Battleground innovations at the Somme

Photo: “Somme 100 Thiepval Ceremony” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by amandabhslater

Last year (November 2016) marked the centenary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, where more than one million combatants were killed or wounded during one of the bloodiest battles of all time, yet the battle – or series of conflicts – gave rise to significant important battlefield innovations.

The Battle of the Somme was a war of attrition designed to exhaust German resources in the first instance and then make territorial gains and in three distinct phases, more than 10 individual battles were fought between June and November 1916.

The British lost 57,740 men – one third of them killed – on the opening day of the offensive itself. In total, the British casualties numbered around 420,000, the French lost in the region of 200,000 while the German cost may have been as high as 500,000.

July was the deadliest month on the Western Front, with almost 200,000 men from both sides lost, and one third of Britain’s overall losses were suffered on the first day of fighting. It remains the most number of British troops lost in a single day of fighting while the attack on Fromelles saw more than 5,000 Australian losses between 19th and 20th July.

The losses were enormous and it is small wonder that Freidrich Steinbrecher would later write: “Somme. The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The Somme saw the first use of tanks in battle

At Flers-Coucelette in September 1916, around 50 tanks were pressed into action by the Allied Forces. These were “primitive” machines, hampered by a lack of speed and poor reliability, rendering the initial foray somewhat ineffective.

Nevertheless, one third did break through enemy lines, and engineers used feedback from their first deployment to improve the design of future machines. Although General Douglas Haig has been criticised for the way he used the tanks at his disposal, he ordered production to be stepped up.

However, it wouldn’t be until the Battle of Cambrai, in 1917, that tanks made a major impact on the outcome of a battle but both the English and French had stolen a march on the Germans. Not until April 1918, at Villers Bretonneux would German tanks change the course of a battle.

Creeping barrages – another Somme innovation

Another military innovation deployed for the first time at the Somme was the creeping barrage. Up until that point, preliminary bombardment had been used, whereby enemy trenches were subjected to heavy artillery fire prior to an infantry advance.

During a creeping barrage, artillery fire would move forward in stages ahead of the advancing infantry, eventually at a rate of 50 metres per minute.

However, the innovation failed to provide consistent breakthroughs and often opened the Allied infantry up to attack from the Germans and on occasion, they were hit by their own artillery fire too.

The battle was also fought in the skies

Prior to the Somme, the Germans had begun to take control of the aerial battle. Before the introduction of new Allied planes helped them gain the ascendency and by the end of the Somme, the Allies were winning the aerial battle, using tactics such as trench strafing attacking opposition trenches with machine guns and light bombs from the air.

At the start of the battle, however, the Allies’ BE.2c planes were slow and made easy targets for the German Eindeckers. The British stepped up production of the Sopwith 1½ Strutter for military use and reorganised their Royal Flying Corps to regain the initiative.

The Battle of the Somme – the film

Cinematographers Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell shot a documentary and propaganda war film, The Battle of the Somme, that was released in August 1916.

The five-part film shows battle preparations, action from the first day of fighting, shots of the war wounded, the aftermath of the fighting and the ruined village of Mametz.

The film was watched by an estimated 20 million people within six weeks of its release. Malins subsequently shot three further films from the Western front.

The Somme had a huge influence on the war poets

Literary giants and close friends Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon both served during the battle, Sassoon inspiring and mentoring Wilfred Owen – the most well-known war poet of them all – when they were both hospitalised in Edinburgh.

Graves was so badly wounded at the Somme that he was reported dead yet he returned to the front, later becoming one of the first poets to convey the raw horror of his wartime experience.

Sassoon was decorated for acts of bravery in the field but went on to publicly denounce the war effort, although, like Graves, he returned to fight before the war was over.

There was no clear winner

After 141 days of fighting and the loss of hundreds of thousands of men on both sides, the British and French had managed to advance their positions by around seven miles before the weather stopped both sides from continuing operations.

When battle resumed in the area in 1917, the Allies would make almost the same amount of progress in six weeks and the war itself continued for almost another two years before the Germans were finally defeated.

There is a strong case to be made that the Somme did significantly exhaust the German war reserves and therefore began to tip the balance in the Allies’ favour, Winston Churchill writing that the German soldiery was never the same again after the Somme.

And fighting returned to the same – now barren – areas in 1918 when the two sides clashed again at the First and Second Battles of the Somme.

The first battle, between March and April, put a stop to a significant German advance while the second, between August and September, was a series of successful counter-offensives.

The German failure to break through the Allied lines proved decisive, and within six months, the war was over.

Hundreds of monuments pay tribute to the fallen

There are some 53 memorials and 280 cemeteries around the River Somme, marking the areas where soldiers fell and were laid to rest.

Some commemorate individual divisions, others soldiers from a particular area or a country, while there is a statue of Maréchal Foch at Bouchavesnes.

There are memorials to those who fell from Australia, Canada, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and the United States, while the Thiepval Memorial lists the names of more than 73,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found.

They all serve as reminders of the sheer scale, impact and significance of the Somme.


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