The Somme Offensive: a crossroads toward modern war
World War One was full of tragic battles that gained little for either side. In 1916, deadly trench warfare raged in Western Europe. Both sides looked for a way to break the stalemate. Increasingly, they turned to modern technology.
The Battle of the Somme proved to be a crossroads in the transition to modern warfare. It was a place where innovation was used to tragic effect. The step into modern war was far from complete at this battle however. In many cases the implementation of new killing machines came before the development of efficient strategies to use them.
The Battle of the Somme was fought over four and a half months in mid-1916. The carnage on both sides was appalling. Neither side completely achieved its goal. In these aspects the battle was more characteristic of nineteenth century war. At the same time, the seeds of a process toward a different type of war were planted here. The battle would prompt a collective rethinking of how war would have to be fought in the twentieth century.
Background and early stages
The Battle of the Somme, more accurately known as the Somme offensive, began on 1 July 1916. The offensive was designed by Allied planners to break through a 12 mile long stretch of German lines in northern France. It was hoped that the attack would draw German defenders away from the ongoing battle at Verdun. Prior to this offensive, Verdun had been the bloodiest battle of World War One. By the time it was over, the Somme offensive would have that dubious distinction.
General Haig and the Allies had the modern implements necessary to make a forceful attack. Haig misunderstood something, however – technology does not always produce the desired effect. Allied troops were also young and inexperienced. Critics warned Haig that such a large-scale attack was dangerous. Haig did not hesitate “Haig and his associates spoke as if they had taken these matters on board. But this was a delusion” (Prior and Wilson, 1999).
Poor planning, green troops and an overly aggressive goal defeated the offensive in its early stages. “In short, an attack on the scale Haig was contemplating was doomed in advance” (Prior and Wilson, 1999). To their shock the Allies would find a much more formidable German defense than they had expected.
The Allies fired over seven million shells at the dug-in Germans in the weeks before the main charge. “Not surprisingly, the battle became known as materialschlact – the munitions offensive” (Prior and Wilson, 1999). The Germans absorbed the bombardment with surprisingly little damage. Even the most potent Allied shells failed to penetrate German defenses. A lack of quality control in the production of shells combined with the stoutness of German defenses to foil the goals of the bombardment.
Overconfidence was a vulnerability for the offensive. It was assumed that the infantry would be able to move forward in straight lines without heavy resistance. According to Keegan:
So certain was Haig and most of his subordinates of the crushing effect
the artillery would produce, that they decided not to allow the inexperienced
infantry to advance by the tried and true means of fire and movement…
This would prove to be a fatal mistake for many Allied soldiers. The troops moving in straight lines were easy marks fore the crossfire of German machine guns. On the first day of the offensive the British army suffered more than 75, 000 dead and wounded. A largely ineffective artillery barrage had preceded the main charge. In the first two weeks Allied charges were effective only in a few areas. In most areas they were rebuffed completely. French, New Zealander and Australian forces also suffered heavy losses in the early stages.
The early weeks of the offensive had not been completely devoid of successes. One bright spot was the French forces, who managed to advance about 2,000 yards along the banks of the River Somme. Enough pressure was put on the Germans to make them suspend their offensive at Verdun.
German General Falkenhayn had wanted to cease the Verdun offensive when it bogged down in mid-1916. High command had insisted that it continue, but the events at Somme gave the General some leeway. “Thereafter, the approaching Allied campaign gave Falkenhayn cause – or perhaps only excuse – to call off the battle” (Strachan, 1998).
In early fall the offensive settled into another battle of attrition. The German line remained more of less intact. The Allies used a series of smaller attacks in an attempt to prepare for another major push.
Nineteenth century warfare was not characterized by speed. Armies would assemble slowly, then wait until one side or the other launched an attack. Battles could go on for months or even years. This was still true at the time of the Somme offensive. There is one fundamental difference – weapons were becoming far more deadly in the early 20th century. The specter of death left a scar on both sides. “To the British it was and would remain the greatest military tragedy of the twentieth century (Keegan, 1999).
