Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Somme

The Somme

Robin Prior
Trevor Wilson
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Somme
    Book Description:

    In the long history of the British Army, the Battle of the Somme was its bloodiest encounter. Between July 1 and mid-November 1916, 432,000 of its soldiers became casualties--about 3,600 for every day of battle. German casualties were far fewer despite British superiority in the air and in lethal artillery.

    What went wrong for the British, and who was responsible? Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson have examined the entire public archive on the Battle of the Somme to reconstruct the day-by-day course of the war. The result is the most precise and authentic account of the campaign on record and a book that challenges almost every received view of the battle. The colossal rate of infantry casualties in fact resulted from inadequate fire support; responsibility for tactical mistakes actually belonged to the High Command and the civilian War Committee. Field-Marshall Haig, the records show, was repeatedly deficient in strategy, tactics, command, and organization. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died for a cause that lacked both a coherent military plan and responsible political leadership. Prior and Wilson decisively change our understanding of the history of the Western Front.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14301-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-ii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. iii-iv)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. v-v)
  4. List of Maps
    (pp. vi-vi)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  6. 1 The Context
    (pp. 1-11)

    There is a widely held view about the initiation and prosecution of the Battle of the Somme. It is that the Somme campaign was the brainchild of the British and French military commands alone. That is, the political leaders of Britain (like those of France) played no effective part in this decision-making. Such a proceeding was at odds with British constitutional tradition, whereby high military strategy remained the province of the civilian heads of government.

    A large generalisation follows from this. It is that what was true of the Somme battle in 1916 was true of the First World War...

  7. 2 ‘Absolutely Astonishing’: The War Committee and the Military
    (pp. 12-14)

    A somewhat bizarre episode of May 1916, of no great moment in itself, will help to set the scene.

    On 18 May 1916, the War Committee¹ turned its attention to a rather specific issue. This was the great numbers of horses being maintained on the Western Front by Haig’s army. These, it was noted, particularly on account of the huge quantity of fodder they consumed, were tying up a lot of shipping space.

    The spokesmen for the military sought to justify this outlay. The Quarter-master-General discoursed on the role of horses as beasts of burden: hauling supplies and weaponry to...

  8. 3 Decision-making, January–February
    (pp. 15-24)

    On 28 December 1915, the War Committee gathered to consider the resolutions of the Chantilly conference. So began the process of passing judgement on the proposed Anglo-French offensive in the spring of 1916.¹

    Britain’s political chiefs, a month earlier, had taken two decisions which bore directly on this subject. On 23 November, the War Committee had felt bound to recommend ‘the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, on military grounds, notwithstanding the grave political disadvantages which may result’.² And on 1 and 15 November, it had ruled out further devotion of British resources to the campaign at Salonika – first resolving...

  9. 4 Decision-making, March–June
    (pp. 25-34)

    In March 1916, the apparent confidence among members of the War Committee that they possessed control over British strategy, and so over the Allied prosecution of the war, began to falter. Doubts surfaced concerning the way events might be about to unfold, and under whose direction.

    It would be easy to attribute these misgivings to a major development on the German side. Late in February, the German high command seized the strategic initiative by unleashing a huge offensive against the French fortress system of Verdun. During March, the War Committee found itself uncertain both about the extent of German aspirations...

  10. 5 ‘Grasping at the Shadow’: Planning for the Somme, February–June
    (pp. 35-56)

    In accordance with the decision taken at Chantilly and confirmed with qualifications by the War Committee the British command began planning for the offensive. The location chosen by Haig and Joffre was the area to the north and south of the River Somme in Picardy. Here the Somme is sluggish and meandering, with wide, marshy banks which preclude military operations in its near vicinity. For this reason the river itself plays little role in the battle which bears its name.

    In January 1916 the front to the north of the river (from Rancourt to Curlu) was occupied by the British...

  11. 6 ‘Favourable Results Are Not Anticipated’: Preparations for Battle, June
    (pp. 57-69)

    While the plans for the battle were being finalised, the officers and men of Fourth Army were set to work to train for the impending battle. Training is a problematical question in the First World War. In the static nature of the warfare between 1915 and 1917 when advances were small and failures many, it is tempting to overlook it altogether. Moreover, the body of a trained soldier is no more able to withstand massed machine-gun and artillery fire than that of an untrained one. However, training could still be important in some situations and, as we shall see, it...

