Tommy, p.7Richard Holmes
But however correct we may be to criticise an army commander who was all too evidently still learning his trade, to grasp the true texture of the Somme we must look at the Germans too. Their rigid insistence on regaining captured ground meant that British attacks were followed by German counterattacks, often as futile as they were costly. Artillery ammunition was now arriving in unprecedented quantities, and the British rarely expended less than a million rounds a week that summer, more than they had fired in the first six months of the war. In the week ending 20 August they fired no less than 1,372,000 shells, and the Germans, still locked in a death-grip at Verdun, were losing the artillery battle.61 Lieutenant Ernst Junger, who was to become not only Germany’s most highly-decorated officer but one of the conflict’s longest-lived survivors, recalled that his company was led forward by a guide who had ‘been through horror to the limit of despair’ and retained only ‘superhuman indifference’. Once on the battlefield, Junger saw how:
The sunken road now appeared as nothing but a series of enormous shell-holes filled with pieces of uniform, weapons and dead bodies. The ground all around, as far as the eye could see, was ploughed by shells. Among the living lay the dead. As we dug ourselves in we found them in layers stacked one on top of the other. One company after another has been shoved into the drum-fire and steadily annihilated.62
The Reserve Army made better, though costly, progress, and the capture of Pozières by the Australians on 7 August not only gave the British possession of the highest point of the battlefield, but established this battered and stinking village as a landmark in Australian history, scarcely less momentous, in its way, than Gallipoli. Here, as the inscription on the memorial on the hummocky and windswept site of Pozières Mill records, Australian dead were strewn more thickly than on any other battlefield of the war. And, though anglophone historians too often forget it, the French 6th Army, its contribution reduced but by no means removed by the continuing blood-letting at Verdun, made significant gains on the British right. Sadly, one of the consequences of the wholly logical policy of a firm boundary between British and French troops meant that neither participant in this quintessentially coalition battle fully recognised quite what the other was about. One French soldier wrote home that he had been on the Somme with the British: ‘c’est à dire without the British’.
There could be no denying that the battle was causing what Robertson reported to Haig as disquiet among ‘the powers that be’. In part it was the toll of casualties (some 82,000 for 4th Army alone that summer) and in part a dislocation of public expectation as the Big Push, from which so much had been expected, failed to deliver on its promises. Although the Germans had now definitively lost the initiative at Verdun, the French were anxious to recover the lost ground, and Joffre demanded the continuation of the attack on the Somme. And he went further. In June the Russians, as loyal to the alliance in 1916 as they had been two years before, had launched a sharp offensive of their own, named after its author, General Aleksey Brusilov. This had compelled the Germans to shift troops to support the stricken Austro-Hungarians, but if the Allies let up on the Somme Joffre feared that the Russians would be punished for their resolution.
Haig had few doubts about the need to continue. Charteris told him, not wholly over-optimistically, that the Germans were suffering appallingly. The weather would permit one last big effort, and Haig, aware since Christmas Day 1915 of the development of armoured fighting vehicles under the cover name of tanks, wrote in August that ‘I have been looking forward to obtaining decisive results from the use of these “Tanks” at an early date.’63 The question of whether Haig was right to compromise the security of tanks in order to use them on small numbers on the Somme that summer remains unresolved, but given the state of the battle, and the political and alliance pressures on him, it was certainly not unreasonable. Rawlinson, characteristically laying off his bets with fellow-Etonian Colonel Clive Wigram, the king’s assistant private secretary, admitted on 29 September that:
We are puzzling our heads as how to make best use of them and have not yet come to a decision. They are not going to take the British army straight to Berlin as some people imagine but if properly used and skilfully handled by the detachments who work them they may be very useful in taking trenches and strongpoints. Some people are rather too optimistic as to what these weapons will accomplish.64
On the morning of 15 September the British attacked on a broad front from the Bapaume road to their junction with the French, in what the Battles Nomenclature Committee, its logic not always clearly comprehensible to veterans, was later to call the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. There were forty-nine tanks available for the attack, and thirty-two actually went into action. By the end of the day the British had not only overrun the remaining German strongpoints on Longueval Ridge, but had taken a great bite out of the German third position on the slopes beyond it. It was certainly a telling blow, but fell far short of being decisive, and 4th Army alone had lost almost 30,000 men.
