With over a million casualties and lasting all the way from July 1 until November 18, 1916, the Somme is one of the biggest battles in history.
One of the first images it evokes is that of 'lions led by donkeys' - Pals battalions of Kitchener's New Army (as well as other recruits swelling the regular ranks), plunged into an industrial slaughterhouse. 60,000 of them were killed or wounded on the first day alone. For many, this came to be emblematic of the entire British First World War experience.
George Ashurst was with 1 Lancashire Fusiliers in support at Beaumont Hamel. An enormous mine had been blown and the British artillery bombardment stopped in preparation for the attack. As zero hour ticked closer and men got ready to go over the top, he recalls in his memoir 'My Bit' the terrible German counter-battery fire that then rained down on them:
“We set our teeth; we seemed to say to ourselves all in a moment, ‘To hell with life’, and as the shout of our comrades in the front line leaping over the top reached us above the din of battle, we bent low in the trench and moved forward. Fritz's [the Germans'] shells were screaming down on us fast now; huge black shrapnel shells seemed to burst on top of us. Shouts of pain and calls for help could be heard on all sides; as we stepped forward we stepped over mortally wounded men who tried to grab our legs as we passed them, or we squeezed to one side of the trench while wounded men struggled by us anxious to get gaping wounds dressed and reach the safety of the dugouts in the rear. Men uttered terrible curses even as they lay dying from terrible wounds, and others sat at the bottom of the trench shaking and shouting, not wounded but unable to bear the noise, the smell and the horrible sights."
The battlefront of the Somme
Although they suffered considerably fewer casualties that day, the view from the German trench was just as terrifying. While Ashurst's experiences are described in Battleground Somme's 'Beaumont Hamel', by Nigel Cave, the same series depicts 'The Germans At Beaumont Hamel'.
Shaken by the week-long British bombardment and pre-attack mines, the German troops were told that their counter-battery fire would only have a limited effect. Instead, they were ordered to 'destroy [the British] with machine gun fire'. This they did, with some guns at Thiepval and nearby Fricourt firing 20,000 rounds of ammunition that day, and some machine gunners' hands reduced to bloody pulps through incessant use.
One gun crew that had the opposite problem, that of a jamming weapon, was commanded by Unteroffizier (Sergeant) Aicheler. His men were left fighting for their lives as British soldiers closed in:
“The explosion of the mine had blown both gun and team sprawling into the bottom of their firing bay. By the time they resumed their fire position the nearest attackers had penetrated the German position and were only 20 metres away. The gun opened fire, but jammed after 10 rounds. After this stoppage had been cleared only another 10 rounds were fired before it jammed again. 'Back!' ordered Aicheler, grabbing the gun and rushing into the next traverse. Here the [unknown] stoppage was finally cleared and the gun began to fire at point blank range at the attackers, who fell dead and wounded into the trench."
Aicheler's men were then able to fire across the ridge at British soldiers trying to capture the enormous Hawthorne mine crater. It proved to be a slaughter for the British.
The enormous Hawthorn mine blown on the first day ranks, with others detonated simultaneously along the front, among the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. It was the culmination of months of digging.
German seizure of the high ground at the end of 1914 had given them a defensive advantage over their enemies on the battlefield, but it also inadvertently made tunnelling below no-man’s-land easier for the British. This was because the Germans, being higher, now had to tunnel down and across whereas their opponents only had to dig in a straight line to get underneath their enemy. It was an advantage the British exploited on the Somme, and used to even greater effect at Messines Ridge the following year, when they blew up 10,000 German troops.
Despite the mines, the British were slaughtered by German survivors in the north of their attack front. In the south it was a different story, though at La Boiselle fighting was still fierce. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's 'Somme: Into the Breach' relates how Private J Elliot, fighting with the 20th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers (1st Tyneside Scottish), saw the uncle of the unit's piper and another soldier brutally shot down:
“He was riddled with bullets, writhing and screaming. Another lad was just kneeling, his head thrown right back. Bullets were just slapping into him, knocking great bloody chunks off his body."