  12. 7 ‘A Short Life’: VII & VIII Corps on 1 July
    (pp. 71-81)

    Two miles north of the main operation, the diversionary attack on the Gommecourt salient was to be undertaken by two divisions of the Third Army’s VII Corps. It may be dealt with quickly. As the two divisions (56 and 46) replaced the battalion that held the line at Gommecourt, the Germans responded by moving up an extra division.¹ To that extent the diversion worked. To a greater extent it did not. What was to stand in the way of the Fourth Army’s attack to the south was not so much enemy troops as enemy artillery. And the German defences in...

  13. 8 ‘The Enemy’s Fire Was So Intense’: X Corps on 1 July
    (pp. 83-89)

    To the south of VIII Corps, the British X Corps under General Morland had been given one of the most difficult tasks of the day. Its two divisions (36 and 32) were to capture the area between Thiepval and Mouquet Farm. This presented a formidable problem for any attacking force. The ridge in this area was 140 to 160 metres high, while the British positions ran through the low-lying marshes of the Ancre Valley on the lower slopes of the ridge. From wherever they attacked, Morland’s troops would therefore face a steep uphill advance across bare slopes. In the X...

  14. 9 ‘Wave after Wave Were Mown Down’: III Corps on 1 July
    (pp. 91-99)

    The centre of the British attack was also central to Haig’s great purpose. It was in this area – just south of Pozières – that the breakthrough was to come; that the cavalry, protected from flanking fire by the advance of forces to its right and left, would sweep through to Bapaume followed immediately by Gough’s Reserve Army of infantry. However, for Haig’s horsemen ever to achieve this sort of advance, it was essential that III Corps first overwhelm the entire enemy trench system confronting them.

    Yet there was every indication that III Corps would not succeed in clearing the...

  15. 10 ‘Cowering Men in Field Grey’: XV and XIII Corps on 1 July
    (pp. 101-111)

    To the south of La Boisselle the front line turned sharply to the east around Fricourt, thus presenting the British with a difficult right angle to attack. In addition some of the factors which had proved ruinous to attacks further north also applied here. In particular two villages, reduced to rubble but amply provided with cellars to shelter machine-gunners, stood athwart the line of advance. At the apex of the right angle stood the considerable village of Fricourt. Enfilade fire from its ruins could sweep to the north and east of the British line. Of all the villages incorporated by...

  16. 11 Reflections on 1 July
    (pp. 112-118)

    The account of the first day of the Somme given here is in agreement with all other accounts on the two most vital matters: the great number of casualties suffered by the British army (57,000) and the small amount of ground gained (three square miles).

    In most other ways our account is so at variance with the conventional story that it is necessary to indicate why this is the case before providing a summary of our own findings.

    The conventional account of 1 July 1916 is as follows. At 7.30 a.m. the British infantry, reduced to a walking pace by...

  17. 12 ‘Ill-Considered Attacks on a Small Front’, 2–13 July
    (pp. 119-129)

    If the first day of the Somme was the most disastrous day of battle in British history, no sense of doom or despair appears to have penetrated the minds of the high command. During the day Haig remarked that ‘on a sixteen-mile front of attack varying fortune must be expected’.¹ Even on the 2nd, when the casualty lists were coming in, he maintained his equanimity, commenting merely that over 40,000 casualties ‘cannot be considered severe in view of numbers engaged’.² Rawlinson showed similar sang-froid. He noted without comment at 7.30 p.m. on the 1st that the casualty total was 16,000.³...

  18. 13 ‘Cavalry Sharpening Their Swords’, 14 July
    (pp. 131-140)

    Preparations for a major new attack by Fourth Army had been under way from the second day of the campaign. On that day Haig had pointed out that if a modest advance in the south could be accomplished, it would open the way for an attack on the German second line from Bazentin-le-Grand to Longueval. If this attack coincided with an assault further south by the French, ‘very considerable results could be achieved’.¹ The prerequisites for the operation were that Mametz Wood and Trones Wood should be in British hands to secure the flanks of the new endeavour.²

    As noted...

