The Battle of the Somme: laboratory for final victory or ‘nothing achieved’?

This paper examines the effect combat experience, gained on the Somme, had on the military effectiveness of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) for the remainder of the war.

Introduction

In the 1960’s, historical opinion portrayed the Battle of the Somme as an ‘unredeemed defeat’ that achieved nothing.[1] Today, popular perceptions of the Battle chime with these views; one recent account of a Somme battle suggests that the BEF’s operational conduct was accurately portrayed in the BBC’s 1980’s comedy, Blackadder Goes Forth.[2] ‘Revisionist’ historians have offered a different interpretation of the Battle’s legacy within the context of the war. They instead argue that it was an important part of the BEF’s ‘learning curve’ or ‘process of improvement’ (titled the ‘learning process’ in this paper) which, ultimately, contributed to the BEF’s victories in 1918.[3] Many historians believe this ‘learning process’ influenced developments in infantry and artillery tactics. This paper takes a broader view on this learning process and suggests that lessons were learnt not only in the employment of guns and troops, but also in logistics and supply. Taken together, these changes helped shape the BEF’s operational capabilities throughout 1917-8 and contributed to the defeat of the German army in November 1918.

 

Tactical change

Following their experience on the Somme, the clearest lesson learnt by the BEF was the need for tactical change in their method of attack. This is reflected in analysis of tactical publications available before and after the Somme. Before the Battle, GHQ published SS109, Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (May 1916), which set out details of an infantry attack. It described the attack as being made in lines of successive waves, with those following the initial assault responsible for securing flanks and consolidating captured ground. It also advised the use of Lewis guns, bombers and trench mortars to support the attack.[4]

 

The vast majority of units in the 1st July attack were drawn from the Fourth Army. They produced a further document, Tactical Notes, which provided additional detail to the principles already set out in SS109. Tactical Notes set the company as the primary assault formation and mandated that attacking troops had to move to a pre-determined plan as ‘experience has shown that the only safe method of artillery support during an advance is a fixed timetable of [artillery] lifts to which both infantry and artillery must rigidity conform’.[5] Fourth Army commander Rawlinson favoured the wave system as he believed that the artillery bombardment would destroy the German positions and potential opposition, and that walking in lines across no man’s land was the best way of keeping inexperienced volunteer citizen soldiers together with their officers.[6]

 

Many of the attacks mounted on 1st July were carried out in accordance with these tactical ideas and, as a consequence, these tactics were blamed for the catastrophic losses suffered by the BEF on that day. For example, during the attack on Theipval Spur, all six waves of the 16/Northumberland Fusiliers (32nd Division) were cut down by German machine guns and never made it across no man’s land.[7] However, not all leaders followed these orders slavishly. Before zero hour, the commanders of the 36th (Ulster) Division and 18th (Eastern) Division sent their men into no man’s land right up to the barrage and this enabled them to enter German lines with fewer casualties.[8]

 

This process of innovation continued throughout the battle. For example, on 2nd July, the 19th Division attacked positions at La Boisselle in ‘light fighting order’, rushing into German lines under a ‘Chinese’ [i.e. diversionary] smoke barrage and capturing their assigned positions.[9] The day before, the 34th Division had attacked and suffered more casualties (6,380) than any other division fighting on the 1st July.[10] On 14th July, the 21st, 7th, 3rd and 9th Divisions captured German lines in a successful dawn attack using a concentrated 5 minute artillery bombardment which had been 5 times more intense than the week long bombardment prior to 1st July.[11] During two attacks on the 25th and 27th September, the 55th (West Lancashire) Division took their objectives because they had kept within 50 yards of their supporting artillery barrage; a tactic they had learnt from analysis following the failed attack Guillemont on 8th and 9th August 1916.[12]

 

Based on this ‘recent experience’, GHQ revised their tactics. In February 1917, SS143 Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action was published. This set the platoon as the primary tactical assault unit and organised it into four interdependent specialists sections: bombers, rifle grenadiers, riflemen and Lewis gunners. The assault plan, using these sections, was for the rifle grenadiers to give covering fire to the advancing rifle and bomber sections while the Lewis gun section was engaging the ‘main point of resistance’ and working round a flank.[13]