From across the small battlefield, the German machine-gun company commander remembered how:
"…the bullets fired by our machine-gunners and riflemen smashed like a hurricane into [the British] bunched-up ranks. Some of our men climbed up onto our parapets and threw hand grenades at those attackers who were lying on the ground. In less than a minute, the battlefield seemed to be deserted."
Some unlucky British attackers who made it to the German line in this sector were set alight by flamethrowers, but once the English broke through, German officer Aspirant Brachat remembered how much his side had suffered:
“When the English approached our dugout, I yelled [at my men]: 'Get out! Face the enemy.' It was standing by the entrance when I was wounded by hand grenades. Our dugout caught fire. I stood between the English and the burning dugout where the stocked-up ammunition had exploded. There was a lot of crying out and screaming, as many of my dear comrades suffocated or were burned to death. My only wish was to escape."
As bad as 1 July had been for the British, cleaning up after the battle was no easy detail either.
Rupert Whiteman was a 25-year-old lance corporal with the 10th Royal Fusiliers and was tasked with disposing of bodies:
"It was a nauseating job, Whiteman recalled. The corpses stank, and he along with the other members of the party could only bear to be near them if they smoked while they worked. The 'things', who had once been men, were rotting after being left out too long in the hot sun. There was 'no removing of private papers or identity disks, no respectful arranging of limbs … They are not sons of mothers to us,' Whiteman admitted. They were 'just things … without personality … carrion to be removed from sight in the shortest possible time'."
Whiteman's burial party vomited when one of the bodies, a bloated 'green-faced' corpse, 'burst asunder' on a makeshift stretcher.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Whiteman was later flung into the air by a German shell and landed in one of the pits where his party had buried the corpses:
"He later recalled how he felt in the 'confined space … under a great mass of earth … breathing [in] warm suffocating fumes of high explosive', with those 'strange things under me, warm and terribly soft'. He was in a 'mad fury' as he clawed at the earth, screaming, struggling to free himself."
The 'endless nightmare' only ended when some of his comrades realised he was under there and dug Whiteman out.
Similarly grisly scenes were related by Captain David Rorie of the 1st/2nd Highland Field Ambulance, who had to deal with bodies later on in the battle:
"He could not decide which job was worse. Removing the more recently killed ran the risk of upsetting his workers, who frequently came across friends, acquaintances, brothers or cousins. Alternatively, there was the horrific task of moving the piles of bones covered with clothes, which was all that remained of those who had been sacrificed on the first day of the battle… The latter were 'practically skeletons', Collins recalled later. However, what were particularly disturbing was not the smell [when bodies have lain out for a long time they have a sweet smell] but what was found inside each body. There was 'a rat's nest in the cage of each [man's] chest', and 'when you touched a body, the rats just poured out of the front,' he remembered."
With the only gains having occurred on the south of the battlefront, the remainder of the battle was a case of wheeling north, and rolling up towards the objectives that hadn't been achieved on 1 July.
A series of patchwork engagements ensured for the following five months as the British (and to a lesser extent, the French on their right flank) shelled and leap-frogged their way north. Village by village, ridge by painful ridge, they flanked, created salients and then tried to consolidate them into a straight line before pushing north again.
One particularly stubborn battle was that over the village of Guillemont. British historian Gary Sheffield notes in his book on the Somme that some observers considered this to be the most effective defensive effort by the Germans during the entire five-month-long campaign.
Although they didn’t realise it at the time, what the British were encountering at the Battle of Guillemont was the beginnings of Germany's new defensive strategy. This was the result of the German high command innovating their way around problems encountered on and caused by the Battle of the Somme. They eventually withdrew to the shorter and considerably more fortified Hindenburg Line in 1917, a move meant to compensate for losses caused by the onslaught they experienced on the Somme.
