World War I was unlike any preceding wars due to its distinct nature. The new technology, tactical strategies, and industrialization contributed to the massive loss of life, and neither side achieved an overwhelming victory in the end. The nature of World War I, as the countries and soldiers involved understood it at the time, was fairly complex and multi-faceted due to battle strategies, lack of definitive victories, and uncertainty regarding how long the war was going to last.
In 1916, the war had been ongoing for approximately two years, and both sides of the conflict were still relatively optimistic about the war. They had not yet reached a point of wartime exhaustion and political/social unrest, and each side believed that they had the opportunity to make strides and hoped to be moving closer towards a resolution. Both, the Central Powers and the Entente/Allies, had achieved varying degrees of tactical victories throughout the course of the war thus far. Therefore, the war was very back-and-forth in terms of which side held the upper-hand in the conflict. The Central Powers were tactically victorious during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive by effectively driving the Russians back hundreds of miles, whereas the Entente was tactically successful during the Siege of Przemysl, as the Austro-Hungarians were forced to surrender the fort and were unable to conduct an offensive without the assistance of the Germans for the remainder of the war. In 1916, the Allies were anxious to launch a large offensive against the Germans on the Western Front, and thus, the Battle of the Somme was conceived.
In order to wage these large offensives, all of the armies were forced to rely upon significant manpower and military technology. However, the battles up until this point were very bloody and caused significant casualties to all countries participating. Crown Prince Rupprecht commented on the Entente’s great loss of life saying, “This success cost the English, according to careful estimates, a loss of at least 230,000 men…total losses of our enemies must, therefore, amount to about 350,000” (“The Battle of the Somme by Crown Prince Rupprecht”, 38). Great Britain enacted conscription for the first time for males aged 18-41 because the soldiers on the front were getting worn down and battle plans called for large frontal attacks with thousands of men. Nevertheless, an increasing problem was that new soldiers were “still far from being fully trained,” but the British needed bodies at the front lines so they threw them in anyway (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 2). The British adopted a policy called Pal’s Battalions, which had men serve with their friends and family from home. The objective was to make the men braver when they were ordered up-over-the-top of the trenches as they marched into death at No Man’s Land, but this strategy proved very deadly. In contrast, Germany had a large army and a significant reserve of officers and trained soldiers of which they relied upon to continuously supply the trench lines. Advances in technology such as the tank, Dreadnaughts, and Fokker Eindekker airplanes allowed for the war to escalate even further and cause more destruction of land, resources, and life than previously ever conceived.
The Battle of the Somme was a large Allied offensive that embodied elaborate battle preparations and military strategies. The original plan for the battle was to attack the Central Powers on three fronts, with Great Britain and France attacking in the West, Russia attacking in the East, and Italy attacking in the South. However, because of the Battle of Verdun, the Battle of the Somme became a predominantly British initiative with French assistance. In order to prepare for the Battle of Somme, the Allies accumulated immense stores of ammunition, improved roads for travel, created numerous wells for water sources, dug shelters for troops, and tunneled miles of trenches to allow for effective communication (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief of France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 2). The Allies planned to launch this major offensive against the Germans along the Somme River in France for three reasons as explained by Sir Douglas Haig, “To relieve the pressure on Verdun, to assist our Allies in other theaters of war by stopping any further transfer of German troops from the Western Front, and to wear down the strength of the forces opposed to us” (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief of France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 2). The Germans had a strategic position because they were situated on the high ground of the Somme watershed and the Allies were situated in the depressions and lower regions looking up at the Germans. The Germans also had a heavily fortified system of defenses with two systems of trenches several lines deep, bomb-proof shelters, and deep cellars. The British strategy was to coordinate a surprise attack with the French consisting of three phases in order to exploit the salient in the German line and push them back to gain territory. The French would attack simultaneously from the South and the British would attack from the North end of the Somme valley. The attack opened with a large daily artillery barrage and gas attacks against the German forces. This tactic was successful because the Germans were caught off-guard and disorganized, so it forced them to take a defensive position during the course of the battle. Then, the infantry assault was launched with British soldiers sent up over the top of the trenches and marched shoulder-to-shoulder through No Man’s Land to the enemy’s trenches with machine guns, essentially enacting the frontal assault. This tactic, while allowing for the success of gaining territory, caused a significant loss to the British of over 50,000 men in one day of fighting. One may argue that this extreme, bloody loss of life was not effective enough to constitute the small gain. By the end of Phase One, the British had captured the second main system of German defense and gained possession of the southern crest of the main ridge in the Somme valley (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief of France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch, 12). Phase One was so successful because the Allies surprised the Germans, attacked quickly, and fought valiantly by pushing the enemy back out of sheer determination and force.
