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

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Random Thoughts on the Battle of the Somme, Part I: A Roads, Classic

104 Years Ago Today, 

the Battle of the Somme Began

Last Sunday I had a wonderful time in Sacramento, CA, making a presentation on the coming centennial of the Battle of the Somme for the city library's World War I Revisited Project. The turn-out was a "full house" and the audience was engaged and knowledgeable about the war. Our host, James Scott, could not have been more hospitable and helpful. I made some notes for my PowerPoint presentation. Here are some of my comments and images I used during the presentation. In the past, Roads to the Great War has published numerous articles on the famous battle; at the bottom you can find some tips on how to quickly access them.

1.  In the English-speaking world the Somme is the war's signature battle. It gave the 20th century its most haunting image (at least before the mushroom cloud), the soldier rising out of a trench mowed down in no-man's-land in his tracks.
Men of the Newfoundland Regiment, 29th Division, 1 July 1916
In a Short Time 90 Percent of These Men Will Be Dead, Dying, or Wounded

2.  The First Day on the Somme is a story told over and over, but the next 140 days of the battle are the more important part of the tale. In the larger British sector, where the original intention was the rupture the German line, the battle seamlessly evolved into a war of attrition.The 60,000 killed and wounded they suffered on 1 July 1916 was multiplied by a factor of seven. Furthermore, in some dance of death, the German Army—despite having all the defensive advantages—managed to closely parallel the British losses.

3. Many authors focus blame for the incredible casualties on either Douglas Haig or 4th Army commander, Henry Rawlinson. Another entry in that discussion should be none other than General Joffre. Recall that France was the dominant member of the 1916 coalition and led (forcefully) the planning for that year's campaign. It was to be a joint French-British attack, originally with 39 French divisions committed. The requirements of dealing with Verdun did not inhibit Joffre's drive for the attack to proceed despite:

a.  An ever diminishing availability of French divisions, and

b.  The skepticism about the whole affair but the northern sector commander, Ferdinand Foch.

Thiepval, Now Site of the Largest Somme Memorial
Close to the Front Line But Not Captured Until September 1916

4.  General Foch was one of the victims of the Somme. After the failure of the five-month battles and losses that accumulated at the same rate as Verdun, he found himself in disfavor and was pushed to the side in favor of the rising star, Robert Nivelle. Luckily, Foch was rehabilitated in time to become the most important Allied general of the 1918 campaign.

5.  The rolling, apparently open country of the Somme looked like the perfect location to attempt a major breakthrough. However, the Germans had been in the sector since October 1914 and converted every village, rise, ridge, and forest into a defensive stronghold. After the failure of the first day's assault, following the sound military principle of reinforcing success, rather than failure, Haig's staff decided to push south of the Albert-Baupame Road where there had been some modest, although incredibly expensive success around Fricourt village, and the singular fully successful operation of the day, the capture of Montauban village.  The valley they chose to move through had a horseshoe of five small forests: Mametz, Bazantin, High, Delville, and Trones Woods. Each was a superb defensive position on a plateau, commanding the gently rising surrounding countryside. Readers know the story of Belleau Wood for the U.S. Marines. The middle phase of the Somme was Belleau Wood times five for the British Army.

Roads to the Great War
Has Much More on the Battle of the Somme

Just enter "Somme 1916" in the search box at the top of the screen and you will find two dozen articles we have presented earlier on the battle.

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