Furthermore, they learnt that instead of stubbornly holding ground against endless British (and French) attack, it was better to be economical with their troops' lives. They taught them to strategically withdraw in the face of ferocious attack into a network of 'defence in depth', after which they'd counter-attack and retake lost ground. They planned and built their new trenches with this eventuality in mind, making their lines and concrete pillboxes softer and easier to attack from the rear.
German resistance aside, the British and French knew they needed to capture Guillemont. It was part of the German second line of trenches that hadn't fallen on the first day, and overlooked the enemy in the river valley below. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who commanded the British during the Somme, knew he'd need to take it before being able to observe and capture their third line, and the adjacently fought Battle of Bazentin Ridge in July had helped inch troops closer.
The battle started with a barrage 30 July. One German soldier there who came under fire was Unteroffizier (Sergeant) Georg Bucher. Just as the Somme gave Britain the iconic image of Pals mown down in rows by incessant machine-gun fire, it also gave Germany the horror of the bombardment.
Having won the war of production, Britain was able to dominate Germany in the artillery battle throughout much of the rest of the conflict. And being underground during a British pre-attack bombardment was every bit as terrifying for the Germans as attacking them over open ground was for the British. Many were horrifyingly ripped apart, vaporised, or buried alive by the fallout from British mines that might have gone off at any moment. Erich Maria Remarque's novel 'All Quiet on the Western Front' depicts troops cowering in dugouts and driven mad simply by the incessant pounding of shells, fearing the always potentially fatal direct hit that could strike at any moment. But in Bucher's case, he managed to get through:
"Suddenly the shell fire came down on us with diabolical fury: we were being ripened for the Tommies' attack. Two hours later they advanced under cover of a moving barrage – thin lines of steel-helmeted figures. Our fire devoured them greedily. Fresh lines came on and were devoured – still more and more came on. Either they were utterly careless of death or else, what was far more likely, they had been doped with whisky… Then our barrage came down – no barrage could have been more intense or more compact. That stopped the Tommies, and they 'went to earth' in a line of shell holes right among the heaped up bodies of their dead. Once more their artillery fire broke over us with infernal noise and intensity, but that could not restore to life the hundreds of their dead. An hour later the attack was resumed, not far off on our left, with the result that our flank was exposed. A desperate counter-attack restored the situation – the English were literally hacked to bits. The carnage was unbelievable, so too was the English bravery. (Bucher 2006: 119)."
Part of the problem with the British recruits at Guillemont is revealed by General der Artillerie (Lieutenant General) Max von Gallwitz, who ran into some of the British POWs captured that day:
"All [were] khaki brown, wearing those saucer-shaped helmets of theirs, with typically British sharp-faced features beneath … It was enlightening to learn about the results of interrogations and conversations with the 30 British prisoners taken on the 29th and 30th. They included recruits who had only just arrived at frontline units, and who had been under fire for the first time. In neither appearance or intelligence did they make the same good impression as the men of the first Kitchener divisions." (Quoted in Duffy 2006: 204-05).
Lt Alan Holt was with the 17th Manchester battalion, which had been sent up in support of the 18th Manchester and the 2nd Royal Scots, whose attack had been largely repulsed by the Germans. Now the mist that was meant to obscure and protect them was confusing matters. They were then cut off by German counter-battery fire, and eventually, the 17th Manchesters were ordered back:
"I got up to the village in the mist with my men without casualties, but after spending three hours there and losing a lot of men we were ordered to retire. It was then daylight and the mist had lifted: we had to walk back over 800 yards of open ground, and how I got back I don’t know; very few of my men did, as we were swept by two machine guns. I got a machine gun bullet through the sole of my boot, another through the holster of my revolver, also a piece of shell which went through the holster and smashed the handle of my revolver on the way. Just as we were leaving the village I was hit in the back with a small piece of shrapnel, but it is nothing serious and I was able to carry on 'till the brigade was relieved on Monday morning (Quoted in Stedman 2004: 150)."
