Attack on the Somme: Haigs Offensive 1916

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The British artillery was also unable to neutralise the German artillery, which would prove critical on the first day of the battle. The infantry assault was scheduled for 29 June but was postponed for 48 hours due to bad weather. Despite the two extra days of bombardment, no additional shells were available.

The offensive began at In most places the artillery bombardment had failed to cut the German barbed wire or damage the defenders' dugouts. Some senior commanders, not convinced that the inexperienced soldiers of Kitchener's New Armies could cope with sophisticated tactics, ordered the infantry to advance in long, close-formed lines.

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German machine-gunners emerged from their intact shelters and mowed down the oncoming British infantry. The only substantial British success was in the south where, using more imaginative tactics and helped by the French artillery on their immediate right, the 18th and 30th Divisions took all their objectives and the 7th Division captured Mametz. At Thiepval, the 36th Ulster Division seized the Schwaben Redoubt but was forced to withdraw because of lack of progress to its left and right.

Elsewhere some British infantry made it into German positions but were forced to withdraw in the face of determined resistance and a huge volume of German artillery fire. But there was no question of suspending the offensive with the French still heavily engaged at Verdun. The British did not achieve the quick breakthrough their military leadership had planned for and the Somme became a deadlocked battle of attrition.

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The lack of a decisive breakthrough on the opening day resulted in attritional or 'wearing out' fighting during the following two months. The remainder of the battle was characterised by relentless British attacks and equally determined German counterattacks. A dawn attack on 14 July resulted in the seizure of 6, yards 5,m of the German line between Longueval and Bazentin-le-Petit. Longueval was cleared by the end of the month, but the Germans in neighbouring Delville Wood held out until 27 August.

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  • High Wood was unoccupied on the morning of 14 July, but the British missed this opportunity and it took another two months to capture the wood. Of 49 tanks available to support the infantry, only 36 reached their starting points, though these caused alarm among the German defenders. Because of the dense and rigid wave formations that were adopted, the losses were appallingly heavy.

    Only on the south of the British front, near Fricourt and Montauban, did the attack gain a real footing in the German defenses.

    The French, with slighter opposition and with far more heavy artillery—as well as aided by the fact that they were less expected—made a deeper advance. This setback removed the possibility of a fairly rapid penetration to Bapaume and Cambrai , and Haig adopted the attrition method of limited advances aimed to wear down the German strength.

    From that point a methodical but costly advance continued, although little ground was gained.

    • A battle of attrition!
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    • In one respect, the Somme shed a significant light on the future, for on September 15, , the first tanks appeared. Their early employment before large numbers were ready was a mistake: it forfeited the chance of a great strategic surprise, and, because of tactical mishandling and minor technical defects, they had only a limited success. Though the higher military authorities lost faith in them with some going so far as to urge their abandonment , more-discerning eyes realized that here was a key which, when properly used, would unlock the trench barrier.

      The Somme offensive foundered in the mud when November came, though its dismal finale was partially redeemed by a stroke delivered on November 13 by Gen. Hubert Gough on the still untouched flank of the main offensive. Both sides had lost vast numbers of men who would never be replaced. The British losses amounted to some , The French, who had played an increasing part in the later stages, had raised their own war casualty bill by , Against this Allied total of more than ,, the Germans had suffered rather more than , casualties.

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      This number had been much increased by Prussian Gen. In square miles, the territory won by the BEF on 15 September was about twice that gained on 1 July and at about half the cost in casualties. Even so, it was not the decisive blow which Haig and Rawlinson had sought. The offensive was renewed on 25 September as Fourth Army fought to secure the objectives that had remained out of reach a few days earlier. In some ways the operations in the last week of September were among the most fruitful since the dawn assault on 14 July.

      Morval and Lesboeufs were taken on 25 September, Combles and Gueudecourt the following day. But, as was so often the case in the middle years of the Great War, the offensive lost momentum.

      The Battle of the Somme, as it happened on July 1, 1916

      It was not until 14 October that the last German defenders were ejected from the Schwaben Redoubt and the Canadian Corps was still fighting for parts of Regina Trench as late as the second week of November. That he continued with it was partly a consequence of the over-optimism of his Intelligence chief, Brigadier-General Charteris, who helped to persuade him that, if the BEF kept up the pressure, the Germans would eventually crack. Between 1 and 20 October, as Fourth Army inched towards Le Transloy — capturing Le Sars on 7 October — the weather deteriorated and the battlefield became a morass.

      Even the protests of a Corps commander, Lord Cavan, that his men were exhausted, did not bring the ordeal of the front-line troops to an end. In the hope that a late British success might create a good impression at a forthcoming inter-Allied conference at Chantilly , Fifth Army as the Reserve Army was now called delivered a well-organized attack astride the Ancre, after several postponements, on 13 November.

      The offensive cost Britain and the Dominions the enormous total of , casualties. French losses were , while estimates of German casualties range from , to , The inevitable outcome was that the final plan for the initial assault was riddled with contradictions and false assumptions, yet these differences in approach re-surfaced before the attack of 15 September.

      The Brusilov Offensive (1916)

      As Prior and Wilson remark in their recent work, Fourth Army managed, on at least two occasions July and September , to organize artillery bombardments sufficiently intense in terms of weight of shell per yard of trench attacked to ensure success in the subsequent assault. However, having apparently grasped the significance of this factor, Rawlinson did not consistently apply the formula in the late summer and autumn of Both he and Gough can also be accused of launching too many attacks on narrow fronts, allowing the Germans, in most cases, to concentrate more of their defensive firepower on the threatened sector.

      The self-inflicted policy of stubborn linear defence and relentless counter-attacks only served to increase the rate at which the life blood of the German Army was draining away in the late summer of , given that the Germans were simultaneously embroiled in a titanic attrition battle at Verdun. When Falkenhayn fell from grace and Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to power at the head of the German Army on 29 August, significant changes were made in German strategy and tactics.

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      A fresh doctrine of flexible and mobile defence in depth, with the forward positions held more thinly, began to replace the expensive linear tactics of previous months and years. Work commenced in the early autumn on the construction, 25 miles to the rear, of a major new defensive position — the Siegfried Stellung or Hindenburg Line — which embodied the revised tactical doctrine and enabled the Germans to economize on manpower.

      That the British attacks were hurting was confirmed by those reliable barometers of the state of the German Army, Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and his chief of staff General von Kuhl, both of whom noted the decline in the strength and morale of their forces on the Somme and expressed doubts whether they could withstand a similar offensive in The battles of would reveal only too clearly that it had a great deal of resilience left.

      It is therefore extremely doubtful whether the German Army could have been beaten in , wherever the Allies had attacked on the Western Front. The Somme offensive was a necessary if painful stage in the process of weakening a skilful, courageous and highly professional enemy.