After the Somme offensive all parties would realize the need for a shift and revision of battle tactics. The tools for a new type of war were already coming into being. Tanks were first introduced at the Battle of the Somme. Aircraft was continuing to develop, making a transition from an reconnaissance tool to a legitimate attack weapon. Military leaders and future dictators would learn valuable lessons here about how to fight a modern war.
At the beginning of World War One, military observation balloons dotted the skies over Europe. Each side quickly became adept at shooting these balloons down. By the time of the Somme, planes were beginning to assume an offensive role, fire balling balloons and enemy troops. Full integration into military strategy lagged a bit behind.
The Allies got an early jump on development of a cohesive air force. By the end of 1916, the Allied air force “unquestionably outstripped that of the Central powers” (Wood, 1965). Unfortunately, it was not in time to ensure a decisive victory at Verdun or at the Somme.
Eventually, the two sides aimed toward winning a political victory. The military battle was a bloody stalemate.
Whatever was accomplished, it is difficult to declare either side a winner. The Germans had over 160,000 killed in the battle. The Allies lost nearly 150,000, including nearly 100,000 British dead. Friedrich Steinbrecher wrote: “Somme: The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word” (Gilbert, 2007).
The battle injected doubt into the minds of German military leaders. How long could Germany fight such a war? Some believed it was only a matter of time until Germany lost. The Allies surely had similar fears. Casualty numbers were shocking, even to war-hardened veterans. Even beyond the sheer numbers, casualties had a devastating effect on troop morale. During Somme, the British army suffered an average of nearly 3,000 casualties per day. Each soldier who survived probably lost one or more friends.
Trench warfare caused new and distinct effects on the psychological health of soldiers. As a result, “By the end of 1916 traditional habits of thought in respect of troop management were in urgent need of revision” (Strachan, 1998). The high percentage of citizen soldiers, particularly on the Allied side, created a new dynamic commanders were forced to deal with.
Many enlistees had envisioned a war experience of glory and victory. What confronted them on European battlefields was much different. Psychological scars ran deep. One observer describes the scene: “Our men showed always the greatest pluck; but it was horrible warfare, a warfare of gas attacks and midnight raids and mining – all dreadful forms of fighting” (Wood, 1965).
Mutiny rates were increasing and morale was decreasing. In some cases mutinous behavior was treated harshly. A combined total of two thousand troops were executed by their respective sides for crimes such as desertion, treason and insubordination (Strachan, 1998).
At the same time, new efforts were being made to address the psychological trauma suffered by troops.
It was during the Battle of the Somme that, because of the intensification of
nervous breakdowns and shell-shock, that special centres were opened…for
diagnosis and treatment.
Strategic and historical effects
Having been surprised by the relative strength of the British army, the Germans responded by introducing unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. It was the beginning of the end for the Germans. In the long term it could not absorb such losses. Also, U-boat actions in the Atlantic would eventually draw the Americans into the war. The war would rage on for another two years before the ultimate collapse of the German forces.
World War One devastated a generation of Europeans. Win or lose, the vast majority of people were just glad it was over. This was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was not. There were a few who were already thinking about the next war either because it was their job to do so, or because it fit their political ambitions.
Two key figures in twentieth century German history participated in this battle. In August General Paul von Hindenburg was named military Chief of Staff. After the war Hindenburg would become President of Weimar-era Germany. Hindenburg’s eventual political replacement also fought here.
A young, unknown Austrian enlistee named Adolf Hitler also took part in the battle. Twenty years later Hitler the dictator would be determined to fight a different kind of war. Germany’s surrender within two years of the Battle of the Somme was a rude awakening for Hitler. In violation of the Versailles Treaty Hitler would rebuild the military into a lightning-fast attack force.
Hitler probably realized after the Somme , as did many Generals, that Germany could not win a war of attrition against the allied forces of several nations. Many were chastened by the war experience. Hitler was not. He continued to fight the war in his mind until he had the chance to do it for real, as dictator.
