WWI Centennial: Armageddon – The Somme
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 242nd installment in the series.
July 1, 1916: Armageddon – The Somme
It was the worst day in British history as measured in bloodshed, with 57,470 total casualties and 19,240 dead, mostly drawn from the cream of the patriotic British middle and working classes. An unparalleled disaster, the first day of the Somme and the 140 days of horror that followed live on in Britain’s collective psyche to this day, remembered – some argue unfairly – as the climactic agony of a generation of young men betrayed by an intellectually bankrupt elite unworthy of their devotion.
Needless to say, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Following six months of planning and preparation, the combined Anglo-French attack on both sides of the River Somme on July 1, 1916 was supposed to literally be a walkover, an annihilating blow that would shatter the German front in northern France and force the neighboring German armies to retreat, reopening the war of movement and setting the stage for final Allied victory.
Instead it was Armageddon.
Plan and Reality
The German defenses at the Somme were formidable to say the least, beginning with a first line complex, about 200 yards deep, of three trenches connected by communications trenches, protected by huge fields of barbed wire and studded with strongholds or “redoubts” – self-contained mini-fortresses of concrete and earthworks protecting machine gun nests. The Germans had also constructed a second line defense several thousand yards behind the first lie, situated on the far side of a chain of low hills and therefore invisible from the Allied trenches, and were working on a third line defense located a similar distance behind that.
Thanks to aerial reconnaissance the Allies had been able to create detailed maps of the German defenses, and the plan to penetrate them drawn up by British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig and French chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre looked plausible, on paper at least. After a huge bombardment by massed artillery to break up barbed wire and flatten the German trenches, and the explosion of 19 huge mines to destroy the redoubts, British and French infantry would advance along a 25,000-yard front on both sides of the River Somme behind a “creeping barrage” of artillery fire, with the guns gradually raising their elevation to create a moving wall of explosions to protect them from German counterattacks.
Most of the burden of fighting at the Somme would fall on the British Fourth Army, as the planned French contribution was scaled down radically because of the need to defend Verdun; after the Fourth Army pierced the German defenses, the new British Reserve Army (later Fifth Army) would enter the fray to exploit the breakthrough, advancing northeast along the road connecting Albert to Bapaume before pivoting north to roll up the German defenses west of Cambrai. Threatened on their flanks, the German armies would have no choice but to retreat in disarray, creating an opening for all the Allied armies to attack and expel them from France and Belgium.
Haig and Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson were so confident about the artillery’s ability to wipe out German defenses that British soldiers went “over the top” with orders to advance across “No Man’s Land” at a walking pace and in close order, just a few yards apart. They were also weighed down by over 60 pounds of ammunition, food, tools, and other supplies, reflecting the expectation that they would be operating for at least several days deep behind the German lines, away from supply depots. Albert Andrews, a private in the 30th Division, listed their kit:
I will tell here what I carried: rifle and bayonet with a pair of wire cutters attached; a shovel fastened on my back; pack containing two days’ rations, oil sheet, cardigan, jacket and mess tin; haversack containing one day’s iron rations and two Mills bombs; 150 rounds of ammunition; two extra bandoliers containing 60 rounds each, one over each shoulder; a bag of ten bombs [grenades].
However the German defenses were even more formidable than anyone suspected. Invisible from the air, the Germans had constructed bunkers up to 40 feet deep, reinforced with concrete and sturdy wood beams, which provided shelter for tens of thousands of German troops during the unrelenting weeklong bombardment that began on June 24. Furthermore bad weather prevented British planes from assessing damage to the German second line and directing artillery fire to German targets ahead of the advancing infantry, including new stretches of barbed wire hurriedly laid out in the night. Finally, Rawlinson’s relaxed attitude towards command, giving officers on the ground considerable leeway to adjust tactics as they saw fit, meant many ordered the creeping barrage to jump over the German first line in the optimistic belief it had already been obliterated.
