The OP spent last weekend on a Battlefield tour with the British Commission for Military History to the battlefields of the Allied Spring Offensive of 1917. Travelling with a bunch of military historians is more of a master class seminar than a battlefield tour. The historians leading on different aspects included Tim Gale on French Tanks, Tony Cowan and Jack Sheldon on the Germans in Spring 1917, Michael Orr on Bullecourt,(and Gavrelle), Andy Simpson on Arras, Robin Brodhurst on Monchy-le-Preux and Gordon Corrigan on the Canadians. The OP’s contribution was to defend the reputation of Robert Nivelle and the odd matters artillery in the absence of a more distinguished Gunner historian .
– Was there any real learning curve in the Allies in 1917?
– Was there any way that the Nivelle Offensive could have been successful?
– Did the Germans really have a consistent “elastic defence doctrine”
– What were the Russian Brigades doing on the Western Front?
BTW did you know that the lethal strain of Influenza that killed more than 45 million in 1918-19 first mutated in the British military hospitals in Etaples.
This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public. On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past. That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media. This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.
The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.
This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.
The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.
It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.
This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.
It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.
Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk
Everyone has heard of the first day of the Somme, famously the day on which the British Army suffered its highest casualties on a single day. Fourteen days later the British Army made its next big push. Demonstrating that occasionally lessons are learned and learned quickly, the plan was a bit different from on the 1st of July.
There wasn’t quite as many guns or ammunition as there was on the first day, but all of it was concentrated ion the German defences along Bazentin ridge and the German guns behind it. One the 1st of July there was one gun to every 20 yards of front – spread over two defensive lines and the preparation lasted for a week, firing 1.5 million shells . On the 14th there was one gun for every 6 yards and the preparation lasted for 48 hours, firing just under half a million rounds.
H Hour was 03.25 at dawn. The infantry of five divisions moved out into no mans land at night, and guided by mine tape deployed quietly a few hundred yards from the German front line. It was a great success and about three miles of German trenches were taken and a gap wide enough to launch cavalry – supported by a battery of horse artillery that still exists as N battery the Eagle Troop. However, by the time the cavalry was in action the Germans had blocked the gap.
The map is the hand drawn trace for the XIII Corps fireplan for the attack on 14th July. Delville Wood is on the right hand side just below the number 12. The wood above the number 10 is High Wood. The poet and author Robert Graves was wounded in this attack at the churchyard in the village of Bazentin-le-Petit to the left of the number 9.
The area between Delville and High woods was the focus for fighting for the next two months. It was calculated that seven shells a second landed on Delville Wood at times.
Two of the casualties on that day was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley George Blois DSO Commander of 84th Brigade RFA and his Trumpeter. They were riding forwards to recconoitre new positions for 84th Field Brigade of 18th Division and caught by shellfire. Blois a descendent of the royal house of Blois, is commemorated in Blythburgh Church in Suffolk.
If you are interested in visiting any of these battlefields and hearing the Gunner side of the story contact Gunner Tours.
9th July is the anniversary of the action for which Captain Henry Tombs https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Tombs of the Bengal Horse Artillery was awarded the Victoria Cross, and became the honour title of “Tombs’ Troop” , now 28/143 battery (Tombs Troop)
Tombs was awarded the VC for coming to the assistance of one of his subalterns who had got into a spot of bother in hand to hand combat with mutineers. The citation says: “For very gallant conduct on the part of Lieutenant Hills before Delhi, in defending the position assigned to him in case of alarm, and for noble behaviour on the part of Lieutenant-Colonel Tombs in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue, and on each occasion killing his man.”
The citation references a dispatch by Lieutenant-Colonel M. Mackenzie’s which reads:
Despatch No. 40, Lieut.-Colonel M. Mackenzie, commanding 1st Brigade Horse Artillery, to Brigadier A. Wilson, Commandant
CAMP NEAR DELHI,
July 10, 1857.