The Somme offensive was effective in gaining experience for still green allied troops. At the time, the German military was comprised mostly of professional soldiers. In contrast, the British army was formed almost entirely from wartime enlistees or draftees. In the beginning of the offensive Allied inexperience and poor planning cost many lives. As the Allies gained experience, they began to hold their own with the German regulars.
For the Germans, battles such as Verdun and the Somme sapped the army of skilled and experienced troops. Eventually, Germany would be faced with the task of drafting and training a citizen army. For long-term success, the Germans needed to suffer lower numbers of casualties than the Allies. At the Somme they did not.
In a broad strategic sense, the Somme could be seen as a victory for the Allies, despite their failure to break the German line. Before the battle the German army was widely regarded as being the more powerful. After the battle, the two sides were more or less on equal footing.
This parity would prompt an acceleration in the technology race. At the time, air power and mechanization was thought of in terms of gaining a strategic advantage on the traditional battlefield. Eventually it would change the nature of battle itself.
Air power was present at Somme, but not developed or strategically refined enough to turn the tide in either direction. For the pilots, it was deadly experimentation. Few pilots survived the war. The British had an astonishing 576 pilots killed during the Somme offensive. The lessons learned at Somme would start a frenzy of post-war experimentation and battle strategy revision.
The devastation of Industrial Age warfare reached a peak at the Battle of the Somme. The results were an eye opener for military leaders and politicians on both sides. Even the world’s most powerful empires could no longer win a 20th century battle of attrition. In the postwar years, technology fused with strategy. The result would be a type of warfare that was frighteningly quick, and even more devastating.
A decisive element still did not exist until the United States developed the atomic bomb. That advantage was short-lived. The process that led to this point was given a kick start in 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.
The war began in typical 19th century fashion. Futile charges and trench warfare characterized the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of fathers, brothers and sons were knocked from the skies, razed by machine guns in no mans land, or choked in the trenches by deadly gases. Even more fell to rampant disease, including a worldwide flu outbreak that started on a military base.
By the end of the First World War harbingers of future wars could be seen. Fast tanks, planes, ships and far-reaching, mobile artillery made it possible to make quick, targeted attacks with overwhelming force. The crossroads of these two types of war was at the Somme in 1916.
Militarily, the Somme offensive was not a rousing success in any sense of the word; nor was it a complete failure. In human terms it was an immense tragedy. The numbers killed and wounded are shocking. For each man killed, several more were maimed physically and psychologically. Very few were left unaffected.
This battle was so tragic it forced the military to take account of the psychological health of the soldiers. Before this time, those effects were paid little attention to other that by a generic definition of troop morale. From this point on, these affects would begin to be accounted for in the planning stages of many military operations.
The recognition of these psychological effects at Somme is another recognition that this is a turning point toward a new type of warfare. Twentieth century military technology, terrible as it was, had arrived. Now leaders had to develop ways to fight war more efficiently and more quickly.
The Second World War would open in a very different way. The German blitzkrieg rendered Poland helpless before it even fully realized what was wrong. This type of war was more effective, at first, but no less deadly. The international arms race kicked into gear by World War One and battles such as that at the Somme, continued at full speed. The Somme prompted changes in the way war was fought, both politically and militarily. It did not change the terrible nature of war itself. At the time, some thought that this was the biggest battle in the war to end all wars. Unfortunately, it only served to provide a glimpse of what warfare would become. It was a crossroads between “old” war and “new” war.
Gilbert, Martin. 1994. The First World War: A complete history. New York: H. Holt.
Gilbert, Martin. 2007. The Somme: Heroism and horror in the First World War. New York: H. Holt.
Keegan, John. 1999. The First World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Prior, Robin and Trevor Wilson. 1999. The First World War. London: Cassell, Wellington House.
Strachan, Hew (ed). 1998. World War 1: a history. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wood, Leonard, et al. 1965. The History of the First World War (vol. 2). New York: Grolier.