Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 250th installment in the series.
September 25-28, 1916: Battles of Morval and Thiepval Ridge
Following the qualified British victory at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette from September 15-22, 1916, which saw the first use of tanks on the battlefield (to decidedly mixed effect), British Expeditionary Force commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig remained determined to break through the German lines at the Somme, leading to yet another bloody offensive in late September – actually two linked attacks at Morval and Thiepval Ridge.
The first phase of the tandem assault was the Battle of Morval, from September 25-28, 1916, when the British Fourth Army attacked German defenders entrenched around the villages of Morval and Lesbouefs east of Flers, which like dozens of other places across the Somme battlefield would soon be villages in name only (top, British troops advance towards Morval; below, a British soldier avails himself of an abandoned bed in the ruins of Morval).
The attack at Morval wasn’t intended to deliver the breakthrough blow but merely to even up the lines by capturing objectives left unattained during the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, as well as tie down German forces in preparation for the main attack by the Reserve Army (later Fifth Army), set to begin the following day at Thiepval Ridge, about seven miles to the west. Thus Fourth Army commander Henry Rawlinson set relatively modest goals, including capturing the German first-line trenches and the villages named above. To the south, the French Sixth Army under General Emile Fayolle would make a simultaneous attack on German positions around the villages of Sailly and Combles.
Because the objectives were limited, British gunners were able to concentrate most of their fire on the German front-line trench and artillery positions, aided by close aerial observation by the Royal Flying Corps’ airborne spotters. For their part the German defenders, forced back repeatedly by successive Allied assaults, still hadn’t had a chance to build the sort of impressive dugouts that sheltered their troops from British artillery fire on July 1, the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.
The furious bombardment unleashed by the British on the evening of September 24 tore up the German trenches, clearing the way for an advance by British infantry and tanks beginning at 12:35 p.m. on September 25 (this time, instead of trying to deploy the tanks in the front ranks of the assault troops as they had at Flers-Courcelette, the armored vehicles were assigned a support role, moving up with the second wave and focusing on German strongholds still holding out after the initial attack; below, British troops in reserve trenches).
Aided by a creeping artillery barrage scouring the battlefield in front of them, attackers from the Guards, 5th, 6th, and 56th Divisions surged forwards in the face of heavy machine gun fire to seize Morval and Lesbouefs; although the Allies failed to capture Combles in the initial assault, their advance elsewhere left the Germans clinging to a long, narrow salient, an untenable position from which they voluntarily withdrew to safer positions on September 26 (below, a British soldier escorts a German prisoner).
That same morning the British Reserve Army under General Hubert Gough launched the main attack in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge, which lasted from September 26-28, 1916. With fresh divisions coming into the line, Haig and Gough sought to deliver a knockout blow to the German Second Army, which they believed was demoralized and near collapse. The contest would naturally focus on Thiepval Ridge, a strong defensive position occupied by the Germans north of the village of the same name, including several formidable strongpoints, the “Schwaben Redoubt,” “Stuff Redoubt,” and “Zollern Redoubt.” After the capture of the ridge, the British generals imagined another attack around Beaumont-Hamel, bringing them one step closer to achieving the original objectives of the Somme offensive.
Following a thunderous three-day bombardment beginning September 23, shortly after noon on September 26 on the Reserve Army’s right two British and two Canadian divisions poured from their trenches near Courcelette towards the German lines including Zollern Redoubt and another heavily fortified position at Mouquet Farm, from which the German defenders laid down withering machine gun fire. The attackers were left further exposed when two tanks, assigned to help take the strong points, ended up trapped in shell craters instead.
In the center the British 18th Division met with more success in its attack on the village of Thiepval itself, although they were still subjected to devastating machine gun fire from the ruins of the village and the Schwaben Redoubt on the ridge behind it, as Australian Lieutenant Adrian Consett Stephen recalled:
Sometimes a wave of men would dip and disappear into a trench only to emerge on the other side in perfect line again. Now they are into Thiepval! No, the line suddenly telescopes into a bunch and the bunch scurries to right or left, trying to evade a machine-gun in front, and then with a plunge the first wave, broken now into little groups, vanished amidst the ruined houses.