“It is with great pleasure I submit, for the information of the Brigadier Commandant, the following account of the very gallant conduct of Second Lieut. James Hills, of the 2nd Troop, 1st Brigade Horse Artillery, and the noble behaviour of his commanding officer, Major H. Tombs, in twice coming to his subaltern’s rescue and on each occasion killing his man.
Yesterday, the 9th inst., Second-Lieut. J. Hills was on picket-duty, with two guns, at the mound to the right of the camp. About eleven o’clock a.m. there was a rumour that the enemy’s cavalry were coming down on this post. Lieut. Hills proceeded to take up the position assigned in case of alarm, but before he reached the spot he saw the enemy close upon his guns, before he had time to form up. To enable him to do this, Lieut. Hills boldly charged, single handed, the head of the enemy’s column, cut down the first man, struck the second and was then ridden down, horse and all.
On getting up and searching for his sword, three more men
came at him (two mounted). The first man he wounded with his pistol, he caught the lance of the second with his left hand, and
wounded him with his sword. The first man then came on again and was cut down; the third man (on foot) then came up and
wrenched the sword from the hand of Lieut. Hills (who fell in the struggle), and the enemy was about to cut him down when Major Tombs (who had gone up to visit his two guns) saw what was going on, rushed in and shot the man and saved Lieut. Hills. By this time the enemy’s cavalry had passed by, and Major Tombs and Lieut. Hills went to look after the wounded men, when Lieut. Hills observed one of the enemy passing with his (Lieut. Hills’) pistol. They walked towards him. The man began flourishing his sword and dancing about. He first cut at Lieut. Hills, who parried the blow, and he then turned on Major Tombs, who received the blow in the same manner. His second attack on Lieut. Hills was, I regret to say, more successful, as he was cut down with a bad sword-cut on the head, and would have been no doubt killed had not Major Tombs rushed in and put his sword through the man. I feel convinced that such gallant conduct on the part of these two officers has only to be brought properly forward to meet with an appropriate reward. Major Tombs was saved from a severe sword cut on the head by the wadded head-dress he wore.
“(Signed) M. MACKENZIE,
The Tombs claimed that his folded military cloak saved his life from the sword thrusts of his opponents.
There was a lot more to Henry Tombs than this act of gallantry. Here is what Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar had to say about him in his autobiography “Forty One Years years in India”
I longed to meet and know the men who names were in everyone’s mouth. The hero of the day was Henry Tombs, of the Bengal Horse Artillery, an unusually handsome man and a thorough soldier. His gallantry in the attack on the Idgah (a Mahomedan place of worship and sacrifice) and wherever he had been engaged was the general talk of the camp. I had always heard of Tombs as one of the best officers in the regiment, and it was with feelings of respectful admiration that I made his acquaintance a few days later.
Jemmy Hills, one of the subalterns in Tomb’s troop, was an old Addiscombe friend of mine; he delighted in talking of his Commander, in dilating on his merits as a soldier and his skill in handling each arm of the service. As a cool, bold leader of men, Tombs was unsurpassed ; no fire, however hot, and no crisis, however unexpected, could take him by surprise ; he grasped the situation in a moment and issued his orders without hesitation, inspiring all ranks with confidence in his power and capacity. He was somewhat of a martinet, and was more feared than liked by his men until they realized what a grand leader he was, when they gave him their entire confidence and were ready to follow him anywhere and everywhere.” Page 175.
On the 17th (September, 1857) we were attacked from almost every direction— a manoeuvre intended to prevent our observing a battery which was being constructed close to an Idgah situated on a hill to our right, from which to enfilade our position on the Ridge. As it was very important to prevent the completion of this battery, Barnard ordered it to be attacked by two small columns, one commanded by Tombs, of the Bengal Horse Artillery, the other by Reid. Tombs, with 400 of the 6oth Rifles and 1st Bengal Fusiliers, thirty of the Guides Cavalry, twenty Sappers and Miners and his own troop of Horse Artillery, moved towards the enemy’s left. . . . Tombs drove the rebels through a succession of gardens, till they reached the Idgah, where they made an obstinate but unavailing resistance. The gates of the mosque were blown open and thirty-nine of its defenders were killed. Tombs himself was slightly wounded and had two horses killed, making five which had been shot under this gallant soldier since the commencement of the campaign.” Page 169.
