Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 241st installment in the series.
June 24, 1916: Somme Bombardment Begins
Britain and France had agreed to mount a major offensive on the River Somme as far back as December 1915, but the timing remained vague, in part due to Douglas Haig’s replacement of Sir John French as overall commander of the British Expeditionary Force around the same time, with further confusion generated by unexpected events including the Easter Rising in April and the death of War Secretary Lord Kitchener in early June.
But as spring gave way to summer and the German assault on Verdun continued, mounting French desperation left the British little choice but to commit: following the French failure to retake Fort Douaumont, on May 26 French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre warned the British that the French Army would “cease to exist” if they delayed much longer. Then on June 11, following the German conquest of Fort Vaux, Philippe Pétain, the savior of Verdun, asked Joffre to urge the British to move up the date for their attack. Finally, as the Germans unleashed a new attack even closer to Verdun in late June (see below), in an unusual deviation from the usual civil-military protocol French Premier Aristide Briand personally urged Haig to act swiftly, warning of dire consequences for their alliance if the British failed to attack.
Preparations for the massive Anglo-French assault on the Somme had been underway for months, and went forward on an awesome scale, reflecting the Allies’ hopes that the “big push” would deliver a decisive blow to the German military and maybe even end the war. Most of the work was focused on equipping the area around the Somme with infrastructure to support the British Fourth Army, numbering 400,000 men and 100,000 horses, all of whom had to be supplied with food, water, and ammunition. The British had also accumulated over 1,500 artillery pieces to deliver one of the heaviest bombardments in history, requiring millions of shells to break up the enemy’s defenses. These figures don’t even count the contribution from the neighboring French Sixth Army, which would carry out a simultaneous push to the south.
In the first half of 1916 the British and French built two new railroads connecting the supply hub at Albert and the Somme, later complemented by dozens of new narrow-gauge “trench railways” connecting the bigger rail hubs to supply depots near the front. The Allies also repaired roads and bridges, erected vast camps with tents and barracks for hundreds of thousands of men, dug new wells and laid out dozens of miles of water pipelines, and built electric generators and a network of hundreds of miles of telephone wire to serve as a nervous system connecting it all. Edward Liveing, a British subaltern, recalled the final weeks before the assault:
The roads were packed with traffic. Column after column of lorries came pounding along, bearing their freight of shells, trench-mortar bombs, wire, stakes, sandbags, pipes, and a thousand other articles essential for the offensive, so that great dumps of explosives and other material arose in the green wayside places. Staff cars and signallers on motor-bikes went busily on their way… Horse transport and new batteries hurried to their destinations. “Caterpillars” rumbled up, towing the heavier guns. Infantrymen and sappers marched to their tasks round and about the line. Roads were repaired, telephone wires placed deep in the ground, trees felled for dug-outs and gun emplacements, water-pipes laid up to the trenches ready to be extended across conquered territory, while small-gauge and large-gauge railways seemed to spring to being in the night.
However the sheer scale of the preparations also meant there was no chance of surprise, as the Germans were bound to see these efforts and draw the obvious conclusion. On that note Lieutenant Own William Steele, a Canadians soldier from Newfoundland serving in the BEF, wrote in his diary on June 21, 1916:
The Hun certainly appears to be expecting our visit, for they are, according to reports all along the front, hard at work. There is an immense amount of traffic everywhere. Opposite our own particular position, he is seen working by day and night… Only last night, he could be plainly heard strengthening his wire work, and even adding to it, etc.
On paper at least, it shouldn’t have mattered that Germans knew what was coming, because the plan was simply to annihilate them with a “creeping barrage” of artillery and the explosion of nineteen giant mines tunneled under the German positions – and in truth, even the Germans were surprised by the unparalleled ferocity of the Allied attack. But British planners didn’t reckon with German engineering skill, which allowed tens of thousands of German troops to wait out the bombardment in deep concrete dugouts burrowed 40 feet underground; the Germans also built a second and third line of trenches for defense in depth. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from directing artillery fire against German artillery and strongholds.