The next image illustrates well the kind of scene witnessed by both sides at the battle:
BRITISH VIEW: Bombardment, mist, limited reconnaissance, machine-gun fire, indifferent planning and damaged communications made it surprising that any British troops reached the remains of Guillemont. Nevertheless, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers and 18th Manchester captured the frontline trenches of Königlich Bayerisches 22. Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment and penetrated the village. They were entirely out of command and communication range, with enemy bombardment falling behind them. Here, 18th Manchester has advanced a Lewis gun team on the right, but are already short of officers and NCOs, and lacking sufficient grenades. Many troops have been with the unit for only a couple of weeks. Calls for artillery support have failed as runners are killed, and command refrains from acting owing to its fears that misplaced British bombardment will hit friendly troops. Few men of 18th Manchester escaped the debacle. After the battle another draft of 507 men would be required to rebuild the battalion.
GERMAN VIEW: From the German point of view we see that an MG 08, on an improvised 'trench mount', has been pushed up to give covering fire. Men of Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 104, wearing 'assault packs', emerge from dugouts and cellars to advance by grenade throwing and rushes from shell hole to shell hole. In a series of small counter-attacks, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers would be all but annihilated and 18th Manchester progressively surrounded.
The British finally took Guillemont in early September. As with the rest of the Battle of the Somme, almost nothing of the original village survived, except one feature the British discovered. A sunken road, obscured from view, well-protected, networked thoroughly with dugouts and, during the battle, packed with machine guns. This had been the source of so much of the stubborn German resistance. Both virtually impregnable and undiscoverable, concealed as brilliantly as it was, this explained why so many of the British assaults had been repulsed at that village.
Also bolstered by interconnected cellars and bunkers, and bristling with machine-gun nests was the village of Thiepval. This too had been a British first-day objective, but, as Stephen Bull explains, it was going to be a tough nut to crack:
"Over the following three months the village resisted both attack and bombardment, as thousands of shells transformed the ruins of chateau, church, brewery and houses into a rubble-strewn subterranean strongpoint, dotted with broken trees."
But the British wouldn't give up, and in late September attacked again. Philip Gibbs was a reporter for the Daily Sketch and witnessed the attack on 28 September:
"It was on the left that our men had the hardest time. One battalion [12th Middlesex], leading the assault, had to advance directly upon the chateau – that heap of rubbish, and from cellars beneath it came waves of savage machine gun fire. They were also raked by an enfilade fire of machine guns from the top left corner of the ground where the village once stood. Our men were astounded. 'I didn’t believe it was possible', said one of them, 'that any living soul could be there after all that shell fire, but blessed, as soon as it switched off, if the Germans didn’t come up like rabbits out of bunny holes and fire most hellishly'."
But the British would press on, for they had a recently developed secret weapon: The Tank. As the Somme progressed, the foundations of what would become today's military tactical doctrine began to develop. Out of this learning period came both the integration of tanks within the ranks, and the breaking down of those ranks into smaller and smaller fire teams. It would take until November of the following year though, on drier ground at Cambrai, to use tanks completely effectively. For now, they were an impressive spectacle but largely got bogged down in the mud.
The documentary 'The Somme: From Defeat to Victory', describes how, at this point, the Germans, quite apart from the sheer surprise and terror they must have felt at first encountering a tank, also began to experience the communication difficulties the British had on the first day. The British barrage had cut German telephone lines, depriving the commanders in the rear of up-to-date information and the ability to communicate with their men. Whereas…
"…In contrast, this time British generals were fully informed about the course of the fighting. Reports were coming through from artillery observers, and aeroplanes. Air observation had greatly improved since the first of July. This enabled headquarters to order a re-bombardment of the position still in German hands. But above all, unlike on the first of July, the senior British command left most decisions to the men on the ground. Lt Col Maxwell had followed his troops onto the battlefield, and set up a command post at the Thiepval Chateau. This proved crucial, because he could use his initiative and make decisions without orders from headquarters."
