somme offensive

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The October mud on the Somme.

October 7 1916, Le Sars–After the great successes of the Allied attacks along in late September, Allied progress had stalled.  Much of this was due to the rain, which started on October 2, turning the battlefield into a muddy mire.  Historian William Philpott describes it as follows:

The mud of the Somme was something special.  When the chalky subsoil mixed with the thin brown topsoil, a “liquid yellow grey mud…extraordinarily buoyant, like quicksilver,” resulted.  It stuck to everything, caked men, clogged wheels and jammed the mechanisms of guns and rifles.  Moreover, it was everywhere.  On the roads it sucked in the wheels of transport lorries and wagons, congealed round the hoofs of horses and pack-mules and gripped the boots of marching men, often to the knee.  Away from the roads the going was almost impossible.  Shell-holes were filled to the brim with it, forming a quicksand that sucked in men and animals.  It was, one history remarked, the worst mud which the poilus encountered anywhere along the front.  Recurring images of the later fighting on the Somme are of men waist-deep in the mud, immovable and raving; of animals sunk in to their bellies, which had to be shot.

The rain frustrated Haig, who was convinced that German morale was on the breaking point.  On the afternoon of October 7, after the rain had stopped, seven British and French divisions attacked along a front running from Le Sars to Le Transloy.  At Le Sars, the creeping barrage went splendidly, and the British took the town with little problems.  Elsewhere, however, the Allies had less luck.  Aerial reconnaissance had been impossible with the rain, and the Allies ran into unexpected trenches or were mowed down by machine guns in scattered shell-holes.  Corporal William Howell recalled his experiences:

As we drew closer to the German lines, I could see gaps in our lines.  I remember seeing poor old Bill Bolton, father of six children go down.  Then we were in the thick of it.  Terrific machine-gun and rifle fire.  No orders were being given.  Could not see anybody on their feet.  Knew I had to keep going.  Could see Bapaume burning in the distance.  Suddenly through the long grass, I saw them.  They were in a half-dug trench.  Thick as fleas.  A lot of them were kneeling.  They were jostling each other to get the bolts of their rifles open.  The trench was hardly touched.  In front of me was a German machine gun.  It had stopped firing and the infantry were picking off our chaps.  Didn’t know what to do.  Had just been made full corporal, and was very proud of my stripes.  I thought the others were bound to come up shortly, and when they did I would lob a Mills bomb [grenade] right in the middle of that next and we would stand a good chance of getting in.  I took out the pin in anticipation, kneeling in the grass waiting for the second wave.

There was no second wave, or reinforcements.  They were all casualties and the attack had been called off.  There I was, on my stomach, waiting, when two bullets hit me in the abdomen.  They spun [me] round and knocked me into a deep shell hole.  I thought, “This is it!”  A bullet in the stomach–they wouldn’t waste a bandage–and I had got two!  I did not seem to worry about dying.  The immediate problem was the Mills bomb.  I felt myself getting weaker and I knew I should not be able to hold the spring down much longer.  The thought occurred to me to try and get the first aid dressing out, having succeeded with some difficulty, using one hand, I forthwith tied the lever to the bomb case, thus making it harmless.

I was never a great churchgoer, but I always had a conviction that there was a supreme being.  I was convinced I was dying.  Whether it was a fatalistic attitude which comes to a lot of us, after prolonged hardship, I don’t know, but I felt quite calm and peaceful–almost happy.  In my confused mind, I could imagine there was an orange glow around the lip of the shell hole, and what appeared to be a misty golden ball immediately overhead in the sky.  I derived great comfort from these apparitions.  I was getting very drowsy, and had a feeling of floating on a cloud.  This was where I thought I died.  I regained consciousness, to my amazement, and it was pitch-dark.  There was a lot of activity going on, I took a peep out of my hole, and could see several parties of Germans foraging.  I suddenly realized they were collecting the wounded.  I didn’t fancy ending up as a prisoner–especially as I was a sniper.  The wound did not appear to be so bad after all.  The bleeding had stopped, so I decided to have a go to get back.  I managed to get out of the shell hole, and crawled through the long grass. Seemed to get a reserve supply of strength.  Made good progress, crawling and resting, and was eventually spotted by a patrol of South African Scottish who took me in.

Haig wrote simply of the failure of the attack:

[The German] has had time to recover since previous attack.  Our advance has been delayed by wet and so enemy has been given time.  The reason for this was quite simple.  They were not the same troops.