Amongst them was one of the prime minister’s sons, Lieutenant Raymond Asquith of the Grenadier Guards. He had met his father only a week before.
I was called up by the Brigadier and thought that I must have committed some ghastly military blunder (I was commanding the Company in Sloper’s absence) but was relieved to find that it was only a telegram from the corps saying ‘Lieut. Asquith will meet his father at cross roads K.6.d at 10.45 am.’ So I vaulted into the saddle and bumped off to Fricourt where I arrived at exactly the appointed time. I waited for an hour on a very muddy road congested with troops and surrounded by barking guns. Then 2 handsome motor cars from GHQ arrived, the PM in one of them with 2 staff officers, and in the other Bongie, Hankey, and one or two of those moth-eaten nondescripts who hang about the corridors of Downing Street in the twilight region between the civil and domestic service.
Hard hit during the Guards Division’s attack near Guillemont on the 15th, Raymond Asquith nonchalantly lit a cigarette so that his men would not be disheartened by seeing that he was badly hurt: he died on a stretcher. Arthur Henderson, secretary of the Labour Party and a member of Asquith’s Cabinet, had already lost a son on the Somme.
These politicians’ sons joined the growing toll of men from across the whole of British society. Lieutenant W. M. Booth of the West Yorkshires, a Yorkshire and England cricketer, had died on the first day of the battle; Lieutenant George Butterworth, composer of the lyrical The Banks of Green Willow, had been killed at Pozières on 5 August, and Lance Sergeant H. H. Monro of the Royal Fusiliers (better known as the writer Saki) was to be killed by a shell in November, his last words: ‘Put that bloody light out.’
Sergeant Will Streets of the York and Lancaster Regiment, a grammar-school boy who became a miner to support his family and went on to be a war poet of some distinction, died trying to rescue one of his men from No Man’s Land on 1 July. In Flat Iron Copse Cemetery, under the shadow of Mametz Wood, are three pairs of brothers: Privates Ernest and Henry Philby of the Middlesex Regiment; Lieutenants Arthur and Leonard Tregaskis; and Corporal T. and Lance Corporal H. Hardwidge, all of the Welch Regiment. Lieutenant Henry Webber of the South Lancashires, hit by shellfire on 18 July, was, at sixty-eight, the oldest British officer to die on the Western Front. He had three sons serving as captains, and would proudly salute them when they met. Sergeant G. and Corporal R. F. Lee, father and son, of the same battery of field artillery, were killed on the same day and lie in the same cemetery.
There is scarcely a village in Britain not marked by the Somme. John Masefield, who was there in 1916, caught its unutterable poignancy in a brief history written shortly after it was fought.
The field of Gommecourt is heaped with the bodies of Londoners; the London Scottish lie at the Sixteen Poplars; the Yorkshires are outside Serre; the Warwickshires lie in Serre itself; all the great hill of the Hawthorn Ridge is littered with Middlesex; the Irish are at Hamel, the Kents on the Schwaben, and the Wilts and Dorset on the Leipzig. Men of all th
A church near my home in Hampshire contains a cross brought back from a Somme cemetery in 1925, with a nearby inscription commemorating Lieutenant Colonel the Hon. Guy Baring, MP for Winchester, killed commanding 1/Grenadier Guards on 15 September. It had been ‘placed in the church of his beloved childhood home by his mother, brothers and sister’. Guy Baring lies in the Citadel New Military Cemetery near Fricourt, not far from Captain A. K. S. Cuninghame of 2/Grenadier Guards, the last surviving officer of his battalion who had landed in France in August 1914, and Brigadier General L. M. Phillpotts, commander Royal Artillery of 24th Division.67 So much for senior officers being safe.