Like their peers on the right British troops in the center had high hopes for tanks in the assault on Thiepval, but once again the experimental weapons often failed to live up to these expectations. Stephen recalled one distinctly uninspiring performance: “At this stage a tank crawled on to the scene can crept laboriously, like a great slug, towards Thiepval. It disappeared among the ruins, puffing smoke. Subsequently it caught fire.”
Nonetheless the British forged ahead, aided by continuous shelling, to capture Thiepval village and the neighboring Thiepval Chateau by the end of the day – but that night found themselves on the receiving end of a blistering counter-bombardment by German artillery, which precisely targeted the former German trenches. With the arrival of relief troops overnight the British returned to the attack the next morning, and finally penetrated the fortress-like Schwaben Redoubt on September 28 – but another week of savage fighting would be required before the redoubt finally fell under total British control on October 5.
Scenes of Horror (and Beauty)
By this time the Somme battlefield was a wasteland filled with scenes awful beyond description. In September 1916 R. Derby Holmes, American volunteering as a junior officer in the British Army, left the following description in his diary:
The dead here were enough to give you the horrors. I had never seen so many before and never saw so many afterwards in one place. They were all over the place, both Germans and our own men. And in all states of mutilation and decomposition. There were arms and legs sticking out of the trench sides. You could tell their nationality by the uniforms… And their dead lay in the trenches and outside and hanging over the edges… We would cover them up or turn them over… The stench here was appalling. That frightful, sickening smell that strikes one in the face like something tangible. Ugh! I immediately grew dizzy and faint and had a mad desire to run. I think if I hadn't been a non-com with a certain small amount of responsibility to live up to, I should have gone crazy.
Another soldier fighting in the British Army, Coningsby Dawson, painted a similar picture in a letter home dated September 19, 1916:
A modern battlefield is the abomination of abominations. Imagine a vast stretch of dead country, pitted with shell-holes as though it had been mutilated with small-pox. There's not a leaf or a blade of grass in sight. Every house has either been leveled or is in ruins. No bird sings. Nothing stirs. The only live sound is at night--the scurry of rats. You enter a kind of ditch, called a trench; it leads on to another and another in an unjoyful maze… From the sides feet stick out, and arms and faces--the dead of previous encounters. “One of our chaps,” you say casually, recognising him by his boots or khaki, or “Poor blighter—a Hun!” One can afford to forget enmity in the presence of the dead. It is horribly difficult sometimes to distinguish between the living and the slaughtered--they both lie so silently in their little kennels in the earthen bank.
The enemy’s experience was no different – indeed the Germans suffered around 130,000 casualties on the Somme in the month of September 1916 alone, including killed, wounded, and prisoners, and ordinary German soldiers suffered the additional trials of falling under repeated British bombardments during the incremental offensives. Describing one such shelling, during the Battle of Guillemont on August 23, the German memoirist Ernst Junger recalled the condition of men subjected to shelling with high explosives for hours on end as they sheltered in a ruined farmhouse:
Ahead of us rumbled and thundered artillery fire of a volume we had never dreamed of; a thousand quivering lightnings bathed the western horizon in a sea of flame… In the course of the afternoon, the bombing swelled to such a pitch that all that was left was the feeling of a kind of oceanic roar, in which individual sounds were completely subordinated… Throughout, we sat in our basement, on silk-upholstered armchairs round a table, with our heads in our hands, counting the seconds between explosions… From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron… Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed.
Later Junger’s platoon found itself occupying shattered trenches that had already played host to hundreds of their comrades – and still did:
The churned-up field was gruesome. In among the living defenders lay the dead. When we dug foxholes, we realized that they were stacked in layers. One company after another, pressed together in the drumfire, had been mown down, then the bodies had been buried under showers of earth sent up by shells, and then the relief company had taken their predecessors’ place. And now it was our turn.