The Germans had brought in fresh artillery from Verdun and rotated in infantry from elsewhere along the line.  One such detachment was the List Regiment, moved in from Fromelles on October 2.  They would only spend 10 days on the Somme, but in that time would suffer 1177 casualties.  One of these was Adolf Hitler, wounded in the groin when an Allied shell hit the dispatch runners’ tent.  He spent two months in a hospital in Brandenburg recovering from the injury, and would not return to the front until March 1917.

Today in 1915: Germans and Austrians Unleash Offensive Against Serbia
Today in 1914: The British 7th Division in Belgium

Sources include: Peter Hart, The Somme; Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson, The Somme; William Philpott, Three Armies on the Somme.

Today marks the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, a five-month offensive that took place along the River Somme, in France, during World War I. Between July and November 1916, British and French troops waged a brutal battle of attrition against German forces. By the time fighting ceased on November 18, more than a million men on both sides were killed or wounded.

Although British poet John Masefield was not present at the Somme, he was asked in late 1916 to produce a full account of the battle. Denied access to official army documents and the personal accounts of military officials, Masefield instead traveled to the site in 1917 and focused on a history of the battlefield itself. Masefield’s lyrical account is alternately somber and hopeful, centered on both the immense destruction left by mortars and trenches and the regeneration of the fields that had already begun:

All wars end; even this war will some day end, and the ruins will be rebuilt and the field full of death will grow food, and all this frontier of trouble will be forgotten. When the trenches are filled in, and the plough has gone over them, the ground will not long keep the look of war. One summer with its flowers will cover most of the ruin that man can make, and then these places, from which the driving back of the enemy began, will be hard indeed to trace, even with maps… In a few years’ time, when this war is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will find his marks gone. Centre Way, Peel Trench, Munster Alley, and these other paths to glory will be deep under the corn, and gleaners will sing at Dead Mule Corner.


The War as of Autumn 1916: “Europe is Mad.”

The Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton set off with his crew in August 1914 for his expedition across the Antarctic. As he recorded in his memoir South!, it was one of the most arduous treks in history. When their ship sank in November 1915, Shackleton and company were forced to camp on an ice floe, and then into a lifeboat for a 1,300km voyage for survival. They arrived on the island South Georgia in May 1916, after a monumental 15-day voyage. The manager of the isolated island’s weather station ran down to greet them.

“Tell me, when was the war over?” asked Shackleton? “The war is not over,” the other man answered.  "Millions are being killed. Europe is mad.  The world is mad.“

Shackleton may have been shocked, but the rest of Europe had become long inured to the fighting. Dreams of a quick victory were located long in the past, buried in months of mud and carnage. Both sides had committed to a total war, and both knew that the war would not end without the complete destruction of the other.

The summer of 1916 was the epitome of that total war. The Allied summer offensives had been the most fiercely fought battles in history up to that point When they petered out at the beginning of Autumn, it did not look like much had changed. The Central Powers remained in the ascendant, dominating the map of Europe. But simply judging from a map did not belie the true situation of the war. The conflict was reaching its decisive point, and was hanging in the balance. Germany’s hold on the Western Front was loosening, as the French prepared to push back at Verdun and after the Somme offensive had decimated German ranks in months of attrition. In the East, the Italians and the Brusilov Offensive had smashed the Austro-Hungarian Army to pieces, but Germany had replied by almost knocking Romania out of the war merely weeks after it joined the Allies, while Hindenburg and Ludendorff, now in command of Germany, were pushing for a renewed U-boat campaign to starve Britain.

As the weather turned cold and the battlefield turned to mud both sides went to preparing for the next year. One way or another, it looked like the war might finally end in 1917.

Battle of the Somme Ends

A colorized photo of Australian troops in the mud on the Somme.

November 18 1916, Grandcourt–The Allied conference at Chantilly had decided on a resumption of the Somme offensive on a larger scale in February; in the meantime, smaller attacks could be made as the winter conditions permitted.  Haig, although initially reluctant, signed off on a continuation of the attacks along the Ancre, for 6:10 AM on November 18th.

The previous night saw the first snow of the year, but the mud was not yet frozen, resulting in some of the most horrendous ground conditions of the war.  Private Reuben Smith recalled:

It was snowing hard and freezing, and pitch dark.  We were guided by the star shells from the firing line.  It was impossible to follow the trench and too risky to get in it.  I did get in it once and got stuck up to my waist in mud and ice-cold water.  The water in the trench had a covering of ice about an inch thick, and snow on top of it.  But as soon as your weight was on it–in you went!  That was enough for me.

