Tanks introduced into warfare at the Somme

Commander

Historum Emeritas
Jun 2006
1,362
Jacksonville, FL
September 15th
1916 : Tanks introduced into warfare at the Somme

During the Battle of the Somme, the British launch a major offensive against the Germans, employing tanks for the first time in history. At Flers Courcelette, some of the 40 or so primitive tanks advanced over a mile into enemy lines but were too slow to hold their positions during the German counterattack and subject to mechanical breakdown. However, General Douglas Haig, commander of Allied forces at the Somme, saw the promise of this new instrument of war and ordered the war department to produce hundreds more.

On July 1, the British launched a massive offensive against German forces in the Somme River region of France. During the preceding week, 250,000 Allied shells had pounded German positions near the Somme, and 100,000 British soldiers poured out of their trenches and into no-man's-land on July 1, expecting to find the way cleared for them. However, scores of heavy German machine guns had survived the artillery onslaught, and the infantry were massacred. By the end of the day, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded. It was the single heaviest day of casualties in British military history.

After the initial disaster, Haig resigned himself to smaller but equally ineffectual advances, and more than 1,000 Allied lives were extinguished for every 100 yards gained on the Germans. Even Britain's September 15 introduction of tanks into warfare for the first time in history failed to break the deadlock in the Battle of the Somme. In October, heavy rains turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, and on November 18 Haig called off the Somme offensive after more than four months of mass slaughter.

Except for its effect of diverting German troops from the Battle of Verdun, the offensive was a miserable disaster. It amounted to a total advance of just five miles for the Allies, with more than 600,000 British and French soldiers killed, wounded, or missing in action. German casualties were more than 650,000. Although Haig was severely criticized for the costly battle, his willingness to commit massive amounts of men and resources to the stalemate along the western front did eventually contribute to the collapse of an exhausted Germany in 1918.
 

Belisarius

Forum Staff
Jun 2006
10,359
U.K.
I first encountered the Somme battlefield on a motoring holiday with my wife. We drove down a straight road I now know leads from Albert to Bapaume. A nondescript stretch of tarmac, but every so often there is a sign at the side of the road which shows the limit of the Briish advance on a given date in 1916. It takes no more than a few minutes to drive past them all. It took the British Army months of hard fighting to cover the same distance in 1916.

I've stood in the preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel memorial park and walked across the hundred yards or so from the Newfoundland memorial to the Highlaner memorial of the 51st Division, that shows the limit of the advance during the battle. You walk over the remains of the trenches of the German front line, then in the distance beyond a seemingly impassable ravine, you can see a sign that says "Position of the main German defence line".

I keep going back. Along with many others I've become somewhat obsessed with this battlefield. I'll post again when I have more time, and tell you why I think it was never a disaster.
 

Commander

Historum Emeritas
Jun 2006
1,362
Jacksonville, FL
I'd like to hear how 20,000 dead British soldiers is not a disaster.

And once again Belisarius, you amaze me with your world travels. Is there anywhere you haven't been?!
 

Belisarius

Forum Staff
Jun 2006
10,359
U.K.
Commander said:
I'd like to hear how 20,000 dead British soldiers is not a disaster.

And once again Belisarius, you amaze me with your world travels. Is there anywhere you haven't been?!
Many, many, many places! :)

The first day of the Somme offensive was the worst day in the history of the British army, but it was only the first day. I'll get back to you on this as soon as I can.
 

Belisarius

Forum Staff
Jun 2006
10,359
U.K.
On 24th January 1917, the following conversation allegedly took place between an unnamed Australian officer and his Colonel,

Officer: “They’ve hopped the bloody twig. They’re out of it.”
Colonel: “Who? The Boche? Out of Bapaume?”
Officer: “Yes, the bloody place is empty.”
Colonel: “You’re a bloody liar!”
Officer: “Bloody liar be damned. You give me the bloody battalion and I’ll take the place right now!”

Similar conversations must have taken place up and down the line that day as the British discovered to their surprise that the Germans had abandoned their positions along the bitterly contested Somme front and retreated to their “Siegfried Position”; known subsequently by the allies and future generations as the Hindenburg Line, leaving a trail of devastation and scorched earth in the area in between. As a result of the Somme offensive, seventy square miles of French territory had been recovered, including fifty-one towns and villages. The Germans had been forced back between five and seven miles along ten miles of front and forced to relinquish their forward defensive positions over a further twelve miles on the flanks.

The Allied offensive on the Somme had lasted 20 weeks. At the end, the British had lost about 95,000 dead, the French about 90,000 and the Germans, surprisingly, given their apparent tactical superiority and being on the defensive, approximately 150,000. The Somme offensive never achieved the breakthrough desired by Haig, nor did it destroy the German army. Many writers and historians therefore, who tend to fixate on the events of July 1st as indicative of the whole operation, consider the whole offensive a disaster.

No one can argue the Somme was a victory, but neither was it the disaster that has come down to us in popular myth. Any analysis of the British offensive needs to include the events at Verdun. The whole point of the offensive was in fact, to relieve German pressure on the French in this sector. In this respect, the Somme offensive was a spectacular strategic success.

Six German divisions originally held the Somme sector. Eventually sixty-nine were committed its defence. Had these been instead committed to Verdun, the French would have collapsed and the Germans would have won. Of these sixty nine divisions, many were so badly mauled as to be useless until rebuilt with new inexperienced recruits from Germany. Worse still, the loss of hardened experienced Officers and NCOs, who could not be replaced for years, resulted in a general decline in the overall effectiveness of the German army in 1917-18.

As a direct result of the Somme offensive, the German High command decided the only way to beat the British was to strangle their sea-lanes and so implemented unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, which eventually brought the Americans into the war. Lastly German anxiety about further British offensives persuaded the High command to launch their own “Kaiserschlacht” in 1918, to gamble on a breakthrough before the weight of American manpower could be brought to bear; a move that hastened the war’s end when the allies, although pushed back considerable distances, did not break and launched their own counter offensive which drove the Germans back to their start lines and beyond.