In Context: The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

In Context

In Context: The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme

July 1st marks the Centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The Battle is remembered for it’s high casualty rates, the attrition of trench warfare, it’s devastating impact on pals battalions and the long standing debate about tactics employed on the Western Front.

This post aims not to look at the way in which the battle was fought, or to analyse the catastrophic events of July 1st, 1916. Instead, it aims to look at the context in which the Battle was fought. Why it was fought in July, 1916? Why in the Somme Valley? What were the overarching objectives – not necessarily the battlefield objectives on any given day.

The context.

Britain and her empire had gone to war in 1914 with the promises of the war being over by Christmas. Many in the public and military appear to have believed this to be realistic. We had a professional army that, despite it’s faults, was experienced, well trained and used to ‘modern’ techniques and technologies. In France we had an ally with a large standing army. We had the benefit of an ally in the East. Though the Russian army was less well equipped, it was vast and the Central powers would be hard pressed to wage a war on two fronts. We have the benefit of hindsight. We now know that Russia was woefully ill prepared for such a conflict in 1914. We know that our army, though professional, was not big enough to stop and then repel the Germans from Belgium and France. We also know what warfare looked like in those early years.

That experience of warfare in 1914 and 1915 sets the tone for the Battle of the Somme. A free flowing battle ground had become the trench system on the Western front. Barbed wire, machine guns, gas attacks, bombardments and ‘over the top’ had become the generic form of combat as compared to the more desirable cavalry charges favoured by the old romantics and establishment generals. The harsh reality of war by late 1915 was that it was bloody, costly, dangerous and stretching the defenses of France to it’s absolute limits.

General Rawlinson, one of the main planners of the Somme Campaign
General Rawlinson, one of the main planners of the Somme Campaign

The Battle of the Somme was planned largely with this in mind, though had been conceived prior to the German assault on Verdun. John Simkin on the Spartacus Educational website highlights the origins very well. Initially designed as a joint offensive the Somme battlefield would deploy enough troops to break through the German lines, make large territorial gains and destroy German resources and manpower. The Verdun assaults of February 1916 changed things. Firstly, the French were unable to commit to the Somme offensive and Second, the Germans were draining French resources in much the way that the Allies were intending to do to their foes through the Somme campaign. Therefore a British led campaign became a matter of great urgency as the year went on.

It may appear odd to readers but some historians believe that this is what the German High Command wanted to happen. This extract from the Open University website explains:

In February, he had launched an assault on the French fortress of Verdun that was designed to ‘bleed white’ the French army and force the French government to peace talks. Falkenhayn believed that before the final French collapse the British would launch an offensive of their own, designed to relieve pressure on their beleaguered ally.

Given the disastrous performance of the British army in previous offensives, the German general believed that this new British offensive would also be easily defeated. After this, Falkenhayn intended to launch an offensive of his own that would possibly drive the British from the Continent and force the French to concede defeat. The results of 1 July seemed to confirm this critical assessment of the British.

Politically it was also prudent to launch an assault at this time. British manpower in France had increased dramatically. In January 1916 there was an army of one million men stationed in France. By July 1st this had increased to 1.4 million. The level of expectation from the British public and government was that with such an investment of men, weaponry and logistical support, that it should be used quickly and decisively to bring the war to an end. To place that increased presence into context, the BEF had some 5 divisions in 191. This army of summer 1916 had 43 divisions, albeit with many rather raw and inexperienced men.

The Somme itself was chosen as it was well known to the military planners. Prior to July 1916 it had been a relatively quiet part of the front. The Germans had built several defensive positions upon taking the ground but made no attempt to advance beyond this. As such the area was well mapped by the Allies and strategic planning could be put in lace that was based on very detailed and accurate understanding of where enemy positions were and what the strength of German forces were. The Long Long Trail website outlines these areas in more detail.

Politically there are other considerations to take into account when asking why the Somme and why in the summer of 1916. Professor Ian Beckett, of the University of Northampton, quotes Lord Kitchener with regards British involvement in the Western Front. He surmised that Britain ought to come involved in greater numbers when:

‘when France is getting into rather low water, and Germany is beginning to feel the pinch’

Beckett’s full assessment of the political context in which the Somme was fought can be found here. There is also consideration of the political aspects and the way in which the allies formulated their collaboration in late 1915 and early 1916 in this article on the strategic and political context in which the Battle of the Somme was fought.

The Battle of the Somme was fought for numerous reasons. Militarily it is remembered mainly for the losses that were incurred on the first day and in the four and a half months that followed. Politically and strategically there are many reasons why the Allied High Command and British Government, rightly or wrongly, chose to launch that offensive 1 years ago.

Further reading:

The Battle of the Somme – one of several related ages on the Spartacus educational website.

Open University – Introductory level article about the Battle of the Somme.

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