As so many soldiers had discovered to their horror, in addition to threatening their own lives the relentless shelling and sniper fire prevented them from burying corpses even just a few feet away, forcing them to resort to much less effective coverings:
The defile and the land behind was strewn with German dead, the field ahead with British. Arms and legs and heads stuck out of the slopes; in front of our holes were severed limbs and bodies, some of which had had coats or tarpaulins thrown over them, to save us the sight of the disfigured faces. In spite of the heat, no one thought of covering the bodies with earth.
At the same time, amidst the scenes of horror there could still be moments of transcendent beauty – including instances ironically springing from the fighting itself. Thus Clifford Wells, an officer in the Canadian Army, wrote home detailing one vignette in a letter dated September 28, 1916:
There was a heavy bombardment on at the time, and the sight was so wonderful that I halted my party for a quarter of an hour to watch the show. All around us gun flashes were lighting up the sky, the sound of the guns merging into one uninterrupted roar. Overhead a couple of searchlights were searching the clouds for hostile aircraft. In the distance, we could see the shells bursting over the trenches, the shrapnel shells bursting in the air with a red flash, the high explosives bursting on the ground with a whiter light. Flares by the score were being shot into the air all along the line, some of them, white, some red, some green. It was a sight which no words can adequately describe.
Rasputin’s Power Grows
On September 21, 1916, the French ambassador to Petrograd, Maurice Paleologue, recorded a disturbing conversation with two very prominent acquaintances, who expressed their fears for the future, centering on the increasingly dysfunctional Tsarist regime, now obviously hopelessly out of touch with ordinary Russians:
I dined this evening at the Donon restaurant with Kokovtsov and Putilov. The ex-President of the Council and the millionaire banker outbid each other with lugubrious forebodings. Kokovtsov said: “We're heading for revolution.” Putilov added: “We're heading for anarchy.” To explain himself, he continued: “The Russian is not a revolutionary; he’s an anarchist. There's a world of difference. The revolutionary means to reconstruct; the anarchist thinks only of destroying.”
Unbeknownst to them yet another blow against was about to fall, further undermining what little administrative competence the regime had left. On September 25, 1916, the Tsarina Alexandra – egged on, as always, by the sinister holy man Rasputin – convinced her husband Tsar Nicholas II to appoint Alexander Proptopopov, previous deputy speaker of the Imperial Duma, as interior minister (a role previously occupied by Boris Stürmer, another Rasputin familiar now serving as prime minister).
Coming not long after War Minister Polivanov was replaced by Shuvaev and Sturmer replaced Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov – both at Rasputin’s behest – Protopopov was another disastrous cabinet appointment, who despite liberal leanings evinced earlier in his career showed himself to have a harsh reactionary streak of the kind that delighted the Tsarina and Rasputin. He was also rumored to have secret pro-German sympathies (again like the empress and the Siberian holy man), fueling fears that he would push for a separate peace with the Central Powers. In his diary entry on October 3 Paleologue pointed to Protopopov’s enigmatic meetings with German industrialists in Sweden while returning from a tour of the Western Allies – not to mention some of the bizarre “qualifications” that won the Tsarina’s admiration:
… during a short stay in Stockholm on his way back he had a strange conversation with a German agent, Warburg, and though the affair remains somewhat obscure, there is no doubt that he spoke in favour of peace. When he returned to Petrograd he made common cause with Sturmer and Rasputin, who immediately put him in touch with the Empress. He was soon taken into favour and at once initiated into the secret conclaves at Tsarskoïe-Selo. He was entitled to a place there on the strength of his proficiency in the occult sciences, principally spiritualism, the highest and most doubtful of them all. I also know for certain that he once had an infectious disease which has left him with nervous disorders [i.e., syphilis], and that recently the preliminary symptoms of general paralysis have been observed in him. So the internal policy of the empire is in good hands!
A day later, Paleologue shared his growing sense of despair with his diary: “Everyone looked very downcast, and indeed one would have to be blind not to see the portents of disaster which are gathering on the horizon.” It didn’t take a diplomat, or prophet, to see that the Romanov Dynasty was steering Russia towards disaster.