I point to this tiny tip of a massive iceberg because it is important to balance the undoubted achievements of the Somme against its cost. When the battle ended in mid-November the British had shoved the Germans almost back to Bapaume (which was to have been taken in the first week). The Allies had suffered 600,000 casualties, more than two-thirds of them British. They had inflicted what Sir James Edmonds, the British official historian, estimated as 660–680,000 casualties on the Germans. Accurate comparisons are impossible because German casualty figures did not include ‘wounded whose recovery was to be expected in a reasonable time’. Many historians argue that Edmonds’s estimate for this proportion unreasonably inflated the German total, and they are probably right.68 Even so, it is hard to estimate German casualties at very much lower than 600,000, and Captain von Hertig declared that: ‘The Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army and of the faith in the infallibility of the German leadership …’.69 Charles Carrington, who saw the battle’s rough edge as an infantry platoon commander, was sure that:
The Somme raised the morale of the British Army. Although we did not win a decisive victory, there was what matters most, a definite and growing sense of superiority over the enemy, man for man … We were quite sure we had got the Germans beat: next spring we would deliver the knock-out blow.70
Paddy Griffith is right to maintain that the Somme ‘taught the BEF many lessons and transformed it from a largely inexperienced mass army into a largely experienced one’.71 A mass of official tactical pamphlets appeared in its wake, providing army schools in France and Britain with the basis for their teaching and supplying individual officers and NCOs with more reliable material for private study than some earlier privately-produced material. New weapons and equipment arrived and were mastered. David Jones, in his wonderful prose-poem In Parenthesis, declared:
The period of the individual rifle-man, of the old sweat of the Boer campaign, the ‘Bairnsfather’ war, seemed to terminate with the Somme battle. There were, of course, glimpses of it long after – all through in fact – but it never seemed quite the same.72
The Somme is a watershed in the history of the British army in the war. It was a strategic necessity, fought to meet a coalition requirement, and was an Allied victory on points. Some veterans never found its price worth paying. R. H. Tawney, a future professor of economic history serving, entirely characteristically, as a sergeant in a New Army battalion of the Manchester Regiment, wrote, while recovering from his wounds in England:
You speak lightly, you assume that we shall speak lightly, of things, emotions, states of mind, human relationships and affairs, which are to us solemn or terrible. You seem ashamed, as if they were a kind of weakness, of the ideas which have sent us to France, and for which thousands of sons and lovers have died. You calculate the profit to be derived from ‘War after the War’, as though the unspeakable agonies of the Somme were an item in a commercial proposition.73
It confronts the historian with an unavoidable clash between head and heart: the only honest conclusion is to acknowledge the validity of both these irreconcilable imperatives.
The Allied plan for 1917 was sketched out at another conference at Chantilly on 15 November 1916. It was resolved that Germany still remained the main enemy. When Romania, badly misjudging the equipoise of fortune, joined the Allies that summer she had been roundly defeated by a German army commanded by none other than Falkenhayn, dismissed as chief of the general staff in the wake of failure at Verdun. He had been replaced by the old but wily Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, closely assisted by Lieutenant General Erich von Ludendorff. The Allies proposed to maintain ‘general offensive action’ in 1917, and to elaborate detailed schemes later. By the time these plans were produced, however, there had been a far-reaching change in personalities. Asquith was replaced as prime minister by Lloyd George in early December 1916, and at the month’s end Joffre was succeeded by General Robert Nivelle, who had masterminded French recovery of Fort Douaumont at the close of the Verdun fighting.
These two changes were to have a significant impact on the British armies in France. It was already clear that Haig and Lloyd George did not get on. Haig had already told his wife that ‘I have no great opinion of L. G. as a man or a leader,’ and Lloyd George later declared that Haig was ‘brilliant – to the top of his army boots’. John Charteris recognised that the two were fundamentally incompatible.