Henry Tombs was a veteran of dozens of campaigns over twenty years of service and his military career is the story of the British Army in India. As a twenty year old Subaltern he was ADC to Sir Harry Smith, who had stormed Badajoz in the Peninislar war under Wellington. Tombs was promoted to major general at the age of 42, but died aged 49 of sickness.
However, James Hill, http://www.britishmedals.us/people/hills.html the subaltern Tombs saved, and awarded the VC for the same action lived to the age of 85 and died in 1919 as a Lieutenant General , living through the first world war. He maintained his friendship with Lord Roberts choosing to spend some of his retirement on campaign in South Africa during the Boer War serving in a private capacity on Lord Robert’s staff. (Is this an extreme form of battlefield tourism?)
The battery that he had served in fighting with sword and revolver had become 56th Howitzer battery RFA which served on the Western Front throughout the First World War and took part in the battle for Delville Wood on the Somme 100 years ago this month in late July 1916.
To visit the battlefields of the Royal Artillery for battlefield tours, staff rides and battlefield studies contact Gunner Tours firstname.lastname@example.org
“On ne passe pas’” (They shall not pass!) emerged from the battle of Verdun as watchwords of French. This phrase, widely attributed to General Phillip Petain has been used as a rallying cry for France since then, and an inspiration for subsequent defiance by, among others, Spanish Republicans, south American revolutionaries and the Russian Feminist group Pussy Riot. But like many national symbols and iconic events, much of the story is myth, factoid rather than fact. But the story behind the myth does reveal something about the battle of Verdun and the men who coined the catch phrase.
Verdun was one of the major battles of the First World War, costing the French and the Germans about a quarter of a million casualties each. The battles of Verdun and the Somme, linked inextricably, dominated the Western Front in 1916. The Germans intended to break the French Army by forcing it to fight a battle of attrition under unfavourable circumstances. The battle was launched with heavy artillery support on 22nd February 1916. Catching the French ill prepared, the offensive was initially successful, inflicting heavy casualties on the French and their forces in disarray, crowned by the capture of Fort Douamont on the 25th February.
The same day, General Petain, commander of the Second Army, was ordered to take charge of the Verdun sector. He was chosen purely because his army was in reserve and available. Petain was an infantryman with an undistinguished pre war career only enlivened by his rejection of the pre war orthodoxy that willpower and aggression could overcome modern weapons. As an instructor at the Ecole de Guerre he preached the heresy that “firepower kills,” with the logical implication that a well organised defence would stop the Attaque à outrance (attack to excess). His rise to army command in the first eighteen months of the war had confirmed the need to “separate the real from the imaginary and the possible from impossible.”i An address to a decimated regiment illustrates this.
You went into the assault singing the Marseillaise; It was magnificent. But next time you will not need to sing the Marseillaise. There will be a sufficient number of guns to ensure your attack’s success.
The measures Petain took to defend Verdun were based on firepower and belief that there were no short cuts to victory. He centralised control of the artillery and massed defensive fires where it could be most effective. He organised administration and logistics and arranged for a systematic and early replacement of formations committed to Verdun, known as the “Noria” (bucket chain) or “tourniquet” (turnstile).
On 10th April Petain issued an order of the day which ended with the phrase “Courage, on les auras” (Take heart, we’ll get them.) This was meant to stick in the memory as a catch phrase. It was a allusion to the words of Joan of Arc at Orleans. “Nos ennemis, fussent-ils pendu aux nuages, nous les aurons! Et nous les bouterons hors de France!” (Our enemies, even if they hung in the clouds, we shall get them! And we will drive them out of France!) They were a reminder of the need for patience a war that could only be won by only fighting winnable battles but might take a long time.
