One of the largest and bloodiest battles fought by the British Army, the Battle of the Somme eventually resulted in a hard-pressed victory of sorts. But, disasters were had, especially that first day. The key to the breakthrough General Sir Douglas Haig so desperately sought was the relentless bombardment of German lines, in the hope of clearing the front and facilitating success. This was not to be, and the battle developed into one of attrition, defined by a series of smaller battles over the following months. How effective was British artillery during the preliminary phase of the battle, and what led to the catastrophic losses of that dreadful first day?
Prior to the First Day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, the battle was preceded by a seven day barrage of the German lines. Until this point, the largest bombardment fired by the British (in terms of total shells) came at the Battle of Loos, fought the preceding September. This had been effective, destroying wire and strong points and facilitating a successful break into German trenches. A similarly large bombardment in March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle had achieved similar results.
British official histories detail the effects of the bombardment along the Somme – paraphrased below:
On the first day of bombardment, 24 June, the wire was targeted, but poor conditions meant that spotter aircraft were unable to fly, meaning no counter-fire could be conducted. Fortunately, the German response was light. The situation improved on the second day, with more than 100 German batteries identified as counter-firing activities increase. Observers report that suspected munitions dumps at Longueval, Montauban, Mametz Wood, and Pozieres are hit and destroyed, confirmed by the sighting of large explosions, but conflicting evidence of the bombardment is found by British infantry patrols – the line is apparently destroyed at Montauban, ahead of two British divisions, the 30th and 18th (the 18th, as it happens, would enjoy some of the greater successes on 1 July), but patrols at La Boisselle and Ovillers find German defences largely unscathed, and the defenders readied.
On the third day of the barrage, moves were made to increase the amount of guns and shells allocated to cutting the German wire, while the bulk of the heavy guns open fire on their targets behind the lines. Once again, patrols gather varying reports as to the effectiveness of the shelling. Day four saw a large increase in the number of defenders, and further mixed results on the effectiveness of the filed batteries in cutting the wire. Here, the decision was taken to increase the duration of the bombardment for a further two days, for a total of seven days in all. The move was made in light of conflicting intelligence and was lobbied for by an array of British and French generals.
During these two extra days, a further 171 German batteries were discovered. Mixed reports again came in, in some sectors the wire was passable, and in others untouched. Anxious Germans opened fire along several points of the line on clouds of smoke and gas, fearing they conceal infantry attacks. Understandably, some defenders were shaken and on edge, and the heavy batteries had achieved success in reducing the transit of supplies, notably food, to those in the trenches. However, the Germans strengthened the line, and the last patrols to return before the offensive took place noted that steps to plug gaps in the wire had been made, further shelling worsened the knotted tangle of barbed wire, and in the sectors where the field batteries had fired only on the first line of German defences, their work had been more effective than those engaging targets along two lines.
Clearly, the bombardment was nowhere near as effective is it needed to be, and, ultimately, disaster was had on that first day, with 19,240 British soldiers killed. The infantry were largely cut down, achieving only limited successes, unique to just a handful of sectors – typically those where the bombardment was most effective.
Not confident in the abilities of their raw and fresh troops, many British officers advanced their troops in formations better suited to maintaining order and discipline, rather than those which best suited the tactical situation or encouraged initiative. This left much of the British infantry more vulnerable than an experienced formation would have been, and the more experienced formations using more sophisticated tactics were the more successful that day.
Despite the long and arduous bombardment, the all-important clearance of the wire was not universally successful, worsening matters. Additionally, the technology, though quickly developing, simply was not capable of fulfilling counter-fire missions, or responding to spotters and demands from infantry leaders, effectively. It is clear that some success was achieved by the bombardment, but the results varied from sector-to-sector. The entire German line was alerted to the impending attack, and defenders mostly occupied strong positions, though they experienced shortages in supplies and their shaken resolve.
The Somme was a much larger affair than previous battles such as Loos, and should the successes of the artillery at previous battles be replicated, the number of weapons used and shells fired had to increase. The Battle of Loos was waged across an 11,000 yard section of frontline, and to prepare the field and support the battle 376 pieces of field artillery were deployed – 304 18pdr guns (36.8 yards per gun), and 72 larger 4.5inch howitzers (155.5 yards per gun). These guns were tasked primarily with the cutting of barbed wire and shelling German trenches and strong points.