 

Published 2 months earlier was SS135, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action, which complemented SS143. SS135 stated that offensives should start with a creeping barrage and then be closely followed by the assault troops; ‘success in recent operations has been due, more than to anything else, to the Infantry keeping close up to the artillery barrage’ [sic]. It detailed how the infantry should co-operate with the artillery, tanks and the Royal Flying Corps. For example, it gave practical advice on artillery and infantry co-operation such as describing the correct pace of the barrage to realistically match the speed of often exhausted advancing soldiers. It also established Artillery Liaison Officers in infantry units to facilitate communication and set out signaling procedures between the infantry and the artillery.[14]

 

SS143 and SS135 are considerably more detailed and practical than their predecessors, SS109 and Tactical Notes. The experience of 141 days of battle had been captured, distilled and disseminated in a simple and concise form. For example, while SS109 documents the idea of a creeping barrage, SS135 actually details how it should be implemented in practical terms and also how to train soldiers for this type of assault.[15] SS143 lays out tactical plans for how a platoon should attack a strong point with diagrams and pictograms; neither SS109 nor the Tactical Notes had anything so useful.[16] SS143 and SS135 also brought in other changes to infantry tactics. The platoon became focused around sections of firepower specialists instead of lines of infantry advancing with detached specialists There was also a particular emphasis on flexibility and opportunism and there was firm guidance that soldiers should take ‘action on their own…without waiting for orders’ where the situation dictated it.[17] SS143 and SS135 were superseded by later pamphlets but they were important for laying the foundations for the evolution in British assault tactics and training for the rest of the war.

 

Logistics

The BEF’s Somme experience provided another critical lesson in how to re-organize its supply and transport system. In an industrial war of matériel, logistics were crucial for the BEF to be able to feed and equip its mass army and supply its artillery for the barrage dominant tactics, which the BEF had set out in SS109 and SS135. The study of logistics in the literature is limited in comparison to the volume of literature devoted to the Somme and its influence on infantry tactics.[18] In fact, Dr I.M. Brown is the only published scholar to consider logistics in the Great War. This situation may give support to the old adage that ‘amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics’.

 

The logistical infrastructure which supplied the BEF during the Somme offensive was one that had been pragmatically expanded since the BEF was deployed to France in August 1914.[19] An infantry division in France required an estimated half a trainload of supplies per day to keep it fed, supplied with ammunition, post and other supplies (estimated at around 200 tons per day). In the first half of 1916, the size of the BEF increased by 17 divisions and there was a corresponding increase in the supply needs. On top of this, the logistic system also needed to supply the heavy artillery and the rapidly increased demand for shells as the Battle of the Somme started. In June 1916, the heavy guns required 5 to 12 ammunition trains per week but from 1st July onwards, this quadrupled to between 45 and 90 trains per week.[20]

 

From the outset of the offensive, supply problems started to affect operations. Rawlinson found that in mid-July, when he was planning an assault on the German second line, the lack of heavy artillery shells limited the tactical options open to him. This was not a problem of shell production but instead of logistical supply.[21] The failure of his 18th October attacks on the Transloy Ridges was attributed to lack of artillery support, which in turn, was blamed on the failure to get ammunition through to the guns.[22] Rawlinson had noted five days prior to the attack that he was ‘anxious about getting Artillery ammunition’ [sic].[23] The problems facing the logistical system were critical shortages in rolling stock and labour and the deteriorating state of the roads and railways, which were under constant use.[24] By November, the system was showing obvious strain; III Corps Commander Pulteney recorded that his divisional commanders had noted that ‘it is with difficulty that they…keep men supplied with rations and ammunition in the front line’.[25]

 

 