  19. 14 ‘We Are a Bit Stuck’, 15–31 July
    (pp. 141-156)

    The atmosphere at Rawlinson’s headquarters on 15 July was euphoric. In fourteen days the German first and second lines had been captured, admittedly at brutal cost, on a front of 6,000 yards. The units of the German Second Army defending the area had, in some cases, been wiped out, and in others been reduced to a chaotic shambles as they were thrown in piecemeal in an attempt to stabilise the line. Moreover, from just south of Pozières on the left to Delville Wood on the right, Haig’s armies were within a short distance of the heights of the Thiepval–Ginchy...

  20. 15 ‘Something Wanting in the Methods Employed’, 1 August–12 September
    (pp. 157-172)

    In the last two weeks of July British operations on the Somme failed comprehensively, save for the precarious hold on Delville Wood. Even Haig’s optimism was momentarily dented by this period of non-achievement. So on 2 August he responded with a long memorandum designed to give direction to the future conduct of the battle.

    The paper began sensibly with the observation that the Germans had recovered from their disorganised state and were now ‘too formidable to be rushed without careful and methodical preparation’.¹ The Germans, he opined, might even be capable of mounting strong and well-organised counter-attacks.

    What, in his...

  21. 16 ‘A Hell of a Time’: Pozières and Mouquet Farm, July–August
    (pp. 173-185)

    It will be recalled that on 2 July the two northern corps of the Fourth Army (VIII and X) had been placed under the command of General Gough and designated the Reserve Army. These formations would play little role in the fighting in late July and August. The VIII Corps facing Serre was too shattered to undertake anything but patrolling for some time. And, in any case, 1 July had demonstrated that the German defences in that area were too formidable to be attacked frontally. Much the same could be said of the X Corps and the defences around Thiepval....

  22. 17 Summary: 15 July–12 September
    (pp. 186-190)

    What was the effect of operations from 15 July to 12 September and what does this period tell us about the overall competence or otherwise of the British command?

    On 15 July British forces were occupying a section of Delville Wood, Longueval, and High Wood. Sixty days later this was still the case. In those areas hardly an inch of ground had been gained. Moreover, those gains which had been made in other areas (particularly around Guillemont and Ginchy) had taken until the last few days of the period to accomplish. So over a period of 60 days the British...

  23. 18 The Politicians and the Somme Campaign, July–August
    (pp. 191-201)

    In the weeks following the inception of the battle, the nation’s leaders found themselves in a dilemma. The central issue of strategy was now settled. A great Western Front campaign was now under way and was expected to deliver large results. The civilian leaders, apparently, would have no deciding to do until the extent and nature of these results expressed themselves.

    Yet certain realities intruded. Almost from the outset it became evident that the Somme campaign was not, at least in the short run, transforming the military situation. As early as 3 July, the Secretary of the Committee, Sir Maurice...

  24. 19 One Division’s Somme: The First Division, July–September
    (pp. 203-215)

    What was the experience of just a single British division in the Battle of the Somme? The earlier statistical discussion of Haig’s armies in the period 15 July to 12 September indicated that no division could be said to have had a ‘typical experience’. However it seems worthwhile to look in more detail at one of the British divisions to see exactly how it experienced the battle and coped with its effects.

    The 1 British Division entered the line on 11 July and exited on 28 September – a period of 80 days. During this time it had three tours...

  25. 20 ‘An Operation Planned on Bolder Lines’: Tanks and the 15 September Plan
    (pp. 216-228)

    In his memorandum of 2 August Haig had foreshadowed a major battle: perhaps the climactic episode of the Somme campaign if not of the entire war. He knew that by mid-September a new weapon of war, in the form of the tank, would be available to him. He was under the impression that the French would also have this novel instrument at their disposal until inquiry revealed Foch was completely unaware of its existence.¹ On the 16th Haig informed Rawlinson that the tanks would be on hand for the next battle and the Fourth Army might be called on to...

  26. 21 Lumbering Tanks: The Battle of 15 September
    (pp. 229-238)

    The preliminary bombardment for the new attack opened on 12 September. The weather, although fine in the morning, deteriorated later in the day. Showers persisted through most of the 13th, greatly hampering the aircraft which were attempting to spot for the artillery. On the 14th the weather cleared and a full day’s shelling was possible but it is certain that as a result of the variable weather the bombardment was adversely affected, particularly on the front of XIV Corps.¹

    According to plan all corps left lanes unbombarded of at least 100 yards in width for their tanks. An airman far...

