‘Needless slaughter’. How accurately does this describe the Battle of the Somme from 1 July 1916 to 18 November 1916?

Introduction

The Battle of the Somme is arguably, as stated by revisionist historian Gordon Corrigan, “more deeply ingrained in British folk memory than any other episode of the Great War.”[1] This British public hold the popular belief that distant generals sent soldiers across No-Man’s-Land to be slaughtered by the Germans.[2] For this reason, the battle has faced continuous scrutiny, igniting controversial debates about its futility since the 1930s.[3] The Battle of the Somme refers to a series of offensives conducted in 1916 by the British and French armies either side of the river for which it is named.[4] The end of the first day of fighting on 1 July, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) suffered 57,000 casualties; their average daily loss rate for the entire battle was 2,943.[5] Conducted from a British perspective, I will firstly cover the casualties suffered by the BEF on the Somme, and offer insight into why these are considered by some to be ‘slaughter’ – as opposed to the inevitable consequences of war. Secondly, I will reason why the Battle of the Somme was necessary, which will justify a fraction of deaths, though not all. I will then evaluate the preparation and strategy adopted by the BEF in the lead up to battle to determine whether the scale of casualties could have been avoided. In order to truly evaluate whether the ‘slaughter’ on the Somme was ‘needless’, I will then examine what was actually achieved by the battle, and whether this coincided with the original aims. Finally, I will argue that although the Battle of the Somme was not executed in the best possible way, the lessons learned from the Somme were invaluable to the future success of the British army. Ultimately, it is important to note that the Somme was a battle of attrition, and “since in 1916 the BEF was probably incapable of fighting anything but an attritional battle, an action fought elsewhere is likely to have followed a similar pattern.”[6]

Main Text

Collectively, the British Empire suffered 95,000 deaths on the Somme, with a total of 400,000 casualties. 20,000 of these were killed on the first day alone.[7] These figures, whilst at the time were undoubtedly distressing, caused yet more horror and revulsion during the 1950s after it was recognised that the human cost of the Second World War had been relatively small in comparison.[8] Veteran Jack Christie suggests that the Somme is unique, and therefore heavily focused upon “because of the slaughter”.[9] The use of the word ‘slaughter’ is interesting as this suggests that firstly, someone had knowingly sent these men to their graves and secondly, that this could have been avoided. In essence, the military leaders Douglas Haig, Henry Rawlinson and Hubert Gough, “knew full well that the men they sent into battle would pay the price for their actions and misjudgements.”[10] The deaths suffered at the Battle of the Somme are particularly seen in this light as the generals stubbornly pursued “goals that were quickly obvious as being incapable of achievement”, and refused to adapt their battle plan once this was realised.[11] The inadaptability of strategy is highlighted by Private Donald Cameron (12th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment) in his recollection of 1 July, stating that “the first wave went over at 0720. They lay down about 100 years in front of our own barbed wire. Then the second wave went over and lay down about 30 yards behind them.”[12] This is corroborated by Private Reginald Glenn of the same battalion, who states that the first line appeared to have “lay down because they’d been shot down and either killed or wounded. They were just mown down like corn. Our line simply did the same thing.”[13] The fact that the second line blindly pursued the same fate as the first, strongly implies that the soldiers were not commanded to do differently after witnessing the evident strength of the German machine guns, which Private Frank Raine (18th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry) compared to “heavy rain; that was like machine-gun bullets.”[14] On their recollection of the first day of the battle, Private H.D. Jackson (75th Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps) and Major Alfred Irvin (8th Battallion, East Surrey Regiment) consider life on July 1st to have been both “cheap” and “a dreadful waste” respectively.  This is the stance that Philip Orr adopts in his book The Road to the Somme; before the reader even opens it as the Irish Times have reviewed it “a deeply moving account of wasted lives and purposeless slaughter” on the front cover. Certainly, deaths could have been spared on the first day of the Somme if those in command had re-evaluated the strategy as it became apparent that only a few “gallant” men would manage to reach the German front line; those who did were “swiftly outnumbered and dealt with by the front line garrison” due to their lack of strength, both physically and numerically.[15] These deaths in particular can be considered as slaughter, as individual soldiers were obviously not going to be able to achieve anything significant upon reaching the German Front. Overall, in order to determine whether these tragic acts of slaughter were justified or not, we must evaluate whether the battle itself was necessary for Britain within the context of their position in the war.