Phase Two was launched shortly after and the British lines formed a salient and joined the French. The Germans were able to launch counter attacks, further fortify and dig new trenches, and bring in fresh troops as they held direct observation of the Allies. The German counter-attacks caused the Allies to pause and relieve troops and for more ammunitions to be moved forward. All of these factors did not allow the Allies to catch the Germans by surprise. Sir Douglas Haig stated, “The enemy’s counter-attacks were incessant and frequently of great violence, but they were made in vain and at heavy cost to him” (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 17). Instead the French and British combined to attack Guillemont because the German forces fought hard and aggressively so neither army could capture it on their own. Eventually, Guillemont was stormed and overtaken along with Ginchy. These incessant attacks were effective because the enemy barrier that existed in the beginning of Phase Two crumbled and the salient in the Allied line ceased to exist. By the end of Phase Two, the Germans had lost more of their fortification system and many more men, and the Allies controlled almost the entire crest of the ridge, holding a significant vantage point.
Phase Three of the Battle of the Somme saw the first use of British tanks. The tanks operated with the infantry and were used as a shield for the troops. The Germans were not expecting this new piece of equipment, which ended up being highly successful in weakening the German resistance. By the 15th of September, the Allies had penetrated through two of the German’s main defensive lines and advanced to take three villages. An entire German trench fell, and before they had been given time to recover, the Allies swooped in and attacked again eventually claiming the entire village of Thiepval (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 23-24). In regards to St. Pierre Divion, the Allies drove the Germans out of their trenches into their dugouts and forced them to surrender. This strategy of quick, penetrative attacks was extremely effective because it caught the Germans off-guard, so they were unable to amass an effective counter-attack.
In reflecting upon the Battle of the Somme, the Germans and Allies did not have a similar understanding of the circumstances of the battle. The Germans thought that the Allies failed in this offensive because they lost too many lives to justify the small territorial gains they achieved in battle. Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht stated, “Our losses in territory may be seen on the map with a microscope. Their losses in that far more precious thing – human life – are simply prodigious” (“The Battle of the Somme by Crown Prince Rupprecht”, 38). In contrast, the Allies believed themselves victorious because their three objectives for the Battle of Somme had been accomplished: Verdun was relieved by this time, the Germans concentrated their main forces on the Western Front and avoided the transfer of troops to the Eastern or Southern fronts, and the strength of the German army was weakened (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 30). The Allies wore down the resistance of the German army because they were able to inflict more casualties and take more prisoners as well as resources. This significant loss of resources and an estimated 500,000 German casualties in battle definitely demoralized the German war effort on the Western Front. Even though the Allies and Germans had different understandings about the Battle of the Somme, they both can agree that it was one the bloodiest battle of World War I.
The Germans and the Allied powers had different strategic goals and objectives for the Battle of Somme as discussed previously, however; they both were of the same mentality that the Battle of the Somme did not mean a decisive victory was at hand. The ultimate goal of the Allies was not to end the war, as there were other theaters still in full swing, but to cripple and inflict enough German casualties to lower their prestige and war morale. Similarly, the Germans also did not believe that the Battle of the Somme would be a decisive victory. They were of the opinion that the offensive would be long and arduous but they had taken necessary precautions and were prepared for the continuation of the war (“The Battle of the Somme by Crown Prince Rupprecht”, 39). While the Battle of the Somme is considered an Allied victory, it is considered a tactical victory.
While often debated, the commanders would be surprised to some extent that the war continued until the end of 1918. Due to the back and forth nature of the war up until this point, it is easy to argue that neither side would achieve an overarching, grand victory. The nature of trench warfare almost leads to a stalemate because the battle lines do not move that drastically. However, the commanders would be startled to find out that the war was only halfway over; they expected it to end sooner than four years. Sir Douglas Haig commented in his dispatch, “The enemy’s power has not yet been broken, nor is it yet possible to form an estimate of the time the war may last before the objects for which the Allies are fighting have been attained. But the Somme battle has placed beyond doubt the ability of the Allies to gain those objects” (“Sir Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief in France and Flanders, 2nd Dispatch”, 37). The mentality of the Allies was that the Battle of the Somme was a precursor to an end for the war because the Battle of the Somme had thoroughly extended German manpower and resources. The Allies also had a renewed confidence in their abilities that heightened their determination to eventually overpower Germany and the rest of the Central Powers. Crown Prince Rupprecht had a similar opinion to Sir Douglas Haig regarding when the war was going to be won. He said, “The offensive will certainly not be at an end very soon. One may well look forward to an offensive of great endurance” (“The Battle of the Somme by Crown Prince Rupprecht”, 39). This statement demonstrates the generally accepted belief that fighting would continue for some time. Crown Prince Rupprecht also firmly stated, “I am of the opinion that the enemy is seeking a decision here and this year, and in this he has failed” (“The Battle of the Somme by Crown Prince Rupprecht”, 39). Both Sir Douglas Haig and Crown Prince Rupprecht agreed that the war was not over following the Battle of the Somme, but cannot comprehend the war lasting another two years. It is reasonable to think that they believed World War I would be over sometime during 1917.
World War I was a long, complex series of battles of which only an armistice was accomplished, and one of its bloodiest battles was the Battle of the Somme. The Allies were very effective during this battle through their utilization of the frontal attack, sheer willpower, a well-planned combined offensive, and new military technology. The Allies achieved their goals and proved that they were a powerful force against the well-equipped, well-trained Germans. Ultimately, the Battle of the Somme did not mean a decisive victory or even the end of the war was at hand, but it gave the Allies necessary confidence and crippled the German army.
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