Petain’s realistic, pessimistic approach to value counter attacks, did him no favours with Joffre, the French commander in chief or with the politicians. On 27th April Petain was promoted to Commander of the Central Region, and replaced as commander of the 2nd Army, by General Robert Nivelle who was more to Joffre’s taste. Like Petain a mere colonel in 1914, Nivelle’s career had a meteoric trajectory. A heroic action at the Marne was followed by successful command of a brigade, divisional and corps. A whole hearted believed of the ideas of de Gradnmaison, Nivelle believed that success in battle was based on the will to win and that flawed leadership (but not his) led to “defaillance”, (weakness or breakdown). However, artilleryman Nivelle was also aware of the necessity of good infantry artillery co-operation. He was probably responsible for the most important technical development that enabled attacks to succeed, the barrage roulant – the creeping barrage.
On 23 June 1916 the Germans planned a major attack by their elite mountain corps. This would be preceded by “Green Cross”, chemical artillery shells containing Phosgene, a new very lethal choking agent, which the Germans thought might penetrate French gas masks.
The phosgene barrage caused consternation and 1,800 casualties, mainly among French gunners. By the end of the day German infantry penetrated the furthest they ever achieved towards Verdun. Nivelle issued an order of the day that included the words “Vous ne les laisserez passer, mon camadares” (“You will do not let them pass”
Crisis at the battle of Verdun 23 June 1916. The solid blue line shows the French line before the attack. The dashed line shows the furthest extent of the German advance and the blue crosses the positions restored by the French by 2nd July
This wasn’t an original phrase. It had been circulating among the troops for some time, but there is no evidence that Petain used the phrase himself It was an appeal drawing on ‘cran’ (guts) very much Nivelle’s style . However this was out of character for Petain whose command style was based on promises of artillery support and avoided appeals for flesh to face material or attempt the physically impossible. The crisis passed and the very next day, the preliminary barrage started on the battle of the Somme. From this moment Verdun became a secondary sector. However, throughout the remainder of 1916 Nivelle, occasionally constrained by Petain conducted a series of counter attacks which cumulated in the dramatic recapture of the Fort Douemont on 24th October. On that day the French troops advancing under a creeping barrage recaptured the ground that it had taken the Germans months to capture.
At the end of 1916, the French government had lost confidence in Joffre, their commander in chief, held responsible for the neglect of the defences of Verdun and the disappointing results of the Somme offensive. On the 27th December 1916 Joffre was promoted to Marshall and removed from command, to be replaces by Nivelle, who promised a decisive victory if allowed to use his tactics on larger scale. The failure of the Nivelle Offensive in May 1917 and the subsequent mutinies led to Nivelle’s fall and replacement by Petain. Nivelle was largely forgotten and Verdun became, in the public mind synonymous with Petain.
In the meantime he catch phrase “On ne passe pas” , to use an anachronism, went viral. It joined “Old Contemptables” “In Flanders Fields” and “over the top” evoking aspects of the war. The call for the spirit to over come material odds made it attractive for the underdog and even chic.
The difference catch phrases of Petain and Nivelle illustrate different approaches to the battle of Verdun. They were also present in the British high command. The logic of Petain’s approach leads to the “bite and hold “ school identified with Rawlinson and Plumer, while Nivelle’s appeal to strength of will has much in common with the “Harroshing” of Haig and Gough. Indeed, Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order of the day in April 1918 is very similar to Nivelle’s appeal on 23 June.
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There is a lot to see at Verdun, where far more of the battlefield was abandoned after the war. Far fewer Britons visit Verdun, know as much about this battle or even its connection to the battle of the Somme. If you are interested in visiting the battlefield of Verdun or other battlefields of the Western Front contact me.
The Battle of the Somme was the largest, most bloody battle fought by the British Army. The popular image in Britain is of waves of foot soldiers going over the top into a hail of shells and bullets. But whether they succeeded often depended on how well the Gunners had breached then barbed wire, damaged defences, neutralised enemy batteries and neutralised enemy in the path of the infantry, and whether the infantry used the barrage.The Somme was an artillery battle, the first of its scale waged by the Royal Regiment. The artillery plan for the 1st of July assault was the first army wide artillery instruction. Within common principles and guidelines each corps developed its own fire plan. In one sense the First Day of the Somme was a very big experiment with each Corps trying out a different technique for supporting the infantry.
