Saturday, July 9, 2016

July 1916

The Battle of the Somme lasted five months from July to November 1916.  There were over a million dead and wounded:  420,000 British, 200,000 French, 465,000 German.  It was going to be a major British/French offensive.  However, with the German offensive at Verdun and Paris threatened, the French diverted many of their Somme divisions to prevent a German breakthrough to Paris.  There was also a three pronged offensive by the Entente that summer: the other two being the Brusilov Offensive in the East (one million eight hundred thousand casualties), and the Sixth Isonzo Offensive on the Italian Front (a paltry 100,000).  Throw in the casualties for the German Offensive at Verdun (976,000), plus those from the everyday grind of war and then the total for the year is well over five million.  1916 was a bad year to be a soldier.


Mametz Wood was an objective of the British in early July.  A newly formed unit, the 38th (Welsh) Infantry, got their baptism of fire at Mametz.  The unit defending Mametz was the Lehr Regiment of the 3rd (Prussian) Guards Division, rated as one of the best German combat units by Allied intelligence.  The 38th took massive casualties and had to be pulled out of the line to be rebuilt and were not combat effective for a year afterwards. 

Soldier-poets Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and David Jones were at Mametz.  As was Frank Richards, a buck private who in 1933 wrote the memoir "Old Soldiers Never Die", the line that Dugout Doug MacArthur used 20 years later.    Sassoon won a Military Cross for gallantry at Mametz.  Modern Welsh poet Owen Sheers writing in 2005 composed this piece to commemorate those who died there: 

Mametz Wood 

“For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.

A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull.

Their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.

As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing
slipped from their absent tongues.”


  1. The real crux of the Somme biscuit, Mike - as it was with all the WW1 offensives - was communication.

    When you look at the technical and tactical "hardscape" the situation in 1916 isn't that much different than in 1939. Sure the aircraft and tanks are faster and deadlier but most of the combatants' forces are still regular ol' leg infantry armed w rifles, machineguns, mortars, and supported by towed (hell, still often horse-drawn!) artillery.

    The huge difference is radios. In both periods the increase in lethality (from the weapons of the mid-Nineteenth Century) forces infantry to disperse beyond voice distance or dispatch-runner/rider range and line-of-sight artillery support.

    By 1939 the maneuver commanders can still control their dispersed elements, tho, and get artillery or, later, CAS by radio. If an infantry outfit gets butchered in an unsupported frontal assault on fortified positions it's due to tactical stupidity, not because there's no other way to run the attack other than pre-plan everything and assume it'll work.

    So we think of WW1 and we think barbed wire and machineguns as the problem and the tank as the solution. No tanks = Somme bloodbath. But I'd argue the communication was the real problem, one that was never really solved until the first practical tactical radios in the Thirties...

    1. Yes, think of trying to communicate via pigeons, dogs, semaphore, runners and field telephone wires which were subjected massive artillery bombardments. How could any commander get a successful understanding of a battle and control that battle with Homing Pigeons despite the hype of pigeon hero 'Cher Ami' and the Lost Battalion.

      But radio technology when the war started was a fairly new science. It had been developed in the 1890s. Radio sets were large and heavy and erratic. They were prone to failure especially in battlefield conditions. Plus it was Morse and not voice. The generals thought it better to have more riflemen than telegraphers and repair technicians. Even so as early as 1914 the British cavalry had wagon drawn radio and they used it effectively on the middle east front.

      The Royal Navy enthusiastically adopted radio a lot earlier. Bacon's bio of Admiral Fisher quotes the first sea lord as saying that wireless is the "pith and marrow of war". A ship could handle the bulk and weight of radios and could afford the extra personnel to man them, keep them in good working order, and code/decode messages. And since they were already being used widely by commercial shipping lines it was an easy bridge to cross for the Navy to adopt them also.

      I understand the Germans adopted wireless technology a lot earlier than the Allies. Guderian had them in WW1 and exploited wireless communications for his tank crews in WW2. Those radio comms in every German tank were a major factor in blitzkrieg.

      I cannot remember the source but I read somewhere that Patton in WW1 communicated with his tanks by rapping on rear hatch with a swagger stick.

      Interesting article here:

    2. unrelated - I am not a fan of Tolkien, but I looked him up once when I was told that he had been at the Somme. It turns out he was a battalion signal officer. Not that it means anything. I just found it curious.

  2. That said...the social problem of the Somme wasn't "solved" by radio or anything else. You could say that it still lingers on in British politics. I don't recall the individuals but a British writer recounted ranting to his pal how terrible it was that the British public didn't "get" how dangerous German fascism was and how it would be better to fight it sooner than later, and his pal says something to the effect of "It's no use; you're arguing against the dead of the first day on the Somme..."