D. H. dislikes him. They have nothing in common. D. H. always refuses to be drawn into any side-issues in conversation, apart from his own work. Lloyd George seemed to think this meant distrust of him. It is not so much distrust of him personally as of politicians as a class.74
Haig seemed to get on better with General Nivelle, initially reporting that he seemed ‘straightforward and soldierly’. But his plan for 1917 worried Haig. He proposed to strike a mighty blow on the Chemin des Dames, and to gain the troops required for it he requested that the British should extend their front southwards, from the Somme to the Oise. They were also to launch subsidiary attacks to pin down the Germans and prevent them from concentrating to meet Nivelle.
Haig questioned this strategy. He was in favour of attacking a German army palpably weakened by the Somme, but had long believed that Flanders, where a short advance could bring the German railhead of Roulers within his grasp, offered better prospects than attacks further south. Moreover, he had been warned by Robertson that the government was gravely concerned by the damage being done by German submarines based at Ostend and Zeebrugge on the Flanders coast, and in April 1917 Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, the First Sea Lord, told an American colleague that ‘it is impossible for us to go on with the war if [merchant shipping] losses like this continue’.75 On 6 January 1917 Haig announced that he could not assist Nivelle unless some sort of provision was made for clearing the Flanders coast. He was spectacularly overruled. In late February Lloyd George met Nivelle at an Allied conference at Calais, and agreed to place Haig under his command for the duration of the offensive. Haig wrote to the king, offering to resign, but the monarch’s private secretary replied:
I am to say from His Majesty that you are not to worry; you may be certain that he will do his utmost to protect your interests; and he begs you to work on the most amicable and open terms with General Nivelle, and he feels all will come right.76
As the Allies discussed their strategy, the Germans acted. Successes in the East, and growing war-weariness in Russia, enabled them to shift troops westward, a process which accelerated as the year wore on. And they prepared to fall back from the great apex of the Western Front salient onto a carefully-prepared position known as the Hindenburg line, a shorter length of front which would free some twenty divisions. In the process they devastated the area between the old front line and the new one, in an operation named Alberich, after the spiteful dwarf in the Nibelungen saga. The influential war correspondent Philip Gibbs thought it a telling comment on German national character that destruction like this could be carried out by men who had lived for the past two
‘They were kind to the children … but they burnt our houses.’ – ‘Karl was a nice boy. He cried when he went away … But he helped smash up the neighbours’ furniture with an axe.’ – ‘The lieutenant was a good fellow … but he carried out his orders of destruction’ …
Gibbs concluded that ‘on the whole, the Germans behaved in a kindly, disciplined way until those last nights, when they laid waste so many villages and all that was in them’.77 John Masefield, not easily persuaded by anti-German propaganda, was shocked by what he saw:
He has systematically destroyed what he could not carry away … Bureaus, mirrors, tables, sofas, have been smashed with axes, fruit trees have been cut, looped or ringed. Beds have been used as latrines, so have baths & basins … Houses, churches, cottages, farms, barns & calvaries have been burnt, blown up, pulled down or gutted … They are the acts of men. They are the acts of beasts.78
One German left a sign in English reading ‘Don’t be angry: Only wonder’ in the wreckage of a town: it can be seen in the Historiale de la Grande Guerre in Péronne. Captain Rudolf Binding, a German staff officer, admitted that: ‘The expulsion of the inhabitants from their little towns and villages was a heart-rending business, more ghastly than murder,’ though he added that it was ‘to the eternal shame of the English’ that they did not inflict losses following up the Germans.79
Such destruction horrified men inured to war. One soldier agreed that, though they might have left the Germans a desert to live in, the British would not have systematically destroyed the orchards, and an officer distinguished between damage done by ‘honest shells’ and arsonists. ‘The ruin was everywhere complete,’ wrote Edward Spears, a liaison officer with French troops who went forward into the liberated area.
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