“A Hurricane of Fire”
The British attack on the morning of July 1, 1916 began with a final bombardment that stunned observers with its fury, reinforcing the general impression that no defenders could possibly be left alive in the first German line. Geoffrey Malins, a British photographer documenting the war in photos and film, recalled the blistering fusillade:
When I reached the section where I judged it best to fit up my camera, I gently peeped over the parapet. What a sight. Never in my life had I seen such a hurricane of fire. It was inconceivable that any living thing could exist anywhere near it. The shells were coming over so fast and furious that it seemed as if they must be touching each other on their journey through the air.
At first glance the shelling appeared to have accomplished one of its main tasks by breaking up the new barbed wire defenses, according to Frederick Palmer, American correspondent, who described the scene near Beaumont-Hamel: “All the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the first-line trenches appeared to be cut, mangled, twisted into balls, beaten back into the earth and exhumed again, leaving only a welt of crater-spotted ground in front of the chalky contour of the first-line trenches which had been mashed and crushed out of shape.” However, as the British infantry soon discovered, in many places the explosions had simply lifted the barbed wire into the air and dropped it down again in new positions, with stretches of broken wire overlapping to create an equally impenetrable barrier.
As one hundred thousand soldiers waited to go “over the top,” each man was left alone with his thoughts. In many cases, following a week of anxious inactivity they were simply impatient for the big moment to arrive. Edward Liveing, a British soldier in the London Regiment of the 56th Division, recalled the final minutes as the British guns pounded the German lines and the German batteries responded in kind:
I have often tried to call to memory the intellectual, mental and nervous activity through which I passed during that hour of hellish bombardment and counter-bombardment, that last hour before we leapt out of our trenches into No Man’s Land… I had an excessive desire for the time to come when I could go ‘over the top,’ when I should be free at last from the noise of the bombardment, free from the prison of my trench, free to walk across that patch of No Man’s Land and opposing trenches till I got to my objective, or, if I did not go that far, to have my fate decided for better or for worse. I experienced, too, moments of intense fear during close bombardment. I felt that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force.
The British also unleashed poison gas and clouds of white smoke to serve as a screen for the advancing infantry (below). Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen described the British gas attack in a letter home, as well as his first ominous inkling that perhaps all was not going as planned:
For a mile stretching away from me, the trench was belching forth dense columns of white, greenish, and orange smoke. It rose curling and twisting, blotting everything from view, and then swept, a solid rampart, over the German lines. For more than an hour this continued, and I could see nothing. Sometimes the smoke was streaked with a scarlet star as a shell burst among it… It seemed impossible that men could withstand this awful onslaught… And yet a machine gun played steadily all the time from the German front line.
Finally, the huge mines under the German redoubts went up with an infernal power that reminded many observers of volcanoes erupting, the shockwaves knocking down men standing on the other side of No Man’s Land while debris was lofted almost a mile into the air, sometimes taking several minutes to descend. One aerial observer, second lieutenant Cecil Lewis, described seeing (and feeling) the largest mine – the “Lochnagar mine” under the “Schwaben Redoubt,” actually two separate mines loaded with a stupefying 60,000 pounds of high explosive – go up from a plane at 7:28 a.m. (below, an aerial view of the Lochnagar crater today):
At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up in the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earth column rose higher and higher to almost 4,000 feet (1,200 m). There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.
Elsewhere a photographer was able to capture a remarkable photo of the British mine beneath the German “Hawthorn Redoubt” as it detonated, sending up 45,000 pounds of ammonal high explosive and taking hundreds of German soldiers with it (below; the photographer was about half a mile away, and the soldier barely visible by the trees in the foreground provides a sense of scale).
The infantry assault began at 7:30 a.m. with a diversionary attack to the north by the 46th and 56th Divisions of the neighboring British Third Army against a small German salient at Gommecourt, and here the British suffered their first setback, for all the reasons that would soon become apparent all along the front: the artillery preparation had been inadequate, the Germans were able to patch the barbed wire in many places, and the lack of aerial observation made it almost impossible to know whether any progress was being made. Even worse, the failure of the 46th Division to advance doomed the effort by the 56th Division in the other arm of the “pincer.” As a result barely any of the British troops reached the German front line near Gommecourt, and those who did were soon forced out by German counterattacks.
