Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Battle of the Somme 7 - November and the official end

Caterpillar Tractor sunk in the mud on the
Guillemont-Martinpuich road in October 1916.
In almost three months of dogged, attritional and sacrificial actions the British had inched their way to the prized high ground along approximately half of their original planned advance. This was their tactical high point (sic) of the battle but, with terrible irony, events - predominantly the weather - conspired to convert the high ground to disadvantage, a logistical nightmare. Buchan describes the October weather as "one long succession of tempestuous gales and drenching rains". Imagine the effects of these on the ground between the July 1st frontline and the September line. Every yard had been bought dearly: trenches, no man's land and woods had all been pulverised by artillery, close range fighting and desperate counter attacks. Only rubble and tree stumps broke the line of the stark landscape. No roads, to speak of, survived. And yet, if the British were to advance further on their mission to Bapaume, they had somehow to move masses of men, horses and equipment across that ground ever upward to their new front line. As torrential rains continued, the infamous Somme mud developed - a glutinous mess in which men and horses drowned and artillery and supplies were lost. We were not there, how can we imagine how grim it was. Churchill was not there, but his description does conjure a vision: "A vast sea of ensanguined mud, churned by thousands of vehicles, by hundreds of thousands of men, by millions of shells, replaced the blasted dust. Still the struggle continued. Still the remorseless wheels revolved. At last the legs of men could no longer move; they wallowed and floundered helplessly in the slime. Their food, their ammunition, lagged behind them along the smashed and choked roadways". If July 1st was the worst in terms of casualties, this phase must surely have been the nadir for misery.

Ground gained in the final weeks
25/9(red) to 19/11/16(blue) lines
Under these horrific conditions small wonder that only marginal gains were made through October. At the beginning of the month Flers was taken (see map). One week later, during a brief rain break, the village of Le Sars was captured, helped by a concerted attack on the right by the French towards Sailly-Saillissel. Further gains were made on the eastern flank beyond Morval and Lesboeufs
The weeks of pressure on the Germans led to significant changes in their tactics. Whilst they continued industriously with their defensive extensions, including – as we shall see – the covert build up of the Siegfried line, their defensive tactics were evolving rapidly. Deeper withdrawals to lure the enemy forward, followed by machine gun enfilade and flexibly deployed troops on the counter attack were the early versions of the shock troops of 1918.
The Butte de Warlancourt - an obvious prize
for surveillance
Some of these tactics were played out at the historic Butte de Warlancourt, a huge ancient burial ground to the south of the Roman road between Pozieres and Bapaume. See-saw battles were fought for control of this focal point of higher ground. It was almost won by 5th November, but finally reclaimed in counter attack by the Germans. After the first few days of November, the weather had settled sufficiently to allow the final contortions of this awful battle.

At the northern end some gains had been made beyond the Schwaben Redoubt and around Thiepval, and it seemed time finally for Gough’s 5th Army to take those day 1 objectives of Serre and Beaumont-Hamel. On 11th November 1916 (note the date) the British began the ‘final’ bombardment of the campaign, preparatory to an attack on a cold foggy morning of November 13th. As on 1st July, the attack on Serre was thwarted with heavy losses, but over five days Scottish and Canadian Brigades inched their way to control of Beaucourt, Beaumont-Hamel and almost to Grandcourt.
Both sides were now exhausted. Winter weather closed in and actions became more desultory. Was the Battle of the Somme over? And if so, could either side claim victory?

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Battle of the Somme 6 - August 1st to September 25th

The British Mark 1 tank at the Somme.
September 1916
The battle ground on remorselessly. Heroic British and Empire assaults met heroic German defences. It is interesting that Churchill is far more critical, in terms of losses and failed strategy, than Buchan, who was at the time employed to write propaganda articles for the press (I’ve read them [and his reports on Jutland] – toe-curlingly partial). Out of government and without his usual influence, Churchill was far more disparaging than in his writings on Gallipoli, where he had been responsible.

“The battlefields of the Somme were the graveyards of Kitchener’s army. The flower of that generous manhood which quitted peaceful civilian life in every kind of workaday occupation, which came at the call of Britain…. and the most remote parts of her Empire, was shorn away for ever in 1916.”   (WS Churchill. The Great War p922) 

He was particularly active in a campaign to quash the official line that German losses in the first month were considerably greater than British losses (he was right, the opposite was true). As we have seen, the slow progress and the considerable cost of the battle were causing major concerns back home.