Still, the Germans did not go down without a fight. Again, Philip Gibbs reported how, as the British made their way into the village…
"Our men had to tackle an underground foe, who fired at them out of holes and crevices, while they remained hidden. They had to burrow for them, dive down into dark entries, fight in tunnels, get their hands about the throats of men who suddenly sprang up to them out of the earth … They gave us a good fight on land and underground, this garrison of Thiepval, and with a few exceptions they fought honourably, so that our men have no grudge against them now that they are prisoners of war."
From that point, the British fought on to take Hawthorn and Redan Ridges in the north, where they had failed, and George Ashurst had first seen his comrades cut down in their failed attack there on the first day. The high ground would give the British a tactical advantage for offensives to be launched the following year, but one last slog was needed.
It was here that the image of British troops fighting through appalling conditions was born, because as autumn turned to winter, and an even heavier artillery bombardment than the first day opened up, the ground was churned up by shells, and turned into a swamp by rain, sleet, and even a little snow. It was the same horrendous fighting conditions experienced at the Battle of Third Ypres the following year.
Criticisms of the high command that would also later be associated with the Somme were becoming visible. Major-General Cameron Shute had taken command of the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division before the final battle at Ancre. His complaints about what he saw as the division's lack of discipline made him very unpopular. Upon complaining about the unit's latrines, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore relates how one officer in the division, Captain A. P. Herbert, wrote a ditty about him:
"The general inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout:
'I refuse to command a division
Which leaves excreta about.
'But nobody took any notice,
No one was prepared to refute
That the presence of shit was congenial
Compared with the presence of Shute."
Despite Shute's complaints, one Lieutenant Colonel within the division, Bernard Freyberg, performed so heroically in the divisions' attack on 13 November, that he won the Victoria Cross. His actions may have been instrumental in helping to win the entire Battle of Ancre. Captain the Honourable Lionel Montagu said of Freyberg:
"The snipers and machine guns were so active that it was dangerous to show your head even for an instant… [They] were quite unaffected by our barrage, which seemed feeble… I saw Freyberg leap out of the trench, and wave the men on. Three men followed from my trench, and I got out with my runner with bullets raining past us… Freyberg was knocked clean over by a bullet which hit his helmet, but he got up again… We soon got into Beaucourt and found that the Germans could not face our men, and were surrendering in hundreds. It was an amazing sight. They came out of their holes tearing off their equipment."
Freyberg's life being saved by his helmet is also an important element of the Somme story. It was at the Somme that the distinctive look of soldiers on both sides came to be defined. Just like the German Lieutenant General commenting on the Tommies' saucer-shaped helmets at Guillemont, British soldiers began calling the Germans 'Jerries' because their helmets looked to them like chamber pots, or 'Jeroboams'.
With the emergence of Trench warfare, head injuries had become far more frequent - the inevitable result of soldiers hiding in the ground, and their heads being the part most likely exposed. This could lead to death from a headshot or the tragic emergence of what the French dubbed 'the men with broken faces' - men turned into gargoyles by hideous facial wounds wrought by bullets or shrapnel.
Both sides issued steel helmets to help stave off these injuries. The British Mk 1 Brodie Shrapnel Helmet was in wide circulation by the time of the Somme offensive, whilst the 'Stahlhelm' equipped German soldiers at both Verdun and the Somme. It replaced the equally iconic Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet associated with Germany and Prussia before the war.
The Battle of Ancre, and the larger Somme campaign, ended on November 18. The British had taken the high ground that had formed a large part of their objective for the first day five months before.
In those five months, Britain's role as junior partner in the alliance with France had begun to morph into a senior position. Although occupied on several fronts, with Austro-Hungarian and Turkish support, Germany's population base of 70,000,000 required the joint effort of France and Britain's combined 78,000,000 population base to check. And as Britain's Army was enlarged and France's tired after the first two years of war, Britain's role on the Western Front following the Somme became far more important.
It seems that almost every important aspect of war on the Western Front is linked inextricably to the Battle of the Somme.