    1. We English speakers are greatly hindered by lack of ability to read and understand foreign languages. The Somme was at least third in casualty count. They were well behind Verdun and the Brusilov Offensive. But then the social problems of those two campaigns probably fostered Vichy in France and the October Revolution in Russia.

    2. Verdun and the horrific Niveilles offensives (Chemin des Dames, etc...) gutted France for two generations. Alistair Horne, in his "To Lose A Battle", a history of the defeat of 1940, begins his story with the victory parade of 1919 describing how the whole thing was led off by hundreds of maimed poilus.

      All of Europe was harrowed by the carnage of 1914-1918 and again in the Forties to the point where I don't think a European nation will fight another general war until the grandkids of the generation raised in the Forties - which is to say, my kids' age now - are dead...

  3. Chief,

    "The real crux of the Somme biscuit, Mike - as it was with all the WW1 offensives - was communication."
    I know you're exaggerating but I do think that this is a misleading theory. The real crux of the Somme was the inability of the military leadership to handle the fact that their tools were insufficient to win a land war from the position they were in and the inability of the politicians to either a) reign in their generals or b) find a way to end the war. In a world where both sides had better communications, I would still expect 5 million casualties and a front line that was roughly comparable with what occurred.

    What a catastrophe, thanks for writing about this mike.

    PF Khans

    1. But the same tools - plus some improved tanks and aircraft - broke the trench war stalemate by 1930 or so and it never returned. Why not? My thought would be that real-time tactical commo made the biggest difference. Haig and Rawlinson were as bad as any piss-poor WW2 commanders could be...but even the worst of them didn't have the same problems in the same terrain in 1940 or 1944. Commo, and better transport, made a huge difference.

      As for not ending the war...well, I'm unaware of a war anytime in human history where one side or both has concluded that purely military shortcomings are reasons for stopping (or not starting) a war. While I give the combatants' leaders no credit I can't blame them for being no more brilliant than 99.9% of humanity...

  4. PFK -

    Hague and Rawlinson were definitely butchers. Although some modern historians have been expiating Hague's reputation. They claim his brilliance led to the ending of the war. I am old school and do not believe it. How can brilliance be equated with a six mile advance at the cost of 700,000 plus casualties??? IMHO they have overlooked the real paths to victory: 1] the Royal Navy blockade; 2] the mass influx of fresh troops from America, North Africa, and the Commonwealth (Germany had no such reserves); and 3] arguably the strategy of Marshal Foch.

    The five months at the Somme were really an offensive comprised of a score of actual battles of which Memetz was only one of the first. I only took interest in that particular battle due to my dear Welsh great-Auntie Gwen (may she RIP). Any attempt to do a post on the entire offensive is way beyond my savvy. In any case there are a ton of books written about the Somme. 'Storm of Steel' by Ernst Junger and 'Poilu' by Louis Barthas are two of the better ones.

  5. @FDChief - - ”Haig and Rawlinson were as bad as any piss-poor WW2 commanders could be...but even the worst of them didn't have the same problems in the same terrain in 1940 or 1944.”

    It seems you are saying that the high casualty counts at the Somme were nothing but the consequences of the technological reality of the time?

    The thing that astounds me is that Haig and his predecessor John French were cavalry officers. So were many of their Army Commanders, Corps Commanders and Division Commanders. How could they, as cavalrymen, go along with battering their troops against fortified defenses in depth? Why did they espouse ‘hi-diddle-diddle-right-down-the-middle’ attacks in France instead of advising for flanking movements even if they had to be done in other theaters?

    The Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the time of the Somme, General William Robertson, was also a cavalry officer. He was a strange case, a former ‘ranker’, the only man in the British Army ever to rise from Private to Field Marshal. A decade plus before the war, as a light-Colonel, he had proposed that Britain should not send troops to the continent in the event of a violation of Belgian neutrality and instead should prosecute a strictly naval war. But I guess he got his head shaped by the Army's old boy network. During the war, like Haig, he argued tooth and nail against sending troops to other theaters for flanking movements against the Central Powers. He probably took that position because of the earlier disasters at Gallipoli and Kut? But thase were nothing compared to the butchery on the Western Front. Robertson despised Lloyd-George, his Prime Minister, and the War Cabinet for what he called meddling in soldier’s business. He was like many nowadays who think the civilians running the country should just shut up and let the generals run the war.

    The only British cavalry officer that was worth his pay was Allenby. His flanking attacks at Beersheba, Mughar Ridge, and Megiddo, plus his use of Lawrence as a fifth column helped more to win the war than Haig and Rawlinson ever did at the Somme or later at Passchendale.

    1. "It seems you are saying that the high casualty counts at the Somme were nothing but the consequences of the technological reality of the time?"

