep the battle going through the winter is starting to look rather fanciful.

image source (The Quietus)

14/11/1916 The Somme: failed attempts to exploit yesterday’s successes

British troops made some progress at the Somme yesterday, finally capturing the remnants of the village of Beaumont Hamel (which had been an objective on the battle’s first day in July). Today they attempt to exploit this success, hoping to make further gains and press on through the German defences to open country. But the attacks fail. The units that took part in yesterday’s attacks are depleted in numbers and jumbled up together, making coordinated action difficult. British artillery is uncertain now of the exact locations of its forward troops, making it hard for the guns to safely target the enemy. As a result the Germans are easily able to contain the British, who take no more ground.

Nevertheless, yesterday’s attack has served its purpose. Haig, Britain’s commander on the Western Front, is on his way to a conference of Allied war leaders at Joffre’s headquarters in Chantilly. He will be able to present the capture of Beaumont Hamel to his colleagues as a sign that his chaps are continuing to press the Germans hard.

image source:

Douglas Haig (Wikipedia)

13/11/1916 The Somme: Beaumont Hamel finally falls to the British

On the Western Front the weather is worsening. Yet at the Somme the British attacks are continuing. Haig will shortly be attending a conference of Allied war leaders; he wants to impress them by being able to report some progress by his men.

Haig has pressured Gough, one of the Somme army commanders, to attack. Gough sends his men forward today. The main target is the village of Beaumont Hamel, now reduced to little more than rubble by the long battle. British artillery has been softening up the enemy positions for the last week. Today in the small hours of the morning the British troops go over the top.

The artillery lays down a creeping barrage to assist the infantry’s advance. Unfortunately, the men on the British left wing find themselves in trouble. Fog makes it difficult for them to see where the creeping barrage is falling. Worse, the ground is now extremely muddy, making it nigh impossible for them to keep pace with the creeping barrage. There are reports of men sinking to their waists into the quagmire. As a result, the barrage moves on too quickly and the assault troops find themselves exposed to the Germans, whose machine guns cut them to pieces. Some succeed in penetrating the German positions but are thrown back by enemy counterattacks.

The British have better luck on their centre and right wing. The ground is firmer, making it easier for them to advance, and the fog is less intense. They also have the advantage of a huge mine being exploded under a key German position.

As a result, the British are able to reach Beaumont Hamel. Germans emerge from their dug-outs to engage the British, but they are outflanked and overwhelmed. The ruined village is secured and an impressive bag of prisoners taken.

So Haig has his victory to present to his colleagues. He hopes that none of them will be so rude as to mention that Beaumont Hamel was meant to have fallen on the first day of the Somme back in July.

pictures (Royal Dublin Fusiliers)

8/11/1916 The Somme: Gough receives an unwelcome visit

Hubert Gough commands one of the British armies at the Somme. The increasingly poor weather suggests that at last the battle is about to wind down, but today Gough receives a visitor who suggests otherwise. The visitor is Launcelot Kiggell, chief of staff to Haig, the overall commander on the Western Front. Kiggell informs Gough that Haig will be going to a conference of the Allied commanders on the 15th, where strategy for next year will be decided. While Haig does not want to put Gough under any kind of pressure, Kiggell informs him that it would greatly strengthen Haig’s position at the conference if Gough’s men could have achieved some kind of victory before it meets.

Gough takes this as meaning that unless the weather becomes completely abominable he has no option but to attack before the conference. He meets with his subordinates and they cobble together a plan to attack and seize the village of Beaumont Hamel. This was to have fallen on the battle’s first day in July, but now they hope that Haig can present the capture of this ruined village to the conference as a prestige victory.

5/11/1916 The Somme: Haig insists that the battle continue

The British are continuing to press the Germans on the Somme. Haig still thinks a breakthrough is possible and has ordered the assaults to continue. Sooner or later the Germans will crack, or so he thinks. If necessary he is prepared for the battle to go on through the winter.

The weather is however taking a turn for the worse. The battlefield is increasingly flooded and muddy. The conditions the frontline soldiers are expected to live in are horrific and the quagmire makes any kind of progress agains the enemy unlikely. Nevertheless Haig has ordered a major assault by the XIV corps today.