At the Somme, these guns were tasked with the same mission, which was a still a primary aim of Haig and Rawlinson. Considering their attitudes to the bombardment and its objectives, which was intended to ease the advance of the lower quality troops, such a tasking was even higher a priority.
However, the increase in guns allocated to the battlefield was minimal. By more than doubling the section of line than attacked at Loos, up to 25,000 yards at the Somme, and with a greater reliance on the artillery, the expectation would be a much higher ratio of guns per yard not only to cover the vastly increased frontage, but to better complete objectives.
This was not the case, 808 18pdr guns were deployed along the Somme front, with 202 4.5in howitzers, a ratio of 31 and 123.7 yards per gun respectively. This shows an increase on the Battle of Loos, but not on the levels required considering the increased necessity and importance of the objectives given to the field batteries. Additionally, despite the slightly better ratios in terms of yards per gun, the coverage of the bombardment would be worse than at Loos. In Haig’s planning, he included the second German trench system in the zones to be targeted by the field artillery. This took advantage of the good intelligence available to the British at the time, which highlighted the disposition of the first three German lines, and of the roughly 35 battalions of well-experienced troops occupying them. However, by having to fire on an additional network of trenches as well as those on the frontline and the fields of wire, coverage (shells per yard) was reduced by as much as half.
Instead, the marked increase in firepower came from the heavy batteries. These guns, in both battles, were tasked with the destruction of roads, railways and other logistical targets behind German lines. It was also expected that these guns would harass or destroy German artillery and provide counter-battery fire. This would have always been a priority for Haig, and certainly of value.
The number of heavy guns deployed in support of the Battle of Loos was 108: 12 4.7in guns, 24 60pdr guns, five 6in guns, 36 6in howitzers, 10 9.2in howitzers, and a trio of massive 15in howitzers. This meant there was a heavy gun for every 104 yards of front at Loos.
At the Somme, however, there were almost four times as many heavy guns: 32 4.7in guns, 128 60Pdr guns, 20 6in guns, a single 9.2in gun, one 12in gun, 104 6in howitzers, 64 8in howitzers, 60 9.2in howitzers, eleven 12in howitzers, and six 15in howitzers, a ratio of 58.5 yards per gun.
However, because of the objectives given to these guns, the actual value of their bombardment to those in the first assault waves was limited when compared to the aims of the field batteries. German dug outs and shelters sunk into the frontline were as much as 40 or 50ft deep, and often reinforced. Only heavy guns would stand a chance of destroying them, but, they were after all, mostly not targeting German defences or the wire. Even if their targets were vital to the conduct of the engagement as a whole, there was little support from the heavy batteries for the assault. However, little of this power was utilised against German guns which were able to, largely unhindered, relentlessly shell no man’s land, as spotting techniques were still primitive at this point, and counter-fire too inaccurate to reliably hit discovered batteries. The heavy guns were limited in what they could do by technology and mission, and were unable to have the effect they potentially could have had.
Conversely, despite the limitations of the artillery, other factors contributed the disaster of 1 July 1916. The importance of the reason for the battle, a desperate plea from the French to relieve the pressure placed on them in the bloody Battle of Verdun, is critical. While the British and French had been planning an offensive as early as December 1915 and Haig expected to be involved in an offensive in the Somme area scheduled for June/July 1916, it was originally to include a much larger French contribution.
The British were now forced to take the lead, especially as the French refused to withdraw troops from Salonika, a tertiary campaign which, like Gallipoli, had become a stalemate. The return of troops from there may well have alleviated pressures on the Western Front.
Neither Haig, Rawlinson, nor any British general, had been involved in a battle of such a large scale before and the generals differed in their approaches on how to conduct the attack, bombardment, and even how much of the 25,000 yard front should be attacked. Rawlinson wished to attack in steps and phases, supported by a massive bombardment and moving artillery and reinforcements up between each push.
Haig wished to take advantage of the initial confusion in German lines, which he had witnessed at Loos and seen in the French at Verdun. This would be generated by using a short and sharp bombardment, and then rushing the lines along as wide a front as possible, intending to break into rear areas. This was not resolved until 19 April, when Haig overruled Rawlinson – but heeded his call for a longer bombardment.
