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

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coming Soon at the Somme: An Up-Close Look

I'm giving a talk at the Sacramento Public Library this Sunday, 26 June 2016, on the Battle of the Somme. (You are all invited, by the way. It's at 3 p.m. at the Central Library.)  Most  likely, almost none of the attendees would have visited the battlefield, and so I have had to come up with a way to show its particular physical characteristics. The geography of the Somme greatly influenced why the battle unfolded as it did.  I've created the slide below help make this point.

The two images (lifted off of Google Maps) are from the center of the British sector, and very close to two of the most famous locations of the battlefield.  In both we are looking in roughly the same direction down what is known as Caterpillar Valley.  Both show the rolling open feel of the Somme and the relative advantage given locally by the area's minimally high ridges and spurs.

The top image shows a sector significant on 1 July 1916.  Just behind the camera is located legendary Devonshire Trench. The front line crosses the road in a near-perpendicular fashion just off to the left of the image. The village visible to the left is Fricourt, which had been held by the German Army since October 1914, and was highly fortified in the ensuing two years.  The Germans had also dug their trenches around Fricourt, running up to the rise just in front of the road.  Consequently, the men of the Devonshire regiment, as they left their trench, were exposed  both to flanking machine gun fire from Fricout on their left and the high ground just ahead. Many of them were mowed down so quickly that afterward their bodies were simply carried back to their starting trench and buried there.  That cemetery is one of the great pilgrimage sites of the Somme battlefield today.  A sign there states: "The Devonshires Held This Trench – The Devonshires Hold It Still.

In the distance, beyond and just to the right of Fricout are visible the treetops of Mametz Wood, and, further right in the far distance, about five miles away, can be seen High Wood.  These are two of the five forests clustered around Caterpillar Valley that would be major obstacles for the British and bastions for the Germans in the later battle.  More on them below.

The lower image is a closer view of  High Wood.  Highly valued by the Germans it would be the site of ferocious fighting for two months.  It is said that over 8,000 men of both armies still lie in High Wood today. Each of these five woods around Caterpillar Valley has a similar tale to tell.  The next one over, Delville (i.e. Devil) Wood, when eventually captured by the South African Brigade, had but a single tree left standing after the fighting died down.

A few general points about the Somme battlefields:

The German Army occupied almost all the best positions in the area when they arrived in 1914 and spent the next two years fortifying the zone.

The Allies selected the area for their 1916 offensive because it seemed to present the best opportunity to rupture the enemy lines and break through to the rear. However, rolling – as opposed to flat –country gives a determined defender many advantageous positions to watch and fire on an advancing force.

The Devonshire story is a microcosm of the disastrous First Day on the Somme. Extrapolating the story over the 18-mile British front line shows just how they ended up with 58,000 casualties in a single day. (The French approached things differently the first day in their area.)

On the other hand, the story of the woods gives some insight as to how the Germans nevertheless incredibly managed to match and at times exceed the Allies' casualties for the rest of the battle. They met any partly successful enemy advance with an all-out counterattack. In the woods, with the lack of visibility, any attack was subject to getting chewed up by hidden machine guns, no matter the tactics or the skills of the attackers.

Why was the Somme the bloodiest battle of the war on the Western Front? Because it was the wrong place to fight a major battle given the operational capacities of the armies in 1916.


  1. Best wishes on your talk. Based on the above, I'm confident that it will be a great success.

  2. I partly agree with the statement of but at the time it was the best place that offered success. I agree that the attack could have been handled differently. I have read where this was to be a test of Kitchener's New Armies. As most of the divisions employed were these divisions

    1. Hi Bill, I appreciate you views and I hate to lean on authority, but Foch did not believe it was the right place to fight either and he had been in the area since late 1914.


  3. Mike;
    I hope your talk went well.

    The Somme battlefield was chosen by Joffre for two reasons. Firstly, as a massive combined French/British attack it was necessary to fight where there was sufficient room to put the extended front line. The junction of French & British armies on the Somme allowed for this.

    Secondly both commanders foresaw a battle of attrition as a necessary evil, with the timing forced on them by the need to pin down German forces which might otherwise be used to reinforce the German attritional attack taking place at Verdun, which was putting severe pressure on Joffre's French armies .

    Haig's armies were largely composed of inexperienced troops, including those in the Regular and Territorial units, which had been subject to high losses between August 1914 and the opening of the Somme campaign. Haig himself, in his diary entry for the 29th of March, had written "I have not got an Army in France really, but a collection of divisions untrained for the field. (The actual fighting Army will be evolved from them)". In point of fact the British Army which emerges during the 141 days of the Somme attack was battle hardened and rapidly gaining in war-fighting ability, while the quality of the German forces on the Western Front had been markedly reduced.

    Captain von Hentig of the General Staff wrote that "the Somme was the muddy grave of the German field army and of the faith in the infallibility of German leadership.... The most precious thing lost on the Somme was the good relationship between the leaders and the led."

    There was no way Haig could avoid the Somme Battle, it was part of the series of attacks made by the Russian, Italian, French and British armies in an effort to force a defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies by attacking in both the east and West in 1916. Additionally the French were very much the senior partner in a war largely taking place in France, and which the British Government expected the BEF to act in accordance with French wishes.