general douglas haig

June 30, 1916 - Battle of the Somme Postponed til July 1

Pictured - A British heavy howitzer is manhandled into position on the Somme.

General Douglas Haig, the commander of the BEF, had promised French president Aristide Briand that the Allied forces would step off their summer offensive on the Somme on June 29.  D-Day was postponed, however, until July 1, to allow one more day for the preparatory bombardment, which had battered German positions along a 20-mile front for five days already.

1,537 British guns, from light field pieces to monumental siege howitzers, had fired over 1 million shells at the Germans in the preparation for the Battle of the Somme, beginning on June 24.  Obviously, the element of surprise was long gone. But British General Headquarters did not really believe that surprise was needed.  The lessons learned in the costly 1915 offensives had taught the Allies one key point: artillery was the war-winner on the Western Front.  For an attack to succeed, the guns had to pummel the enemy into submission before the infantry went over the top.

The First World War was a war of attrition.  Despite the occasional plan for a master blow here or there, most generals understood that whichever side could throw more material and men at the enemy, and withstand the other side longer, would emerge the victor.   The plan for the Battle of the Somme makes perfect sense in that context, although since the First World War the idea of attrition warfare has become anathema.  British planners underestimated the strength of German forces on the Somme, and the numbers they had in reserve.  But even if a breakthrough did not come, as Haig hoped, the battle would divert German reinforcements from Verdun and eat into German manpower.

The plan was to kill Germans, and so the extra day of bombardment increased confidence in the plan.  On the southern end of the battlefield, where a smaller French army was to go into action alongside the British, poilus were able to climb out of their trenches into No-Man’s Land and sit watching the barrage on the other side, cheering every large explosion.  French gunners had learned the hard way how to fight an artillery battle at Verdun, and the artillery on the French sector of the Somme succeeded in its objectives, cutting wire and smashing in German machine-gun nests. On July 1 it would support its infantry well, making D-Day an easy one for the French infantry.

Not so on the British side of the battlefield.  Although the British Fourth Army fielded more guns, a distressing number of its shots proved to be dud shells, failing to go off.  Even those that did hit were mostly shrapnel, which was good for killing soldiers in the open, but did nothing to barbed wire or concrete dug-outs.  Staff officers refused to believe reports from raiders that the German trenches looked unaffected. In the crowded trenches, filling up with assault troops for the next day. British soldiers tried to catch some sleep or grab a last bite of rations. Most were young volunteers, full of life and confident of victory, poised for success on July 1, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.