The Battle of the Somme was one of the most horrific battles of the First World War. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost between July and November 1916. Was it worth it?
Author Jonathan Vance says NO. Author Andrew Iarocci says YES.
Vance is a professor of history at Western University in London, Ont. He is the author of several articles and books, including Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War and Maple Leaf Empire: Canada, Britain and Two World Wars. Iarocci is an assistant professor of history at Western University and author of Shoestring Soldiers: The First Canadian Division, 1914-15 and co-editor of Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment. His current research interests include military transportation and procurement.
While Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was at the Chantilly Conference in November 1916, the last act of the Somme offensive was playing out. On the 18th, Canadian battalions captured part of Desire Trench, to put another section of the Ancre Heights in Allied hands for the winter. That high ground, an early objective when the offensive opened on July 1, had taken nearly five months and over 600,000 casualties to secure.
Was it worth it?
Haig certainly thought so. In his final report on the offensive, he concluded that its three critical objectives had been achieved: Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western Front; and the enemy’s strength had been “very considerably worn down.”
Impressive, but meaningless.
How does one quantify “considerably” and how much does “very” add?
In fact, Haig’s assessment amounts to very little—much like the offensive itself, which left the Allies almost nothing to show beyond a few miles of ground of dubious tactical value. Had the pressure on Verdun been relieved? The fortress didn’t fall, but whether its survival was due to the Somme offensive is entirely speculative. Indeed, at times Verdun resembled a diversionary operation to draw German attention away from the Somme. Had the bulk of Germany’s forces been held in the west? German divisions did go east, Romania fell to the Central Powers, and the Bulgarians (with German aid) held an Allied offensive on the Macedonian front. Without the Somme to focus German attention in the west, things might have been even worse for the Allies in the east—but that is damning with faint praise.
…Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western Front; and the enemy’s strength had been “very considerably worn down.”
That leaves the suggestion that “the enemy’s strength had been very considerably worn down.” The Allies were some 600,000 men poorer but so was the German army, a fact that has been used to defend the Somme campaign as part of the long war of attrition. And few could deny the value of attritional battles. The great powers were simply too great and powerful to be defeated in a single decisive stroke. They had to be worn down—their numbers and will to resist whittled away until a breaking point was revealed. Particularly effective to this end were bite-and-hold operations—attack and capture limited objectives, and then draw the enemy into expending huge numbers of men to retake them.
But that wasn’t the Somme. As historian William Philpotts observed, “it was not to be bite and hold, but rush and hope.” Planning for the offensive suffered from lack of consensus on the objective—some commanders believed the goal was to capture ground, others thought it was to kill Germans. Haig espoused the attritional argument—until mid-June 1916, when he decided there had been enough wearing down and it was time to seek a decisive blow. But this waffling is absent from his final report, which made a virtue of necessity and declared that all along the Somme had been attritional.
Did the Somme campaign fatally weaken the German armies? If so, it took a very long time for the weakness to show—almost two years, during which time the enemy that had been fatally weakened in 1916, turned back the Nivelle offensive and inflicted punishing casualties on the Allies at Passchendaele in 1917, and mounted the shattering Kaiserschlacht in 1918. By that logic, Loos and Festubert were part of the wearing-down plan—so, too, was the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914, and for that matter, the battles of August and September.
But that renders meaningless the whole notion of a wearing-down phase. Attrition was a legitimate strategy, given the stalemate on the Western Front and the strength of the adversaries. But to apply the notion to the Battle of the Somme, just to say that the offensive was worth it, is to reward the muddled thinking that produced such a long and bloody campaign.
In our popular memory of the First World War, ‘the Somme’ is synonymous with the futility of the conflict.
On July 1, 1916—the first day of battle—British Empire forces suffered 57,000 casualties in exchange for limited gains. The French fared better, losing 7,000 men, but reaching their day’s objectives. If the battle had started and finished that day, it would have served no purpose. But the fighting continued for five months. The campaign contributed materially to Allied victory two years later. If the First World War was worth fighting, then the Battle of the Somme was worth the cost.
The Somme was an Allied offensive. British government ministers expected heavy casualties, but feared that the French war effort might collapse if Britain did not participate in the joint campaign for 1916. Germany’s offensive against Verdun, which began in February, underscored the significance of the Somme as an Allied undertaking. As French troops struggled to halt the German onslaught at Verdun, they needed British support on the Somme more than ever. The alliance, and thus the outcome of the war, depended on combined effort.
The French high command envisioned the Somme not as an immediate war-winning stroke, but as a methodical campaign to wear down the Germans. This was to be accomplished by seizing limited parcels of ground, and drawing the Germans into costly counterattacks. The plan succeeded, as the German high command insisted that every yard must be defended at all costs, or recovered if lost. Historians estimate that the Germans launched 330 counterattacks throughout the campaign, a policy that cost them dearly.
The tactics of 1917 that contributed to such feats as the capture of Vimy Ridge were born on the Somme.
The ratio of German to Allied losses on the Somme is a matter of debate. But even if German casualties were fewer than their Allied counterparts, Germany could less afford them. Indeed, the 1916 fighting stressed German manpower reserves to such a degree that in early 1917, the high command staged an unprecedented strategic withdrawal to a depth of 40 kilometres on the Somme, shortening the front line. The war was far from over, but vital cracks were showing in the foundations of Germany’s bastions.
The British Empire forces committed fatal errors on the Somme battlefield. During the early stages, the British marshalled insufficient artillery support, and fired mostly the wrong type of ammunition (shrapnel instead of high explosive), leaving many of the German defences intact. British infantry initially employed ill-suited tactics, such as advancing toward their objectives at a walking pace, instead of dashing forward in small units.
These mistakes invariably caused needless casualties, but they also taught important lessons. As the battle developed, the British artillery learned to employ ‘creeping’ barrages. These moving walls of fire carpeted the battlefield immediately in front of advancing infantry, suppressing enemy troops in their dugouts and trenches. British gunners also improved their counter-battery fire against German artillery. The infantry learned to fight more effectively in small units that supported each other in the advance, making better use of light machine guns, grenades and trench mortars. The tactics of 1917 that contributed to such feats as the capture of Vimy Ridge were born on the Somme—at Thiepval, Delville, Pozières, Courcelette and other French farming villages that defined a generation.
The ordinary soldiers of the British Empire who fought and died on the Somme could not have known, at the time, the specific consequences of their actions, as we know them. Those soldiers loved life as we do today. And yet, even as casualties mounted, there were neither mutinies, nor mass refusals of duty. No man wanted to be the next to fall, but most men believed in the justice of their cause. They pressed on through the battered fields and shattered woods of the Somme valley to meet their destinies. And they helped to win their war.