This story would repeat itself, again and again, up and down the battlefield of the Somme. All along the front the the Germans emerged, rattled by the bombardment but largely unscathed, from their deep dugouts and quickly took up defensive positions in shell holes, along the lips of the mine craters, and in small stretches of trench that remained usable after the shelling. One German soldier, Matthaus Gerster, recalled the adrenaline-charged experience:
At 7:30 a.m. the hurricane of shells ceased as suddenly as it had begun. Our men at once clambered up the steep shafts leading from the dug-outs to daylight and ran singly or in groups to the nearest shell craters. The machine guns were pulled out of the dug-outs and hurriedly placed in position, their crews dragging the heavy ammunition boxes up the steps and out to the guns. A rough firing line was thus rapidly established… A few minutes later, when the leading British line was within one hundred yards, the rattle of machine guns and rifle fire broke out from along the whole line of craters. Some fired kneeling so as to get a better target over the broken ground, while others in the excitement of the moment, stood up regardless of their own safety to fire into the crowd of men in front of them. Red rockets sped up into the blue sky as a signal to the artillery, and immediately afterwards a mass of shells from the German batteries in rear tore through the air and burst among the advancing lines. Whole sections seemed to fall, and the rear formations, moving in closer order, quickly scattered. The advance rapidly crumbled under this hail of shell and bullets. All along the line men could be seen throwing their arms into the air and collapsing, never to move again. Badly wounded rolled about in their agony, and others less severely injured crawled to the nearest shell-hole for shelter.
From the village of Serre to Beaumont-Hamel, after the explosion of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine mentioned above, the British 4th, 29th, and 31st Divisions had to advance across a low basin that made them perfect targets for German artillery and machine guns. Even worse, the officers had accelerated the creeping barrage on the assumption the German frontline was destroyed – again, unaware that the enemy’s deep dugouts had survived (below, wire entanglements at Beaumont-Hamel).
Now a new threat was rapidly becoming apparent: because the British were trying to advance along such a broad front, a failure by any division to progress left its neighbors exposed to flanking fire from the Germans and counterattacks from neighboring German trenches – so even where the British succeeded in breaking into the German first line, they found themselves isolated in narrow corridors surrounded by the enemy, and were forced to retreat anyway. This proved to be the case for the 36th Division, which advanced north of the village Thiepval but then abandoned its gains, including the key Schwaben Redoubt (or what was left of it), under withering fire when the adjacent 32nd Division failed to advance.
And still more British troops poured forward. Edward Liveing described seeing the second wave advance to meet its fate:
The scene that met my eyes as I stood on the parapet of our trench for that one second is almost indescribable. Just in front the ground was pitted by innumerable shell-holes. More holes opened suddenly every now and then. Here and there a few bodies lay about. Farther away, before our front line and in No Man's Land, lay more. In the smoke one could distinguish the second line advancing. One man after another fell down in a seemingly natural manner, and the wave melted away. In the background, where ran the remains of the German lines and wire, there was a mass of smoke, the red of the shrapnel bursting amid it.
Soon it would be Liveing’s turn to plunge into the maelstrom, where he discovered it was almost impossible to keep track of his men amid the chaos:
As I advanced, I felt as if I was in a dream, but I had all my wits about me. We had been told to walk. Our boys, however, rushed forward with splendid impetuosity to help their comrades and smash the German resistance in the front line… I kept up a fast walking pace and tried to keep the line together. This was impossible. When we had jumped clear of the remains of our front line trench, my platoon slowly disappeared through the line stretching out.
