Saturday, 10 September 2016

Battle of the Somme 8 - Who 'won'?

Irish Riflemen in a support trench on July 1st 1916 at the Somme.
This image, used by the BBC for the series The Great War
is what first sparked my fascination. The haunted face of the
soldier in the foreground conveys so much. 
Probably for many people in Britain the Somme is the First World War. It sums up all that we tend to recall today - appalling conditions, senseless slaughter; lions led by donkeys in an attritional battle fought in a sea of mud.
While all of that may be true, it does not tell the whole story of WW1 by a long way, or even the Battle of the Somme. For a campaign in which all sides lost so heavily it seems wrong even to pose the question, but can we decide who "won' an event as awful as this? What criteria should be applied?
The Battle of Jutland, which concluded exactly one month before Day 1 of the Somme, is still viewed, at best, as a disappointment, and the Somme as a famous if costly victory. In my view it should be the other way round. This is in no way a reflection on the heroic actions of the soldiers and sailors involved in them, but on the battles' influence on the course of the whole war.

The true picture of the numbers of casualties took a long time to emerge. Claims and counter claims were made by both sides, and the full extent of the early British losses was kept from the British public. The headline figures are generally accepted as 1.2 millions in total - around 600,000 German; 200,000 French and 420,00 British of which nearly 20% were Empire troops from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland and South Africa.
Within the figure for Britain over the 141 days of the battle, 60,000 (15%) occurred on July 1st - the worst single day in military history. German casualties were a fraction of that on July 1st, despite the preceding 7 day bombardment that was meant to annihilate them. This in itself might be enough to claim a victory for Germany, as that day squashed the British plan for break through on a wide front. But the British would not stop, and they ground forward relentlessly, as we have seen. As the weeks went by the German casualties rose, particularly in their numerous counter attacks to regain positions. By the end, a total of approx. 600,000 on each side suggests stalemate - a draw.

Here there are arguments to be made for a win on both sides. The British case is complicated by the disagreement between Haig, as Commander in Chief, and Rawlinson, chief of the 4th Army, Britain's main force. The latter's 'bite and hold' approach was vindicated by the events of the first day. Thereafter, the British bit frequently and held doggedly - successful to a degree, especially in gradual weakening of German strength. Haig's ambitious plan to breakthrough to open country, and within days for his cavalry to roll up German forces to the north was stillborn. In order to justify the continuing battle his dispatches took on the cynical nature of Falkenhayn at Verdun - the enemy was being constantly weakened (degraded in today's terms) by British superiority and they would surely fold soon. The first part was true, the second manifestly was not.
Overall, the strategic impact must be judged as irrelevant in territorial terms. A glance at the map of the whole Western Front confirms this. The map needs to be large scale to show more than a blip (rather like Brusilov's offensive in the east). Of course it was much more influential in other terms.

Both sides learned a lot. Kitchener's inexperienced army, although decimated, became a hardened and formidable army, highly respected by the Germans and, perhaps more importantly, by the French. Initial British weaknesses in communications and dud ammunition improved steadily, and new weaponry - notably the tanks used for the first time in September - was developed.
German defensive strategy and tactics - so impressive in denying the British pre-bombardment and tidal wave of July 1st - adapted over time to the more mobile tactics that were to serve them well (defensively and offensively) in later stages of the war.
Falkenhayn. Sacked and
consigned to Transylvania,
where we shall hear more.
In military leadership, the highest profile casualty was Falkenhayn, the German Commander in Chief. He was removed from office in mid-August and posted to a command on the Eastern Front. He was paying the price for the failure of the Verdun offensive rather than the Somme defence, but his departure brought the Eastern front victors Hindenburg and Ludendorff to supreme military control of Germany. Hindenburg became Commander in Chief (he had complete control over the Kaiser) and Ludendorff the Chief of Staff. They soon decided to dictate the terms of their own defence by planning a strategic withdrawal to a new fortified line, which would be known as the Hindenburg (or later, the Siegfried) line. Intensive but covert preparations for this continued through late 1916, while the Somme battle continued to rage. In February 1917 the Germans would carry out a scorched earth withdrawal and in March the Allies would find they were suddenly able to advance across their day 1 Somme objectives of Bapaume and beyond. But they were advancing across another desert of destruction, and they came hard against the new strong German defensive line, which ran from Arras to Laffau near Soissons (see map).
The ground conceded when the Germans emptied 
their salient to establish the Hindenburg line was
around 20 times greater than the ground won in the
Battle of the Somme
When the Germans had made their strategic withdrawal to fortified lines after the Battle of the Marne in 1914, this was seen as confirmation of the great French victory in the hour of greatest threat. This had similarities, but was a more positive move by Germany than in 1914. The irony was that Britain gained - at a stroke, and barely firing a shot - ground that the Somme battle had failed to achieve over 5 months. Even worse was to come in 1918 when the Germans steamrollered their way back across the whole battlefield and beyond.
No government did well out of the Somme. The German people were now suffering badly after two years of deprivation and sacrifice, and the leadership was unpopular. The people's military hero Hindenburg gained power at the expense of the Kaiser and Chancellor Bethman-Hollweg.
In the British Parliament, the campaign marked another nail in the coffin of Asquith's premiership. In addition to the personal tragedy of losing his own son in the battle, Asquith had to preside over an unhappy and divided War Council. Led by Lloyd-George, some were at odds with the costly military strategy and were looking to seize political control over conduct of the war. Haig's main supporter in the War Council, Robertson, was under severe pressure, but for now he held on, and so did Haig.
The French Government's survival was dictated far more by Verdun in 1916, and with the French contribution to the Somme being so relatively successful, Briand stayed in power.

Did it prolong or shorten the war?
The goal of a major breakthrough that brought an early end to the war was not even approached by the Somme.  In fact, it stands only as a major battle at the mid-point of the conflict. The withdrawals and changing tactics forced on the Germans by the British pressure probably prolonged rather than shortened operations. However, it was great events elsewhere in 1917, as we shall see, that were more influential in determining the duration of the terrible conflict.

My view? Nobody won the Somme. Everybody lost. Well over a million men, millions of animals, and countless communities were destroyed - and the war went on, and on. Grim.

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