In early August great heat returned, but after a quiet three days, the assault on Pozieres was resumed, and by the 6th the Windmill, highest point of the ridge, was taken along with some further ground to the north and east. At last the British held control of significant high ground, and could survey the rolling countryside eastwards to Bapaume. The fierce battle to take Mouquet Farm continued, between Pozieres and Thiepval. To the south, pincer pressure on Guillemont was brought to bear by the addition of French attacks from further south.
There seems little doubt that the German defences had begun to wilt by this stage. Heavily outnumbered in men from the start, and hardly free at any time from remorseless British artillery, German contemporaneous accounts reveal serious strain. They had carried out numerous counter-attacks to reclaim their lost trenches and positions, with a corresponding rise in their casualties. Increasingly their reserves were drawn from a hotch-potch of Divisions, and the disciplined cohesion of defensive units was weakened.
On August 18th another combined attack across the whole front was launched. The British had learned some lessons about the German defence, and this time they had their first taste of success at Thiepval – taking, and retaining control of the Leipzig redoubt. Small gains were made along the line, so that the  British now held most of the German second positions. The 24th saw another push that brought Thiepval village itself within 500 yards. Over the next week, the Germans threw some of their best reserves into fierce counter-attacks, especially at Thiepval, Mouquet farm and High Wood. Their improved ability to withstand these counters gave the now hardened British infantry an important morale boost, and German losses were high.
On 3rd September, after another short breather, the British line surged again. By the end of the day they had consolidated their positions along the whole German second line from Mouquet farm to the junction with the French. They were still unable to make progress from Thiepval northwards. On the other flank the French were going from strength to strength. A new 10th Army under General Micheler rushed forward south of the river, but moved north to help in the capture of Guillemont, and on towards Combles (see map). All German counters were held, and by 10th September this new front line was secure. This incremental progress north of the river, made at great cost, was on a relatively narrow front, and was likely to become an unsustainable salient. Accordingly Haig now issued orders to prioritise more lateral progress – aimed at the final capture of Mouquet farm on the left, and more tellingly, to join the French lines beyond Guillaumont and Ginchy.
Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria.
A direct descendant of James Stuart,
the Old Pretender, he was placed in
overall charge of German defence. 
Although the Germans had now lost all their second lines of defence south of Thiepval, they had been busy strengthening their third line positions and creating a fourth system, roughly on a line Courcelette, Martinpuich, Flers, Lesboueufs and Morval (see map). They had reorganised their chain of command, reconstituting their I army (von Below) north of the river, with the II army (Gallwitz) south of it. Reserve armies behind created an army group, put under the direction of Crown Prince Rupprecht.

Overall, the Allies were in a more optimistic mood at this point than on July 2nd. In the east the Brusilov offensive was continuing (although waning). This, plus the entry of Rumania into the war on 28th August (see future post) and an Allied breakout from Salonika led by Sarrail, strtetched German resources, particularly as the Austrian contributions fell away month on month. The slow but steady progress of the past month encouraged further attacks, and on 12th September a major bombardment was launched along the line from Thiepval to Ginchy. This in preparation for an assault by the whole of Rawlinson’s 4th army, now consisting of predominantly fresh troops shifted from other parts of the front. On 15th at daybreak, the troops went over the top again in light mist. On the left Canadian and Scottish troops had success, carrying the villages of Courcelette and Martinpuich. New Zealanders in the next section moved on past High Wood towards Flers. Their action is famous for featuring the first appearance in combat of the tank. In small numbers, mechanically clumsy and unreliable, the Mark 1s nevertheless caused initial panic among the German infantry, who vacated their trenches in large numbers. To
British gains August and September 1916.
Red line 31/7, blue line 25/9.
the south partial success enabled progress from Ginchy towards Lesboeufs, but not link up with the French. The British Prime Minister’s son Raymond Asquith was a high profile casualty of the day – killed while leading a battalion of the Grenadier Guards from Ginchy village. Later in the day, German counter-attacks caused heavy British casualties, and the loss yet again of High Wood.

The entry of the tank into the war was dramatic, but strategically ineffective and not without controversy. Many wanted the Mark 1s to be held back until in larger numbers and with the improved Mark 2s, whereas Haig wanted every available weapon for his prized breakthrough. The Germans were now warned, and within a few days every German junior officer on the Western Front was issued with sketches and notes on how to counter them.
The attacks continued for the next week with small additional gains. The French continued to make steady progress to the SW of Peronne. By the 25th, the British had taken the high ground beyond Morval, and with the capture of Combles on the right, now controlled most of the important high ground of the battlefield.

They paused to regroup, but appeared well placed to prepare their next move on the attritional road to Bapaume. Then the weather broke.