As the troops in subsequent lines advanced, they were greeted by the horrifying sights of No Man’s Land, where they found their own comrades lying dead and wounded by the thousands, and faced the same fate themselves, at the hands of the same German machine gunners and artillery crews. Liveing recalled his own experience, culminating in a wound that – like tens of thousands of others that day – forced him to retreat back across No Man’s Land under heavy fire:
We were dropping into a slight valley. The shell-holes were less few, but bodies lay all over the ground, and a terrible groaning arose from all sides. At one time we seemed to be advancing in little groups. I was at the head of one for a moment or two, only to realise shortly afterwards that I was alone… I turned round again and advanced to a gap in the German wire. There was a pile of our wounded here on the German parapet… Suddenly I cursed. I had been scalded in the left hip. A shell, I thought, had blown up in a water-logged crump-hole and sprayed me with boiling water. Letting go of my rifle, I dropped forward full length on the ground. My hip began to smart unpleasantly, and I felt a curious warmth stealing down my left leg. I thought it was the boiling water that had scalded me. Certainly my breeches looked as if they were saturated with water. I did not know that they were saturated with blood… I looked around to see what was happening. In front lay some wounded; on either side of them stakes and shreds of barbed wire twisted into weird contortions by the explosions of our trench-mortar bombs. Beyond this nothing but smoke, interspersed with the red of bursting bombs and shrapnel.
Back on the German side, Gerster described the seemingly endless British attacks, each one ending in disaster:
The extended lines, though badly shaken and with many gaps, now came on all the faster. Instead of a leisurely walk they covered the ground in short rushes at the double. Within a few minutes the leading troops had reached within a stone’s throw of our front trench, and while some of us continued to fire at point-blank range, others threw hand grenades among them. The British bombers [grenade throwers] answered back, while the infantry rushed forward with fixed bayonets. The noise of battle became indescribable… Again and again the extended lines of British infantry broke against the German defence like waves against a cliff, only to be beaten back.
Ironically the French Sixth Army, which had been assigned a supporting role in the attack because of the manpower requirements at Verdun, made much more progress to the south of the Somme, led by colonial troops from North Africa in the 1st Moroccan Division and 2nd, 3rd, and 16th Colonial Divisions. The neighboring British divisions, at the southernmost end of the British line, also fared better in their attacks near Montauban, Fricourt, and Mametz Woods.
The Allied success in the southern half of the battlefield was due in part to hills that provided better observation points and shelter for artillery and the use of a larger number of smaller mines to disrupt longer stretches of the German trenches. These factors meant the British and French could clear German artillery more effectively before the infantry attacked, while the continuing bombardment forced the German infantry to remain in their dugouts longer before coming to the surface – giving the attackers crucial extra moments to advance.
However the British and French still failed to penetrate to the German second line of defenses further east, meaning nowhere along the front had the Allies achieved their hoped-for breakthrough. Furthermore their advances on the southern half of the front merely made it even more urgent for the British divisions north of the Somme to catch up in order to allow the entire operation to move forward, leading to more disastrous assaults in the days to come.
All along the front, July 1, 1916 ended in nightmarish scenes of death and destruction, with fighting continuing sporadically where Allied or German troops held out in isolated strongholds. Paul Maze, a Frenchman serving with the British Army as a translator, described the night of July 1:
I went at night to Albert, where I knew that from some high ground I could look into La Boisselle and a wide stretch of the battle-ground. The line kept emerging from the darkness, illuminated by brilliant lights from a constant succession of soaring rockets, bursting and spreading into vivid colours, momentarily revealing quivering patches of the deep shade beyond. Our men were then bombing the craters in front of La Boisselle. Occasionally the light showed up little figures crawling over broken ground. Behind me the town of Albert was trembling with the shelling, as flashes from the guns played hide-and-seek through the beams of its gaping roofs and intermittently lit up as in daylight a white streak of the Albert-Bapaume road… Ambulances were taking away the wounded from the casualty clearing-station in Albert. Lorries were packed with the lighter casualties who waited their turn in big groups, all labeled with the nature of their wounds. Roads were crammed with marching troops and lorries. Dust was rising everywhere. Lines of cavalry horses, contentedly munching hay, covered the rolling plains as far as Amiens, hidden in the darkness.