Corrigan appropriately reflects on the Battle of the Somme, considering it “sometimes better to follow what in hindsight turns out not to have been the best course than to do nothing at all.”[16] This directly applies to the Somme when taking into consideration the position of the British and French, both together and in isolation. By 1916, it was clear that the British allies were going to lose the war on land unless they agreed to contribute significantly in terms of manpower.[17] It is true also that there is little point in standing on the defensive as this doesn’t regain land from German occupation, therefore some sort of offensive including the British troops would have to be devised.[18] The insistence on the Somme area came from the French Commander in Chief,  Joseph Joffre, who initially intended to provide the majority of troops for the cause with 42  divisions covering 28 miles of the front line. However, on the 21 February 1916 the Germans launched an offensive at Verdun in the hope to wear the French down and force British withdrawal.[19] The Somme offensive would still take place; however, its purpose was now to relieve the pressure at Verdun and consisted of only 22 Divisions across 7½  miles of the front line.[20] One could question why the offensive still went ahead under these new conditions, however the determination to persevere must be seen in this wider context in order to conclude that the offensive was still necessary to uphold British power and reputation (or else face ridicule for exiting), thus necessitating the slaughter the casualties on the battlefield in the face of a cause that legitimises just war.

Conversely, the Battle of the Somme can be perceived as being an act of ‘needless slaughter’, due to the failure to properly prepare for the attack leading up to 1 July 1916. In Sheffield’s opinion, the BEF had “attempted to run before it could properly walk and had paid a horrific price in human life as a result.”[21] Sheffield is correct as clearly the soldiers about to engage in battle were just not trained enough to do so. Towards the beginning of the war, Britain relied largely on her peace-time volunteers as they were supposed to be the best trained of the soldiers available, however they amounted to a force of only 160,000. Germany on the other hand had in place a conscript system whereby 50% of all men between the ages of 20 and 22 were subject to two years of military training, regardless of whether the army was mobilised or not.[22] This meant that Germany had a much higher proportion of military-trained men at its disposal. Upon mobilisation of the British Army, there were few guns in the country in which to train with, and it became obvious that the training programme was rushed and largely irrelevant to the real needs of troops in trench warfare, although drill practice did emphasise discipline.[23] It is important to note also that the artillery received less training than the infantry, which will be relevant when discussing the preliminary bombardment.[24] “For many soldiers, the Somme would be their first real baptism of fire”, which combined with their lack of sufficient training suggests that the soldiers sent out on the 1July were severely disadvantaged when facing the Germans on the Somme thus instigating their needless slaughter.[25] From this we can tentatively conclude that had the battle occurred later on in the war with more time to build on training and experience, there would likely have been fewer casualties.


The failure of the seven-day bombardment can possibly be held more accountable for the unnecessary deaths on the Somme, as this was conducted in order to compensate for the lack of experience of the troops.[26] If the gunfire of the artillery had done its job, the Germans would have been physically and morally devastated by it and the infantry may have achieved its objectives with “relatively light casualties”.[27] In reality, out of the one-and-a-half million shells fired, a million were shrapnel, which were ineffective in destroying the dugouts.[28] Furthermore, many of the shells exploded prematurely due to the inexperience of those firing them; those that were fired towards the German front line, for the most part, did not go off due to the munitions industry speeding up production to keep up with demand, whilst neglecting the quality of shells made in the process.[29] Both Orr and Sheffield hold the overestimation of the preliminary bombardment’s success to be the cause of “carnage” that occurred on the Somme.[30] The offensive relied on the bombardment to cut through enemy wire and destroy German artillery which would allow the infantry to pass through with relative ease. However, from reading reflective accounts of soldiers we can see that this was not achieved. Corporal Don Murray (8th Battalion, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry), stated that “the barbed wire [at Thiepval-Mametz] that was supposed to have been demolished had only been cut in places”.[31] The task was too great for the III Corps who calculated that to cut all of the wire within 3,500 yards of the front line required quantities of ammo that was not available to them. In their war diary they recorded 50 patrols which at best covered 5000 out of 24,000 yards of wire. Their conclusions were ambiguous, 24 stated that the wire was not cut, whereas 20determined that it was; 6 reported that it was cut in some places and not others.[32] Ultimately, the wire was uncut and the enemy machine guns were not subdued, therefore “the slaughter of the attacking infantry would occur whatever infantry tactics were adopted”; even if individual members of the BEF managed to cross No-Man’s-Land unscathed, finding the wire cut, they were met by enemy riflemen.[33] Given that survivors described their fellows as having been “mown down” by machine guns, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to attribute these deaths to the failure of the preliminary bombardment which failed to subdue the weapons responsible for thousands of British deaths on the first day of the Somme.[34]

