Wednesday, November 9, 2005
Battle of the Somme, 1916
If there is any battle that depicts the absolute futility and waste of life in World War 1 trench warfare, it was the Battles of Verdun and of the Somme in France. Some think back to it as the battle in which armoured tanks were introduced to warfare . . . for others, it was the bloodbath that took a million casualties, a quarter of which were killed.
The battle began on July 1st, 1916 as a potential "war-winning" strike by three separate, strong Allied forces along a 25 mile front near the Somme River. The plan was that on one hand they might smash through the German lines and capitolize on the inevitable chaos afterwards; on the other, it would also draw away German forces fighting at Verdun which happened shortly before plans for The Somme were completed.
The Battle of Verdun was Germany's method of winning the war by pure attrition. After being unable to gain ground at battles like Ypres or Passchendale, they resorted to "Bleeding the French dry", and felt that France would surrender after enough casualties had fallen. This battle happened to be the longest battle of the war, lasting from February of 1916 to December. With this in mind, the Allied nations at the Somme felt it to be of dire importance to help the French dying at Verdun.
Thus, Britain and its confederates including Canada, Newfoundland, India, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand - 53 British divisions out of a total 56 at the time - launched their attack from the west concurrently with Italy in the south and Russia in the east. With this kind of massed attack, the Central Powers would surely have little chance . . .
For seven days, Britain shelled the German positions with 1.5 million artillery shells. Afterwards, the plan was that the infantry could then immediately walk over the devastated positions and take it all over.
Thing was, there were many, many factors going against the British and allies. For one, basically every division fighting at The Somme was vastly inexperienced, the original British regulars having been effectively wiped out in battles such as Ypres the prior year. For another, many of the French divisions which were originally to fight at the Somme were diverted to Verdun. Finally, the ease of the infantry walking through the German positions was correlated with how well the artillery had destroyed the barbed wire and defenses along the way . . . in this case, it wasn't nearly enough . . .
The German defenders were quick to take up their positions. On the other side of no-man's land, the Allied soldiers (wearing 70 pounds of equipment) were basically walking shoulder-to-shoulder across the dangerous ground; they had no chance.
Because of slow, rigid, and old-fashioned battle tactics, a failure in communication and the allied commanders' inability to truly see what was happening, wave after wave of soldiers were cut down by machinegun fire and blown apart by artillery shells. There was even a mistake report that a division had succeeded in its attack, and a reserve division was sent in right behind them. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment, the only division that was not truly British fighting on the first day, ended the day with 91% of its fighting force out of commission - and that was only the second-worst battalion loss.
In that single day alone, the British suffered almost 60,000 casualties, a third of which were dead. In comparison, German losses were at about 8,000. And the fighting basically continued in this manner for both sides.
The Battle of the Somme went on for over four months with neither side truly gaining ground. It is unsettling to know that at the outset the British knew that it was likely that the battle would become one of attrition, where the side most willing to send out men to die would win.
In September the British used the first armoured tanks in history. They were slow, prone to mechanical failure, and highly vulnerable to artillery fire. Thus, they could not turn the tide of battle either.
By the end of the battle in November, neither side had really won in the traditional sense. There were slight advances here and there - the best being 5 miles of ground by the French - but for the most part it was just a river of young men marched off to their deaths. The entire operation "was conducted with little skill or imagination; that it went on too long; that it was a mere battle of attrition." The final damage was over a million casualties on both sides: 630,000 Allied and between 465,000-600,000 German. As for outcome, the German army realised that it could not afford to continue fighting in such pitched battles anymore, and began a scorched-earth policy and slowly pulled back; in effect, the army's backbone was broken. Nevertheless, there were still two more years of fighting to continue . . . and young men were still going to have to continue giving their lives for little gain . . . . .