After a day of consolidation and (relatively) small-scale combat on July 2, the British returned to the attack on July 3, determined to push forward in the north and set the stage for the assault on the German second line, allowing the British Reserve Army to swing into action as planned. This time, unfortunately, the attacks near Ovillers and Thiepval went forward with little or no coordination, as officers mounted local attacks according to their own hastily improvised strategies. Palmer, the war correspondent, saw one of the attacks:
The battle was not general; it raged at certain points where the Germans had anchored themselves after some recovery from the staggering blow of the first day. Beyond Fricourt the British artillery was making a crushing concentration on a clump of woods. This seemed to be the hottest place of all. I would watch it. Nothing except the blanket of shell-smoke hanging over the trees was visible for a time, unless you counted figures some distance away moving about in a sort of detached pantomime. Then a line of British infantry seemed to rise out of the pile of the carpet and I could see them moving with a drill-ground steadiness toward the edge of the woods, only to be lost to the eye in a fold of the carpet or in a changed background.
Further south Maze witnessed the continued fighting around the village of La Boisselle, which was quickly being reduced to a heap of rubble:
Through a gap between two sandbags I was shown the village, where smoke was drifting across skeletons of trees on a torn-up mound. An uneven line of sandbags, stretching across piles of bricks and remnants of houses, faced our front trench. The enemy was there, a few yards away. His presence, so near and yet unseen, made upon me an uncanny impression. The ground between our trench and the ruins beyond was merely a stretch of craters and burnt-up grass broken up by tangled wire… The dead were lying there in all conceivable attitudes, rotting in the sun. A veil of fumes from lachrymatory shells was rolling along the ground… with the heat the smell had become very trying.
Incredibly conditions were about to become even more trying, as nature turned against both attackers and defenders with the arrival of unexpected summer thunderstorms, which – once again – turned the battlefield into a quagmire and flooded trenches. Many men commented on the unusually sticky nature of the Somme mud, with its combination of clay, dust, and chalk ground up by entrenching tools and artillery. Maze described the scene as the heavens opened above them:
The rain, falling down the shiny slopes, formed streams everywhere. Steam rose from the hot ground… the Somme dust had turned everything into liquid mud; lorries rushed along plastering everybody with it. Drenched infantry and horse-lines were out in the open – everything now looked miserable. During the next three days the rain hardly ceased. Conditions became appalling… The trenches had now crumbled down with the rain, and water rushing down the slopes had invaded every communication-trench. The mud was a soft yellow, sticky paste that clung to one’s boots and had to be kicked away at every step.
The mud would be a perpetual fixture of the Somme, especially once summer gave way to autumn. Hugh Knyvett, an Australian who fought at the Somme some time later, portrayed it as a force of nature all its own:
How we cursed that mud! We cursed it sleeping, we cursed it waking, we cursed it riding, we cursed it walking. We ate it and cursed; we drank it and cursed; we swallowed it and spat it; we snuffed it and wept it; it filled our nails and our ears; it caked and lined our clothing; we wallowed in it, we waded through it, we swam in it, and splashed it about – it stuck our helmets to our hair, it plastered our wounds, and there were men drowned in it.
And still the fighting went on. On July 7, 1916 Rawlinson ordered another round of attacks on the center near Ovillers, Mametz Wood, and Contalmaison – but once again there was virtually no coordination between the commanders on the ground, leaving individual units to advance with their flanks unprotected, and over the next six days modest victories were paid for with extravagant amounts of blood. Nature also paid a heavy price, according to Private Robert Lord Crawford, who described a scene near Contalmaison in his diary entry on July 7, 1916:
What a scene of desolation in this area of battle. One stumbles across a corpse distended by gangrene, half hidden by luxuriant flowers, and then a few yards further on a patch of land from which every vestige of vegetation has been completely burned. What is marked on a map as a wood is in reality a seared row of skeleton trees. This is the most violent and wasteful of all the invasions of nature which a bombardment involves.
Mametz Wood and Contalmaison finally fell to the British on July 12, setting the stage for the next big push on July 14, 1916. The Battle of the Somme was just beginning.