Part of Haig’s problem was that the BEF had expanded from the original 5 divisions sent to France in 1914, to 43 divisions by January 1916 – some million men. Rawlinson’s Fourth Army was itself only six months old, and only 16 of the BEF’s total divisions were considered to consist of experienced troops, meaning Rawlinson’s more complicated plan was equally as great a risk.
In May, Chief of the General Staff Launcelot Kiggell reminded all British divisions that their men were of poorer quality than would usually be expected, and could only function when given fixed and rigid orders. Locally-led actions and tactical innovation could not be expected, and more complicated tactics involving infiltration or by-passing positions were not to be employed. Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, even warned the government not to expect much success from the planned offensive with a much-reduced French contribution.
Expansion of the army continued, and with 1.4 million soldiers available to him by June 1916 Haig was compelled to make use of this strength -some 15 divisions were available for an offensive. However, his forces needed time to prepare and his command structure time to complete its own expansion – making hundreds if not thousands of new appointments to roles which simply did not exist a year prior. Verdun necessitated much higher British involvement at all levels, and robbed Haig of the ability to develop and hone his officers and men. The reliance would therefore be on the artillery.
It was impressed upon soldiers the crushing bombardment would be unprecedented, and would leave little standing. Sure enough, it seemed to those manning the frontline that nothing could survive it. However, during the bombardment, trenches and wire were targeted extensively only during the first two days. This meant not only were the Germans warned of the offensive, but had days of relatively calm times to repair and enhance defences – although the three days of heavy bombardment in rear areas would hinder efforts.
Additionally, little support would be available to the infantry as they attacked, as the artillery would lift their bombardment as the troops stepped off, and begin shelling rear areas again. The guns were simply spread too thinly to complete their mission effectively, especially the field batteries. Perhaps Haig was simply unable to find guns and shells in the number required in the time he had.
Additionally, like the rest of the army, the Royal Artillery had rapidly and greatly expanded, and suffered from the same problems of inexperienced and poorer quality men and officers. The tactics used by the artillery at the Somme were considered to be about as sophisticated as possible when coordinating hundreds of mostly inexperienced gun teams.
Expansion of the Royal Artillery had the added issue that the rush to increase the production of guns and howitzers abandoned higher standards of quality and led to a number of defects. While unbeknownst to the British, their stocks of shells consisted of a high number of faulty, or ‘dud’ shells. As many as 30% of shells failed to explode and had no effect.
Additionally, much of their stockpile, around two-thirds, consisted of shrapnel shells – ineffective against wire and hardened defences, and the number of high explosive shells was limited. Supply had struggled to keep up with demand, and the problems which caused great political scandal throughout 1915, and partially led to the downfall of Prime Minister Asquith, had not yet been fully rectified. The ambitious goal set by then Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, in January 1916 was that the crisis would be resolved and more than adequate numbers of shells would be produced by April that year, in reality, it was not until spring 1917 the British Army was finally free of the crippling shortages.
As they repeatedly assumed to destroy defences and suppress defenders, it becomes easy to criticise the tactical choices of Haig and Rawlinson for the limited value of their bombardment. However, the shell crisis, the increased expectations placed on them by the French, and the vast expansion of the army all placed further pressure on British generals, forced to meticulously review plans, in which they wished to strengthen the artillery to reduce the burden on their sub-standard divisions.
By adding two days to the bombardment, it is clear Allied generals recognised the shortfalls and in spite of these pressures temporarily put the military situation ahead of logistical and political – though bad weather also played a major role. However, no additional shells were allocated, not even much-needed high explosive varieties.
In subsequent battles, the weight of fire of bombardments increased, and usually was laid in shorter time periods. This is partly due to the deliberate allocation of more shells in planning and the lessons learned, and partly due to better production. The Battle of Messines, 11 months later, utilised twice as many field guns per yard, and three times the heavy artillery, than deployed at the Somme. At least 3.25 million shells were fired in support of the attack at Messines, considerably more than the 1.73 million fired along the Somme, and developments allowed for much more accurate and effective fire.
Better manufacturing processes heavily reduced the number of dud shells and technology advanced enough to make effective counter-battery fire feasible. The effect was impressive, as German artillery in later battles would not be as effective in disrupting battles as they were during the Somme. Ultimately, even during the 141 days of Somme battle itself. Initial deficiencies influenced the result of that first day, but lessons were quickly disseminated and as the battle continued more success was had, and the artillery, continuously developing their methods, would play a key role.