Nonetheless the initial bombardment, which began on June 24 – a full a week before the infantry attack on July 1 (delayed from June 28) – was by all accounts an awe-inspiring and terrifying spectacle, as a thousand British guns saturated the German trenches with over 1.7 million shells in eight days. Like the German maelstrom at Verdun, the rumbling of the great guns was heard over a hundred miles away, and was even said to be audible in London when the winds were favorable.
Many observers compared the incredible downpour of steel to natural phenomena. Stanley Spencer, an officer with the Royal Fusiliers stationed further north on the Western Front, recalled:
… night and morning, we hear the peculiar roll and thunder of hundreds of guns farther south in preparation for the Somme offensive. The sky was continuously lighted up by innumerable flashes, the earth shook and the air seemed to quiver with the restless rumbling and muttering that constantly rose and fell, and rose and fell again, like the rising, breaking, and subsiding of enormous waves.
The shelling continued relentlessly through the night into day and then night again, when the dark sky turned into a nightmarish carnival of blinking, stuttering lights. Frederick Palmer, an American war correspondent, left a vivid description of the preparatory bombardment at night:
After dark the scene from a hill, as you rode toward the horizon of flashes, was one of incredible grandeur. Behind you, as you looked toward the German lines, was the blanket of night pierced and slashed by the flashes of gun blasts; overhead the bloodcurdling, hoarse sweep of their projectiles; and beyond the darkness had been turned into a chaotic, uncanny day by the jumping, leaping, spreading blaze of explosives which made all objects on the landscape stand out in flickering silhouette. Spurts of flame from the great shells rose out of the bowels of the earth, softening with their glow the sharp, concentrated, vicious snaps of light from shrapnel. Little flashes played among big flashes and flashes laid over flashes shingle fashion in a riot of lurid competition, while along the line of the German trenches at some places lay a haze of shimmering flame from the rapid fire of the trench mortars.
Incredibly enough, men from the artillery crews were apparently able to rest during the shelling, according to Palmer, who noted that in many places the guns seemed to fire in shifts:
It seemed that all the guns in the world must be firing as you listened from a distance, although when you came into the area where the guns were in tiers behind the cover of a favorable slope you found that many were silent. The men of one battery might be asleep while its neighbor was sending shells with a one-two-three deliberation. Any sleep or rest that the men got must be there in the midst of this crashing babel from steel throats.
Palmer also noted the stupendous cost of the bombardment:
The flow of ammunition for all came up steadily, its expenditure regulated on charts by officers who kept watch for extravagance and aimed to make every shell count. A fortune was being fired away every hour; a sum which would send a youth for a year to college or bring up a child went into a single large shell which might not have the luck to kill one human being as excuse for its existence; an endowment for a maternity hospital was represented in a day’s belch of destruction from a single acre of trodden wheat land.
The effect on the German troops subjected to this shelling was predictable enough, as they were forced to remain in their cramped concrete dugouts day and night for eight days, often cut off from supplies and unable to sleep amid the explosions pounding the earth above them. Above all, they wondered when the other shoe would drop. The German private Eversmann of the 26th Reserve Division wrote in his diary on June 26:
The barrage has now lasted thirty-six hours. How long will it go on? Nine o’clock: a short pause of which we avail ourselves to bring up coffee, each man got a portion of bread. Ten o’clock: veritable drum fire. In twelve hours shelling they estimate that 60,000 shells have fallen on our battalion sector. Every communication with the rear has been cut, only the telephone is working. When will they attack – tomorrow or the day after? Who knows?
However the important thing from the German soldiers’ personal perspective – and from a strategic perspective as well – was that most of them were still alive as the British infantry prepared to attack on July 1. An officer in the 26th Reserve Division, Lieutenant Cassel, noted with satisfaction: “On the whole we had very few casualties: some sentries were wounded and in one dugout that was partly squashed there were some deaths and seriously wounded. But the company on the whole, and my platoon in particular, kept its battle strength, thanks to the superior quality of our construction in the position.”
The failure of the bombardment, compounded by a number of mistakes on the day of the attack, would result in one of the worst debacles of the war – making July 1 the bloodiest day in British history.