Lord Cavan, the XIV corps commander, has complained that the mud makes it impossible for his men to try and assault the German lines. After initially thinking that Cavan has gone a bit windy, Rawlinson agreed after visiting the front. But Haig is not having it. He insists that the attack go ahead today.

The attack is a disaster. The men get stuck in the mud of no man’s land. Haig has ordered XIV corps to make two separate diverging assaults, which allows German machine-gunners to enfilade the British as they try to move forward. No gains are made and the British suffer some 2,000 casualties.

Haig remains undeterred. Planning begins for another major assault on the German lines.

image sources:

Douglas Haig, painted by William Orpen (History in an Hour)

Rudolph Lambart, Lord Cavan (The British Empire)

18/10/1916 More of the same at the Somme

The British launch another assault on the Germans at the Somme. Rawlinson has been reflecting on the failures to date and attempted to identify their causes. Unfortunately today’s assault largely follows the old template. Because of bad weather, the British have been unable to use their aeroplanes to observe the German positions and so have not been able to adequately target them with artillery. The British have not built suitable jumping off trenches for the assault troops and so have not been able to coordinate their advance with a creeping barrage.

In one respect the British have adapted their methods, attacking in the small hours of the morning rather than the middle of the day. While this surprises the Germans to some extent, it is very difficult for the men to move forward in the muddy conditions of the Somme in conditions of darkness.

The attack is another failure, with British troops taking great casualties for little or no gains.

13/10/1916 Haig and Rawlinson prepare for a bloody winter on the Somme

British efforts continue on the Somme. A large-scale assault on yesterday has been another disastrous failure. Rawlinson meets with his subordinates and identifies a number of reasons for their lack of success. The Germans are becoming more tenacious in their defence, despite Haig’s claims that their morale is at the point of collapse. Their tactics are also continuously developing, with machine guns placed well behind the frontline now the great plague of advancing British troops.

Rawlinson notes thought that the British are creating problems for themselves with how they organise their attacks. The men seem to always go over the top in the middle of the day, robbing themselves of any element of surprise. Rawlinson proposes that henceforth attacks should take place at different times. He also calls for more effective digging of trenches at the front for troops to attack from, to make it easier to coordinate infantry assaults with creeping barrages. And he looks for more effective aerial observation of enemy positions before attacks are launched.

Despite the worsening weather, there is no sign of the battle coming to an end. Haig visited Rawlinson yesterday and said that the attacks must continue. Rawlinson is increasingly pessimistic as to the chances of success, but Haig insists that the men must keep attacking until bad weather makes it impossible to do so. He even hopes that the battle will continue through the winter, if it is not a particularly harsh one.

9/10/1916 Pointless Somme assaults continue

Haig remains convinced that the Germans are about to crack, delivering him a victory that will greatly hasten the war’s end. So the British continue to attack at the Somme. The strain of the battle is telling on the enemy, but the Germans are still hanging on. Their dogged resistance and British failures of artillery and command, together with the mud of autumn, are making it hard for the British (and their Commonwealth allies) to make any great progress. Casualties are ruinous, with many units coming close to elimination by the cumulative losses of the battle.

Some of the British commanders try to deflect blame from themselves by suggesting that the failure to make more progress results from a lack of pluck on the part of the assault troops. In a conversation with Haig, Gough blames the failure of an attack yesterday by Canadian troops he commands on a lack of resolve on their part. He claims that many of them never even left their own trenches, ignoring the fact that many were unable to advance thanks to freshly laid German barbed wire.

Still, it is not all failure for the British. After nearly two weeks of brutal fighting, they have finally managed to secure the Stuff Redoubt, a German fortified position. But any progress made shows the pointless nature of the fighting at the Somme. In many places the British by now have overrun all of the original defensive positions with which the Germans started the battle. However, whenever they do so, they find that the Germans have built more trenches beyond them. Unlike the German assaults at Verdun, the British at the Somme have no vital target to aim for. Any advance just brings them to face more enemy defensive positions. Haig’s hopes of a breakthrough are illusory: the Germans can always dig more trenches faster than the British can advance.

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Canadian troops at the Somme (Legion Magazine)