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The Somme in context

Updated Wednesday 14th June 2006

Ian Beckett looks at the wider context of the Battle of the Somme.

The Somme battle scene Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

The popular tendency to view the Somme as a specifically British experience not only obscures the French contribution to what was intended to be a joint offensive, but also the wider context of coalition warfare.

In 1916 Britain was still the junior military partner to France and Russia. Some British politicians had hoped to avoid committing a large army to the Western Front altogether and even the Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Earl Kitchener, had assumed that the brunt of the continental war would fall on France and Russia until the moment ‘when France is getting into rather low water, and Germany is beginning to feel the pinch’. The intention was to ensure that Britain became the strongest partner in the coalition in order to be able to impose its own peace terms on enemy and ally alike for those who were allies might not always remain so. What went wrong with such calculations were the heavy losses suffered by the French and Russians in 1914-15. Indeed, the French and Russians were understandably not prepared to wait indefinitely for the British army to arrive when their national territory remained in German hands and their manpower resources were depleted. Thus, the British offensive at Loos in September 1915 was mounted for the political purpose of sustaining allied morale, Kitchener remarking that ‘unfortunately we have to make war as we must, and not as we should like to’.

By April 1916, most British policy-makers were reluctantly convinced that the war might end in either indecisive peace or possibly even German victory if they did not participate fully in the co-ordinated offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian fronts to wear down German reserves that had been planned at the Chantilly Conference between 6 and 8 December 1915. The Somme was chosen as a battlefield precisely because this was where the British and French sectors of the front lines met. Nonetheless, Anglo-French strategy was a compromise between the desire of the French Commander-in-Chief, Joseph Joffre, that the British carry out an attritional blow before the French launched the decisive attack in the West and the desire of the new British Commander-in-Chief, Douglas Haig, to maintain operational independence by attacking in Flanders.

By the time the Somme opened, the French had been heavily committed to the defence of Verdun since 21 February 1916. That offensive, in turn, reflected the inter-connection of the western and eastern fronts for the Germans. The Chief of the German General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, had long concluded that a decisive victory was no longer possible and was prepared to countenance seeking terms with Russia because he believed France and, especially, Britain represented the greater threat to German interests. In the West, he would then seek a result through a strategy of military attrition. By contrast, the two leading German commanders in the East, Paul von Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich Ludendorff, still believed a decisive victory attainable there. Falkenhayn conceived Verdun as a means of striking at the French not in the expectation of a breakthrough but of ‘bleeding them white’. With the French exhausted, Falkenhayn assumed the British would be forced into a premature offensive of their own, allowing him to blunt this in turn before launching his own counter-offensive to force both to sue for peace.

 

 
The Somme battle scene Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Irrespective of its intended result, the German offensive had the effect of disrupting allied plans. The Russians advanced towards Lake Narotch in Lithuania in March 1916 to try and draw German pressure off the French at Verdun and, simultaneously, to try and assist the Serbs, themselves under heavy pressure in the Balkans. The heavy casualties sustained had a paralysing effect on most Russian commanders thereafter with the notable exception of Alexei Brusilov, whose offensive against the Austro-Hungarian army - actually a diversion for a main attack elsewhere on the previous day - was then brought forward to 5 June 1916 at the request of the Italians.

Particular debate has always surrounded the inter-connection between Verdun and the Somme. In origin, the Somme was not intended to take pressure off Verdun since it had been agreed in principle before the Germans attacked there. Joffre requested British assistance as soon as the German offensive began and Haig agreed to relieve the French Tenth Army by taking over more of the front but he resisted any immediate offensive in favour of preserving his strength for the main effort on the Somme. On 2 May Joffre then assured Haig that it would not be necessary to bring forward the Somme from July since matters had stabilised. Not surprisingly, however, Verdun significantly reduced the planned French contribution to the Somme: the 39 divisions first promised were reduced to 12. Some argue that the Somme was pursued as a means to help the French as well as preventing the Germans sending reinforcements to the Eastern Front. Increasingly, too, the justification was that the Somme contributed to the wearing down of German troop strength, the campaigns of both 1916 and 1917 being necessary preliminaries to the victories won in 1918. It is clear, however, that Haig continued to cling to the hopes of a decisive breakthrough and, taking on its own momentum, the British effort continued for four months after the Germans had ceased to attack Verdun.

For a brief period in August and September 1916, the Chantilly strategy seemed to be working with Haig claiming results on the Somme, the Italians claiming to have inflicted heavy losses on the Austro-Hungarians, the initial success of the Brusilov offensive and Romania’s entry into the war on the allied side on 27 August 1916. By November 1916, hopes had been dashed by the failure of the Somme offensive and the swift defeat of Romania by Falkenhayn, now serving as an army commander. His reputation irreparably damaged by Romanian entry into the war, coupled with the mounting losses at Verdun, Falkenhayn had been dismissed as Chief of the German General Staff on 29 August and replaced by Hindenburg. Like much else, however, the precise impact of the Somme on the German war effort remains a matter of considerable debate.

 

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