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Winning lessons?

Updated Wednesday 14th June 2006

Was it the bitter lessons from defeat in The Somme which allowed the British to finally turn the tide of the First World War? Robert Foley considers the evidence

General in obsrvation post Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

With almost 60,000 British casualties on the first day (about 60 percent of the British attacking troops) and with some 360,000 other British casualties between 2 July and 13 November 1916, the battle of the Somme has traditionally been regarded by historians as an unmitigated British disaster. As observers looked back at the war in the years after the Treaty of Versailles, the battle of the Somme came to demonstrate the barrenness of British military thought, both at the battlefield tactical level and at the higher strategic level.

Bounded by the defeat at Loos in 1915 and the defeat in the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, the battle was seen merely as one more bloody and senseless effort by British generals to break through an unbreakable German defensive line using bad tactics. Consequently, the battle came to epitomize the futility of the First World War. As A.J.P. Taylor put it in his influential book, The First World War: An Illustrated History, first published in 1963: ‘The Somme set the picture by which future generations saw the First World War: brave helpless soldiers; blundering obstinate generals; nothing achieved.’

Indeed, the question of the outcome of the battle of the Somme has been inextricably bound together with the leadership of Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force from late 1915 to the victory in November 1918. Haig has generally been portrayed as a deeply conservative general, who was reluctant to recognize the changed nature of the First World War battlefield.

As a consequence, many observers believed that he prevented the British army from learning how to fight effectively on a modern battlefield dominated by trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns. Haig’s decision to continue the battle of the Somme for 4½ months and his continual belief that one more push would decide the battle and the war when it should have been clear that the German defence could not be broken seemed to confirm this pessimistic view of Haig and his pernicious effects on British tactics.

This interpretation of the battle of the Somme and the leadership of the British commander-in-chief has proved remarkably resilient and has been accepted by a wide range of historians. Although John Terraine long offered a lone voice against this view, it has only been recently that this comfortable consensus has been rigorously and widely questioned. British military historians such as Paddy Griffith, Peter Simpkins, John Lee and Gary Sheffield have argued that although the battle of the Somme may not have won the war in 1916, it was an important step in the ultimate German defeat, a defeat that these historians believe was inflicted by the much-maligned Sir Douglas Haig and his British Expeditionary Force.

To these historians, the battle of the Somme provided an important learning experience for all who survived. Their research has demonstrated that the traditional view of the British army as a force of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is incorrect. Instead, they have shown that the British army underwent a tactical learning curve that took the army from a small army fit mainly for colonial warfare to a massive force capable of fighting sophisticated, modern battles. Indeed, they have even revealed that the British army evolved tactically during the battle of the Somme, for example developing better cooperation between the attacking infantry and artillery by means of a creeping barrage. They have argued that this tactical innovation resulted in an army that by 1918 was the most tactically advanced on the Western Front and that this advantage resulted in the German defeat in November 1918. To this new generation of revisionists, the battle of the Somme was one of the most important elements in this learning curve.

 
General in obsrvation post Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

While these historians have presented a convincing argument about British tactical development during the course of the war, one has to question their wider conclusions and hence their reinterpretation of the significance of the battle of the Somme. There can be no doubt that the British army developed tactically during the war and that by 1918 it was a much more effective force than in 1916. Further, there can be no doubt that the British army learned from its mistakes during the battle of the Somme, as it had from its battles in 1914 and 1915. However, it was not only the British army that underwent a learning curve, so too did the German army. Indeed, the battle of the Somme was an important learning experience for the Germans as well as the British.

The battle forced them to rethink fundamentally their defensive tactical doctrine: At the beginning of the battle, German regulations called for the holding of the first line of trenches at all costs, a tactic that cost them dearly. By the end of the battle, this inflexible defence had been abandoned for a more flexible defense in depth. The change in German defensive tactics occasioned in large part by the battle of the Somme countered effectively the advances made by the British in their offensive tactics. When the two armies met again in 1917, the results were almost identical to those of 1916. Massive losses for little gain. Indeed, one even has to question the ostensible British tactical prowess shown by the breakthrough of the German defensive line, the Hindenburg Line, in September-October 1918. This outwardly impressive position was largely built in 1916. As a result, it did not represent the cutting edge of German defensive doctrine and was more vulnerable to the new British tactics than a newly constructed position would have been.

Moreover, one also has to question the consequences of this British tactical development. The revisionists have tended to see the Entente victory in 1918 as a result of battlefield success, a success that was largely achieved by the increasingly tactically effective British army. Contrary to what German nationalists argued in the 1920s and 1930s, the German army was certainly defeated in the field in 1918. However, offensive action by the Entente armies was only one factor in this defeat. The German army had suffered extremely high casualties in its own offensives in 1918, losses that seriously weakened its ability to maintain its defensive position and perhaps more importantly losses that gravely dented German morale.

Even before its offensives in 1918, the German army had been badly weakened by the effects of the Entente naval blockade. This blockade had critically reduced the availability of important supplies, most notably food. Lack of sufficient food made German soldiers all the more susceptible to the influenza pandemic sweeping through all the armies still fighting in 1918. These factors led to a deep crisis in morale in the German army by late summer 1918, a crisis that was apparent from the thousands of deserters behind the German lines by late 1918. Thus, in their ‘hundred-days campaign’ in late 1918, the Entente armies pushed against a German army that was a shadow of its former self and largely incapable of continued resistance. Against such an enemy, even an army that had not developed at all tactically would have achieved battlefield success, as was shown by the victories of the much-less sophisticated U.S. Army.

 

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