However, for much of the five-month offensive the system had worked, but only just.[26] Commander-in-Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, had recognized the transport problems and sought civilian expertise. On 1st September 1916, he appointed Sir Eric Campbell Geddes as Director General of Military Railways and Inspector-General of Transportation with the rank of Major General. Before the war, Geddes had spent his career in railways and he was the deputy general manager at North Eastern Railways. Geddes replaced the ‘ad hoc system of transportation’, which had evolved with the BEF’s deployment in 1914. He built an effective administrative system which remained largely unchanged to the Armistice.[27]

 

Geddes formed a central administration to co-ordinate transportation and set up five directorates covering roads, rail, docks, canals and light railways. He brought in civilian experts to run each of these departments and introduced modern information systems such as ships sending their manifests ahead of arrival at ports so the dock’s director had prior knowledge of what it carried and precisely the destination of its goods. Accurate ship cargo manifests meant that the dock authorities could prioritise the unloading of goods, ultimately, saving time and therefore money.[28] He also set up systems to forecast expected demand. These were based on statistics and business techniques such as stock control systems to highlight reserves of food and ammunition.[29]

 

The impact of Geddes’s reforms was huge. For example, at the end of the war the BEF’s Railway Operating Division employed 18,500 men on 1,486 locomotives in the BEF’s operational area. At the end of 1915, it had just 675 personnel operating 59 engines.[30] The reforms enabled the British to supply and support multiple operations throughout 1917 and 1918. The improved transport system enabled the bombardment for Arras to be three times bigger than the barrage had been at the beginning of the Somme.[31] Also, the flexibility of the new system enabled the British to launch three more major offensives at different point in the line at Messines, Ypres and Cambrai.

 

In the final year of the war, the BEF faced its greatest test with the return of defensive and offensive battles of movement. The logistical system developed by Geddes had been devised around a relatively static front but it coped well with the fluid dynamics of warfare in 1918. The German March offensive was the first major challenge of the year. The BEF expended an enormous quantity of ammunition countering German attacks which challenged the line of communications. In April 1918 alone, 725 ammunition trains, equal to the whole of the Somme offensive, supplied the BEF, which was often in retreat.[32] At the same time, many tons of materials held in stores were moved away from the German advance. This demonstrates the flexible nature of the logistics system.[33] By August 1918, the allies were able to take up the offensive and the logistics system was able to support Haig to launch simultaneous offensives, or sequential ones, on different fronts. This would have been inconceivable before 1918.[34] For example, the first three days of the operations that to take the Canal du Nord (27th to 29th September) saw the expenditure of 62,813 tons of ammunition, an average of 20,937 tons per day.[35]

 

Learning from the Somme

This paper argues that the fighting on the Somme gave the BEF critical experience which shaped organisational and tactical change in the final two years of the war. However, in putting forward this argument, it is important to consider how the army used this battlefield experience. Some historians, such as Tim Travers, have argued that the higher command was incapable of ‘change, innovation and rational planning’. Haig and GHQ were applying ‘pre-war styles of thinking’ and they could not cope with the new industrial battlefield in which they were operating and, as a result, there was no willingness to examine lessons or change practice.[36]

 

However, there is considerable evidence to suggest this was not the case. In fact, many officers shared information with senior commanders and staff officers, principally with the aim of learning from their experience. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Bayliffe of the 1/12 London Battalion wrote ‘Lessons to be deducted from the Operations on the Somme’ which reported his observations, based on his experience as a battalion commander.[37] Many senior commanders wanted to learn from their subordinates’ tactical experimentation. General Herbert Plumer, Second Army commander, asked Major General Ivor Maxse, after his successful September assault on Theipval with his 18th Division, to send him a ‘few lines describing your attack and how you carried it out’.[38] Also, GHQ and other leaders sought and adopted civilian ideas and expertise when they were required. Haig had appointed Geddes to re-organise the logistic and transport system. He considered ‘to put soldiers who have no practical experience of these matters [logistics] into such positions merely because they are generals and colonels, must result in utter failure!’[39]

 

