Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, May 26, 2016

100 Years Ago at the Somme: A Brilliant Idea Not Implemented

By the spring of 1916 the staff of Germany's 2nd Army, deployed north and south of the River Somme, had concluded that a major Allied offensive was shaping up in the their sector and they developed a scheme for upsetting the Allies' apple cart.  

On 26 May 1916 the Army Commander Fritz von Below (not to be confused with his cousin, Otto von Below, the architect of Caporetto) submitted a recommendation to Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhyn for a spoiling attack.

General Fritz von Below
The plan was notable for its scope. It was intended to make a deep penetration over a  20 km front to interfere with supply lines and to knock out artillery positions. A one-two punch would hit the British north of the Somme first and then the French to the south. The attack was to take place in early June. With what we now know, it is easy to see that had the attack actually been made, it was perfectly timed to achieve at least some of its objectives. The Battle of the Somme might have been delayed, and, if the German maneuver had been highly successful, cancelled. In any case, the operations in the sector afterward would have been substantially different than what actually transpired in 1916.

Of course, the plan was never approved. Reserves needed to provide a margin of safety for the 2nd Army were tied up at Verdun, where a last-ditch effort in the Hot Zone to capture Fort Vaux and advance on the city from the Thiamont-Fleury-Souville line was gaining steam. Then, on 4 June, the Russians, with General Brusilov in command, launched their greatest attack of the war. New offensive efforts were out of the question. Second Army would have to hold on a strictly defensive posture until the Allies launched their attack. The staff spent the next month optimizing the deployment of their forces, strengthening key positions, and raiding trenches to capture prisoners for interrogation.

German Strongpoint, Somme Sector, 1916
Source:  The German Army on the Somme, 1914–16 by Jack Shelton


  1. Fascinating counterfactual.
    Also, a good glimpse into the capacity of the German armed forces at this time.

  2. An interesting of how the Germans intended to handle any allied attack on the Somme. A spoiling attack would have given the Germans time to close out the year. By taking the British frontline positions would have seriously disrupted the time table of Haig's intended attack.