Ultimately, we must consider whether the failure of the preliminary bombardment prevented the British troops from achieving their aims; in order to do this, we must first establish what these were. Initially, Haig intended the army to penetrate the German defence lines and stage breakout.[35] However, Joffre’s battle of attrition was officially put into action instead. This is reinforced by Rawlinson, who stated on 3 April 1916 that the aim was not to gain ground, but “to kill as many Germans as possible with the least loss to ourselves”.[36] On 16 June, Haig issued the aim of the offensive: to take the pressure off the French at Verdun, with no mention of a breakout.[37] Therefore, we can conclude that the sole aim of the Battle of the Somme were to relieve the French by wearing down the Germans, any other achievements surpassed this. By the end of July, politicians in London were becoming sceptical about the lack of visible progress on the Somme, particularly with the scale of sacrifice. The purpose of the offensive was questioned by Winston Churchill based on the evident failure to gain ground at such an excessive human cost.[38] In response to these queries, Haig listed what the BEF had already achieved on the Somme, including relieving some of the pressure at Verdun causing six enemy divisions to withdraw. Interestingly, this implies that some of their achievements are perceptive, meaning that the allies have shown themselves to be “capable of making and maintaining a vigorous offensive, and of driving the enemy’s best troops from the strongest position”, which will have shaken the German’s faith in their invincibility and “impressed on the world England’s strength and determination.”[39] This will have boosted the British troops’ morale whilst simultaneously wearing down the Germans’, which will have influenced their fighting both positively and negatively respectively. By late August, it was clear that the offensive was beginning to have an effect on the Germans.[40] In October, Haig stated that “the results [were] highly satisfactory”, “the troops see that they are slowly but surely destroying the German Armies in their front, and that their enemy is much less capable of defence than he was even a few weeks ago.”[41] If taken at face value, this shows that the British Army were making progress on the battlefield, however, it had taken them around three months to see relative substantial progress. On 15 December 1916, the Germans finally accepted their defeat at Verdun and the French pushed them back two miles, therefore the main aim of the Somme was achieved.[42] In addition to this, the offensive recovered seventy squared-miles of occupied French territory, releasing 51 towns and villages from German occupation, although they were mostly rubble; the German were also  forced back 5.7 miles along a 10 mile front.[43] Overall then, the objectives had been achieved, the question is whether the price paid was acceptable. Peter Hart argues that “only the criminally short sighted would regard [the successes] worthwhile due to the expense of lives.”[44] This is certainly true if examining the battle in isolation, however, the British army learned from the mistakes made on the Somme and came out of the battle more experienced.