Many men were less lucky and found themselves stuck in the deep mud; multiple accounts report men who could not be pulled out by their comrades and drowned in the mud.

Visibility was also poor as the snow turned into sleet and rain, and many of the attacking troops became lost or worse, fell into German traps.  Despite this, the attackers advanced over a thousand yards, taking Beaucourt.  But the British were clearly exhausted after nearly five months of fighting, and the weather had turned against them.  November 18 would be the last large-scale offensive on the Somme.  The British had lost over 400,000 casualties during the battle, and had gained no more than five miles for it.

Today in 1915: Major Winston Churchill Arrives in France
Today in 1914: Russian, Turkish Fleets Clash Off Cape Sarych

Sources include: Peter Hart, The Somme; Robin Prior & Trevor Wilson, The Somme.

Canadian Artillery in Action

A Canadian 6-inch howitzer supports British troops in the attack on Thiepval on 16 July 1916 during the Somme offensive. The artist captures the exhaustion of the gunners, who appear to have been firing for hours. Prolonged exposure to the noise and shock artillery fire would rupture ear drums and ruin hearing. Most gunners suffered at least partial deafness as a result of their war service.

Painted by Captain Kenneth Keith Forbes
Beaverbrook Collection of War Art

Today is the 100th Anniversary of the Somme Offensive of the Great War, it is also Canada day and I’d like to take  a moment to talk about the men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. 

They come from an island, from very small fishing communities and are some of the kindest, most welcoming and thickly-accented people I’ve ever met. Their province, as today, was not a wealthy or well-developed one and yet they volunteered in droves when the war broke out. Many of them joined the Royal Navy as befitted their background and culture, but the pride of the Island was their Royal Regiment, ‘The Blue Puttees’ they were nicknamed for their leg-wrapping colour, a distinctive blue due to the lack of khaki materials in the island when many enlisted. 

On July 1st 1916, the regiment would be part of the first wave assaulting one of the most heavily defended parts of the western front, Beaumont-Hamel. In the space of about 20-30 minutes of going over the top, this pride of Newfoundland, their sons fathers and husbands who grew up together and now served together would suffer the 2nd highest casualty rate of any unit of the British Army in the 1st World War. 

780 men went over the top, 68 answered for roll call the next day. 

French Retake Fort Douaumont

French soldiers outside Douaumont after its recapture.

October 24 1916, Verdun–The fall of Fort Douaumont, the largest fort at Verdun, to under a hundred Germans in the first day of the battle was a continuing embarrassment for the French.  They had attempted to retake it on several occasions, reaching its roof once, but had never been able to crack into the fort itself.  Since the opening of the Somme offensive, the Germans had stopped attacking at Verdun, and the sacking of Falkenhayn meant his venture there fell to an even lower priority under Hindenburg & Ludendorff.  Casualties continued to mount, but reinforcements were not forthcoming.  Arnold Zweig described:

The Germans had held on hitherto beyond all imagination…[reduced now to] about seventy thousand men, scattered and lost in that ravaged land.  They had starved, they had crouched waist-high in watery slime, they had burrowed into the mud because it was their only cover, they had not slept, they had struggled against fever and held on.  And now they were beginning to crack.

Unlike the battles in the spring, the French this time were able to properly prepare an assault.  Instead of throwing in new reinforcements directly at the fort, three whole divisions would attack on a broad front.  For days before, heavy artillery would pound the fort and its environs (which already had the “appearance of a vast surface of boiling milk which characterizes a raging sea.”).  The bombardment caused severe damage and caused some fires among munitions stores.  Fearing a repeat of the explosion in May that had killed 650 men within the fort, the Germans began to panic.  The commanding officer, unable to keep his men in line, largely evacuated the fort on the night of October 23.

The next morning, the French divisions, equipped with compasses, advanced behind a creeping barrage.  What remained of the German trenches were taken with ease, the French taking over 6000 prisoners on the 24th alone.  Entering the fort itself, French soldiers quickly rounded up what stragglers remained.  Eight months later, the French had finally retaken Douaumont.  Despite the devastation on the outside (and the explosion in May), the interior was remarkably intact, much to their surprise.

Today in 1915: British Indian Advance on Baghdad Approved
Today in 1914: Maritz Defeated in South Africa

Sources include: David Mason, Verdun; Paul Jankowski, Verdun; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.