  27. 22 25 September
    (pp. 239-247)

    On the evening of 15 September Rawlinson received reports from his corps commanders and issued his orders for the new day. He demanded that nothing less than a full-scale attack be undertaken immediately to enable the ‘Cavalry Corps to push through to its objectives and complete the enemy defeat’.¹ The unreality of this order hardly needs emphasising. The Cavalry Corps had precisely the same chance of effecting a victory on the 16th as it had had the day before – that is, no chance at all. As for the infantry, the 6, Guards, and 47 Divisions were in no state...

  28. 23 ‘The Tragic Hill of Thiepval’, 26–30 September
    (pp. 249-259)

    When we left the Reserve Army in early September the II Corps and the Australians were struggling towards Mouquet Farm. There were few further large operations on Gough’s front until 26 September. One, however, is worthy of note, not for the results achieved, but for the reactions of the command to its complete failure. On 3 September, two divisions of II Corps (39 and 49) attacked to the north of Thiepval. The 49 Division was given the task, after a short bombardment, of assaulting the Schwaben Redoubt frontally. There was to be no attempt at surprise. Not unexpectedly, as this...

  29. 24 ‘A Severe Trial of Body and Spirit’: The Somme, October
    (pp. 261-277)

    Despite their limitations, the operations from 15 September to 30 September were the most successful carried out by the British on the Somme. The two assaults by Fourth Army and one by the Reserve Army had captured as much ground as all operations between 1 July and 14 September. And there were other positive aspects on the British side that had emerged from the fighting. The creeping barrage as a method of infantry protection was now used as a matter of course by all divisions 15 September the tanks had proved disappointing and even a negative factor, because of the...

  30. 25 ‘We Must Keep Going!’: The Politicians and the Somme Campaign, September–October
    (pp. 279-288)

    As autumn set in and the Somme operations sustained mounting casualties for little progress, there seemed no gleam of promise for the Entente powers.

    Since back in July it had become clear that the British offensive was not going to achieve a swift advance into German-held territory, and that the Germans were abandoning their campaign at Verdun. The proclaimed reason for maintaining the Somme offensive had therefore changed. For the British, success was simply defined as pinning the Germans to the west. So the Russians were enabled to continue their advance, and the Romanians were attracted into joining the fray....

  31. 26 The Political Battle: Beaumont Hamel, 13–19 November
    (pp. 289-299)

    When we last left the Reserve Army, Stuff and Schwaben Redoubts were still partially in German hands and a third attempt to capture Regina Trench by the Canadians had failed. While this was happening Haig and Gough had decided on a major operation north of the Ancre to capture Beaumont Hamel. In the meantime, however, to assist that operation by obtaining observation over the Ancre on the right of the attack, it was decided that II Corps should attack south of the river. The purpose was to seize the high ground, the path to which was blocked by the German...

  32. 27 Reflections on the British at the Somme
    (pp. 300-309)

    In the long history of the British army, the Battle of the Somme was its bloodiest encounter. Between 1 July and mid-November 1916, 432,000 of its soldiers became casualties, or about 3,600 for every day of battle. Set out in a table of the divisions which fought at the Somme the casualty list is in some ways more sobering even than these stark totals reveal.

    In addition the cavalry suffered 71 casualties.

    It is worth repeating that the nominal infantry strength of a division at the Somme was about 12,000 men but that the average strength was closer to 10,000....

  33. Epilogue: The End of It All, November 1916
    (pp. 310-315)

    On 3 November 1916, the War Committee of the British cabinet held an unscheduled and unusual meeting. No agenda paper was issued. And a major section of the conclusions was handwritten, not (as was customary) typed. These sections carried the directive ‘Not to be printed or circulated’.¹

    The initiator of this gathering was Lloyd George, with Hankey proposing to him that it should consist only of cabinet ministers unaccompanied by advisers. (‘This had been my suggestion to Lloyd George,’ Hankey confided to his diary, ‘so that he might air his views freely unhampered by the presence of that old dragon...

  34. Notes
    (pp. 316-342)
  35. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-351)
  36. Index
    (pp. 352-360)