Whilst the ability to learn from mistakes does not justify the slaughter that occurred on the Somme, their deaths, resulting from inexperience and lack of judgement, facilitated learning that ultimately allowed the allies to win the war. Corrigan would argue that this was a learning staircase through which consolidation took place before the next intellectual leap.[45] This is true when looking at the tactics adopted during the battle in which the XV and XIII Corps, south of La Boisselle, employed the creeping barrage (artillery attack) in front of advancing troops, forcing the German defenders to remain in their dugouts or else risk death.[46] This proved to be more successful than its sister case at Fricourt where two batallions were unaccompanied by a creeping barrage, with one of the battalions succumbing to 350 casualties within two minutes.[47] These comparisons would tell the British Generals which tactics were more successful than others, allowing them to adopt their strategy to reduce causalities in the future. Historians often criticise the tactics employed at the Battle of the Somme, arguing that no modern general would have thrown 200,000 men straight at a well defended and fortified enemy line, and are quick to offer alternative strategies, however they forget that the assets to do this, such as accessible aircraft and nuclear weapons, were not available in 1916.[48] It is also very easy for us to judge with hindsight, knowing the outcome and statistics. We could go so far as to say that the lessons learned at the Battle of the Somme sparked the development of the British Army, allowing it to transform over the century into the one we have today, as this may not have happened had their downfalls not been identified when they were. This long-term development would certainly give cause to the casualties of the Somme.

Conclusion

As it is evident that standing on the defensive would achieve little, we can conclude that the Battle of the Somme was in fact necessary, therefore any casualties occurring in this context were justified. The offensive did relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, and some land was regained from German occupation. However, it is the scale of these casualties which is problematic for both historians and the general public. Arguably, the majority of these deaths could have been prevented if those in charge had re-evaluated tactics after realising that the preliminary bombardment had failed and that sending wave after wave of troops across No-Man’s-Land would result in their slaughter, although this was not the only neglection that is responsible for unnecessary deaths. Without the Somme, the British Army may not have improved their strategy, for which they needed mistakes to learn from. Therefore, I would conclude that overall the Battle of the Somme was justified, and some casualties necessary (as this is an inevitable consequence of war) however, the mass ‘slaughter’ that occurred, was not. Ultimately however, the lessons learned from this would prevent the same scale of slaughter by the same mistakes from occurring in future battles. 

 

Bibliography

Corrigan, Gordon. Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004).

Grayson, Richard, S. Belfast Boys (London: Continuum, 2010).

Hart, Peter. The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (Pegasus Books, 2010).

Levine, Joshua. Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009).

Orr, Philip. The Road to the Somme (Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2008).

Prior, Robin. Wilson. The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

Sheffield, Gary, Forgotten Victory (UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001).


[1] Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood and Poppycock (London: Cassell, 2004), p.249.

[2] Corrigan, p.10.

[3] Corrigan, p.13.

[4] Corrigan, p.249.

[5] Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.112; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (UK: Headline Book Publishing, 2001), p.190.

[6] Sheffield, p.187.

[7] Corrigan, p.297.

[8] Sheffield, p.17.

[9]Richard S. Grayson, Belfast Boys, (London: Continuum, 2010) p.82.

[10] Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (Pegasus Books, 2010), p.13.

[11] Corrigan, p.249.

[12] Joshua Levine, Forgotten Voices of The Somme (London: Ebury Press, 2009), p.111

[13] Hart, p.137.

[14] Levine, p.112.

[15] Hart, p.139

[16] Corrigan, p.12.

[17] Prior and Wilson, p.9.

[18] Corrigan, p.251.

[19] Corrigan, p.253.

[20] Corrigan, p.255.

[21] Sheffield, p.169.

[22] Hart, p.28, p.38.

[23] Hart, p.43.

[24] Prior and Wilson, p.58.

[25] Hart, p.44.

[26] Corrigan, pp.260-1.

[27] Philip Orr, The Road to the Somme (Blackstaff Press Ltd, 2008), p.174.

[28] Sheffield, p.165.

[29] Corrigan, p.273; 6 p.213

[30] Sheffield, p.165; 5 p.244

[31] Levine, p.123.

[32] Prior and Wilson, p.64.

[33] Prior and Wilson, p.77, p.279.

[34] Hart, p.137.

[35] Corrigan, p.257.

[36] Prior and Wilson, p.41.

[37] Corrigan, p.257.

[38] Hart, p.325.

[39] Hart, p.230.

[40] Corrigan, p.288.

[41] Hart, p.443.

[42] Corrigan, p.297.

[43] Corrigan, p.297.

[44] Hart, p.283.

[45] Corrigan, p.284.

[46] Prior and Wilson, p.103.

[47] Prior and Wilson, p.105.

[48] Corrigan, pp.14-15.

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