Conclusion

The British went into the Battle of the Somme with a mass army, made up of barely trained volunteers and led by senior regular officers such as Rawlinson and Haig, who had little experience of high intensity battles involving hundreds of thousands of men. The mistakes of these commanders had bloody consequences and no senior commander emerges well from the battle. However, they, like the army they led, went through a learning process which was painful, intermittent and sometimes erratic.[40] There were major changes in the method of attack, in training and most importantly in  the logistic and supply system. As veteran Charles Carrington recalled ‘the British Army learned its lesson the hard way, during the middle part of the Somme battle and, for the rest of the war, was the best army in the field.’[41] 

[1] A.J.P. Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History (London, 1963), pp.99-105. B. Gardner, The Big Push (London, 1961).

[2] T. Kearey, Safeguard our Flank (Cirencester, 2012), p.3.

[3] P. Hart, Somme (London, 2005), pp.533-534, W. Philpott, Bloody Victory (London, 2009). P. Simkins, From Somme to Victory (Barnsley, 2014), P. Griffith, Battle Tactics of the Western Front: The British Army’s Art of Attack 1916-1918 (London, 1994) and J. Lee, ‘Some Lessons of the Somme: The British Infantry in 1917’, in B. Bond (ed) Look to Your Front: Studies in the First World War by the British Commission for Military History (Staplehurst, 1999).

[4] SS109 Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (GHQ, 1916), paras. 3, 14.

[5] Fourth Army Tactical Notes (Fourth Army, 1916), p.26.

[6] M. Middlebrook, First Day on the Somme (London, 1971), p.279.

[7] Middlebrook, First, p.136.

[8] Middlebrook, First, p.279.

[9] G.D. Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (London, 2001), p.149.

[10] Middlebrook, First, p.266.

[11] Sheffield, Forgotten, p.143.

[12] Sheffield, Forgotten, p.150.

[13] SS143 Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action (GHQ, 1917), pp.1,6, 8.

[14] SS135, Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action (GHQ, 1916), pp.9-15.

[15] SS135, pp.9-15.

[16] SS143, pp.18-24.

[17] SS143, p.11.

[18] I.M. Brown, British Logistics on the Western Front, 1914-1919 (London, 1998).

[19] I.M. Brown, ‘The evolution of the British Army’s logistical and administrative infrastructure and its influence on GHQ’s operational and strategic decision-making on the Western Front, 1914-1918’  (Phd, KCL, 1998), pp.107-153.

[20] Brown, PhD, pp.158-160.

[21] R. Prior & T. Wilson, Command on the Western Front (Barnsley, 1992), pp.141-145.

[22] Prior, Command, p.254.

[23] Rawlinson, Diary, 13/10/1916.

[24] Brown, PhD, pp.174-177.

[25] Diary, 27/11/1916, War Diary, Fourth Army (General Staff), Montgomery-Massingberd Papers, Box 50, LHCMA.

[26] Brown, PhD, p.177.

[27] Brown, PhD, p.192.

[28] Brown, PhD, p.209.

[29] Brown, PhD, p.205-206.

[30] Report Upon the Work of the Quartermaster-General’s Branch of the Staff and Directorates Controlled. British Armies in France and Flanders, 1914-1918, p.16, TNA, WO 107/69.

[31] Griffith, Battle Tactics, p. 85.

[32] Brown, PhD, pp.262-263.

[33] Brown, PhD, p.254.

[34] Brown, PhD, p.244.

[35] QM, Explanatory Review, September 1918, G Branch, War Diary, WO 95/40, TNA.

[36] T. Travers, The Killing Ground (Barnsley, 1987), p.190.

[37] C.H. Dudley Ward, The Fifty Sixth Division in the Great War (London, 1922), pp.89-92.

[38] J. Baynes, Far from a Donkey: The Life of General Sir Ivor Maxse (London, 1995), p.164.

[39] WO 256/13, Haig, Diary, 27/10/1916.

[40] Sheffield, Forgotten, p.155.

[41] C. Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning (Hutchinson, 1965), p.120.