Germans Unleash Phosgene Gas At Verdun
On June 22, 1916 the Germans unleashed a terrible new chemical weapon, phosgene gas, as part of another massive assault intended to finally capture the hills above the Meuse overlooking the citadel of Verdun – their main objective during the months-long battle, which would force the French to abandon Verdun or send untold numbers of men to their deaths in an effort to eject the Germans. In the end, the Germans achieved neither aim – but only after a nightmarish struggle for Fort Souville, one of the last French strongholds protecting the citadel of Verdun.
The shells containing phosgene, called “Green Cross” gas by German soldiers because of the special markings on the shells, began falling on the evening of June 22, and soon thousands of men were screaming and gasping for breath – their panic only deepening as they discovered that their gas masks didn’t protect them from the new weapon, developed by German chemists for exactly that purpose. Men and horses died by the scores, with many of the former supposedly turning a shocking green color.
The German gas attack targeted French artillery all along the line, forcing gun crews to flee and so leaving the infantry in the trenches unprotected. At 5 a.m. the German infantry advanced in dense masses, soon overrunning French defensive works and entering the village of Fleury – more than half way to Fort Souville. By now, however, the phosgene gas was starting to dissipate and French gun crews were returning to their positions. As the fighting continued Joffre sent four fresh divisions to shore up the defenses before Verdun. The German attack had been blunted – but just barely.
For ordinary soldiers on both sides, conditions at Verdun somehow become even worse. Henri Desegneaux, a French officer, described the German gas attack in his diary entry on June 22:
At 9 p.m. an avalanche of fire bursts on the ridge, the relief has to be delayed, it would be impossible to pass. Is it an attack? There is gas as well as shells, we can’t breathe and are forced to put on our masks… My company is placed in one line, without any trench, in shell craters. It’s a plateau, swept continuously by machine-gunfire and flares… The terrain is littered with corpses! What an advance! It’s dark, one feels something soft beneath one’s feet, it’s a stomach. One falls down flat and it’s a corpse.
Amid continuing fighting, Desegneaux wrote on June 26:
Our 220 mortars bombard Thiaumont: we must recapture some terrain to give ourselves some room and to drive the enemy back in its advance on Fleury. We attack incessantly. It’s four days since we have been in the front line and the relieving troops have been annihilated this morning during the attacks. Rain replaces the sun; filthy mud. We can’t sit down any more. We are covered in slime and yet we have to lie flat. I haven’t washed for ten days, my beard is growing. I am unrecognizable, frighteningly dirty.
In a later diary entry Desegneaux described one of the most awful, and tragically common, scenarios of the war: grievously wounded men dying slowly in front of their comrades because no stretcher bearers could make it to the frontline positions under heavy fire. On June 30, 1916 he wrote:
Numb and dazed, without saying a word, and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us. The wounded are increasing in numbers around us. These poor devils not knowing where to go come to us, believing that they will be helped. What can we do? There are clouds of smoke, the air is unbreathable. There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood… One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg. The second has no face, an arm blown off, and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously one begs me, ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die, Lieutenant, I’m suffering, help me.’ The other, perhaps more gravely wounded and nearer to death, implores me to kill him with these words, ‘Lieutenant, if you don’t want to, give me the revolver!’ Frightful, terrible moments, while the cannons harry us and we are splattered with mud and earth by the shells. For hours, these groans and supplications continue until, at 6 p.m., they die before our eyes without anyone being able to help them.
Not long afterwards an anonymous soldier from the French 65th Division, stationed on the west bank of the Meuse, painted a similar picture in a letter home:
Anyone who has not seen these fields of carnage will never be able to imagine it. When one arrives here the shells are raining down everywhere with each step one takes but in spite of this it is necessary for everyone to go forward. One has to go out of one’s way not to pass over a corpse lying at the bottom of the communication trench. Farther on, there are many wounded to tend, others who are carried back on stretchers to the rear. Some are screaming, others are pleading. One sees some who don't have legs, others without any heads, who have been left for several weeks on the ground...