      No, the tactics had not followed technology. The British insisted till war's end to strongly man the forward trenches which were best observed by German forward observers and in range of all German artillery.

      German defences from 1916 onward (save for Verdun) emphasized a main line of defence several kilometres behind the forward line of own troops.

      Even incompetent tactics thus enabled the British and French to advance by a few kilometres with prepared offensives, but without any chance to penetrate the main line before German reserves intervened in force.

      Only the (still) malnourished, bled white (especially 18-25 year olds) and frustrated German army of late summer and autumn of 1918 that sat in poorly prepared trenches and had worn-out howitzer tubes became unable to resist the Entente offensives.

  6. S O - I believe you are right about the incompetent tactics. The amount of stupidity in the BEF high command is impossible to overstate.

    Regarding your comment: "Only the (still) malnourished, bled white (especially 18-25 year olds) and frustrated German army of late summer and autumn of 1918 that sat in poorly prepared trenches and had worn-out howitzer tubes became unable to resist the Entente offensives."

    The Royal Navy blockade of Germany (and the Austrian ports on the Adriatic) killed any chance that the Central Powers had of winning the war. That is why the Kaiser never should have done away with the 'Kaiserliches Oberkommando der Marine' 15 years before the war. But he wanted to take direct command of his fleet like a boy in a bathtub. Instead of unrestricted submarine warfare and commerce raiding with cruisers and merchant raiders the Imperial German Navy should have been taking on the Royal Navy. They had many advantages over the Brits. Their optics were better. Their gunnery was better. They had better shells and better propellant. They had safer shipboard magazines. They had more and better submarines. Their torpedos had longer range and faster speed until very late in the war. By the way, Admiral Jellicoe himself admitted he called off the chase of Admiral Scheer’s High Seas Fleet at Jutland due to torpedo anxiety.

    But it seems the German Navy just wanted to starve the Brits in revenge for the blockade. So the Kaiser listened to the buffoonery of Admirals von Pohl and von Holtzendorff. Therefore the British blockade was never broken. So the German Army on the western front became malnourished as well as the many German civilians who died of malnutrition during the ‘Turnip Winter’. They never should have engaged in a tit-for-tat Handelskrieg with the UK. It was a waste of resources. There was no way to win that unless they were able to first destroy or severely maul the British Grand Fleet.



      The German troops were malnourished as I wrote but actually the effect of the blockade began to wane already in 1918. The Ukraine had been occupied after Czarist Russia collapsed, and thus the future food supply was ensured at the expense of the Russians.

      To break the blockade was very hard, even in wintertime. A French naval blockade could have sustained about 40-50% of the fleet's strength in the North Sea, but the British very able to sustain one with over 80% of theirs. They always had a lead in battleship primary arty calibres, and both in 1906 and 1916 they began to field ships in qty that were radically superior to their predecessors.

      The war could have been "won" (against France) in 1914 or 1916 if Germany had invested more in the armies instead of spending much on the navy.
      The problem was that the navy was in part so attractive because it was a national navy, while the armies were still state-level (Prussian, Bavarian, Hessian etc.) organisations. Patriots were biased towards the navy and jingoists were biased towards the navy because imperial expansion seemed more realistic than territorial expansion in nation state Europe (save for annexing kinda German-speaking Austria or Switzerland, of course).

  7. S O: Well, at least we agree on Kaiser Wilhelm's boyish fascination with the fleet.

    And we agree on a lot else: i.e.
    * incompetent British and French tactics
    * tactics not catching up with technology
    * and yes, breaking the blockade would have been hard

    But how can you say the German Army was malnourished on one day and claim otherwise the very next day?

    I realize the time of famine on the home front was the winter of 1916/17 due to poor weather, and that crops were better the next year. But still not adequate by most sources. As for Ukrainian food supplies after the ‘Peace for Bread Treaty' I suspect little if any of that Ukrainian grain came west in the autumn of 1918. The reasons I doubt are: The German and Austro-Hungarian occupation forces were small so they had to depend on the Skoropadsky Hetmanate to requisition the grain. Plus there was a revolution going on in the Ukraine at that time. All of Ukraine was overrun with military and paramilitary forces antagonistic to the Hetmanate and to the Occupation. There was the Black Army of the Makhnovista anarchists. There were local Bolsheviks still in the Ukraine who never agreed with the Treaty and who fought Skoropadsky’s Cossacks. And there were peasant guerrilla bands who organized to resist requisition. Those peasants fought against all: whether Hetmanate or Reds or Blacks who tried to confiscate their crops. And there were also some remnants of the Czech Legion although the main body left in May on their Anabasis to the Pacific Ocean.

    You may have references available on any grain shipments. I would be interested in any statistics you have.