The verdict was clear by the end of the day and the tactics used by the XV and XIII Corps, of heavy counter battery fire and a creeping barrage became the norm for future attacks.
The majority of the BEF’s troops were “Kitchener’s” New Army Volunteers, raised for the duration of the war.However, many of the regular and territorial units which fired in the opening barrage and on the first day of the Somme are still part of the Royal Artillery.
The northern most corps, VII Corps of the 3rd Army was made by two Territorial Divisions, the 46th (North Midlands) and the 56th (London). 210 (Staffordshire ) Battery can be considered the descendants of the CCXXXI (231)and CCXXXII (232) (II and III North Midlands Brigades) recruited from Staffordshire
265 (Home Counties) battery might consider themselves associated with the territorial artillery brigades of the 56th (London) Division at Gommecourt. The Home Counties Territorials also formed the 1/1 (Kent) Heavy Battery with four 4.7” Guns, part of the 48th Heavy Artillery group supporting the VIIth Corps at Gommecourt, as was the 1/1 Lowland Heavy battery, raised from the recruiting area of 207 (City of Glasgow ) Battery.
The VIIIth Corps, was the Northernmost army corps in the Fourth Army. One of its infantry divisions, the “Incomparable 29th Division” formed from regular units serving across the world. This division fought in Gallipoli and in all of the major battles on the Western front from the Somme onwards. The part of the battlefield over which the 29th Division advanced is includes the preserved battlefield of Newfoundland Park, one of the most visited and photographed. One regiment and four current day batteries have antecedents which served with the 29th Division on the First Day of the Somme.
The XVII Field Brigade is still part of the Gunners, being renumbered 19 Regiment after the Second World War. One of XVII Field Brigade’s batteries, numbered 13 Battery in 1916 is still part of 19th Regiment, having been renumbered as 28 battery in 1947. According to the fire plan, this battery fired the artillery support for the doomed attack across Newfoundland Park.
B and L Battery RHA also were part of the 29th Division and fought on the first day of the Somme. XV Brigade RHA was formed from RHA units, but was equipped with the 18 pounder field gun and carried out the same function as a divisional field artillery battery. B Battery sent an OP party forward to support the capture of the Hawthorn ridge crater caused by the much photographed mine.
10 Battery RFA, now 25/170 (Imjin) HQ Battery of 12 Regiment served in 147 Field Brigade, also part of the 29 Divisional artillery group.
The heavy artillery of the VIII corps included 1/1 Highland Heavy Battery, part of 1st heavy Artillery group raised from the recruiting area of 212 (Highland) Battery, and 1/1 Welsh Heavy Battery, raised in Carnarvon. Both territorial batteries were equipped with four 4.7” guns.
To the right of VIII Corps was X Corps, which attacked the dominating ground around the village of Theipval. None of the field batteries of its new army and territorial had survived to the current day.
However, 17 Siege Battery RGA, the
recently disbanded 52 (Niagra) Battery was part of 40 Heavy Artillery Group which was the Northern Group supporting X Corps. The battery was equipped with four 30 cwt 6” Howitzers and fired on targets in the sector attacked by the 36th Ulster Division and commemorated by the Ulster Tower memorial.
The III Corps attacked either side of La Boiselle on the Albert-Bapaume road. This was the point of main effort of the Fourth Army. North of the road, the 8th Regular Infantry Division attacked towards the village of Orvilliers. Its artillery group included V Brigade RHA, now 5 Regiment, and XLV Brigade RFA renumbered as 14 Regiment in 1947.
As with XV RHA, V RHA Brigade, was equipped as a field brigade, there being a greater need for field rather than horse artillery in trench warfare. V Brigade RHA’s batteries included was O and Z batteries RHA.
XLV Field Brigade, which became 14 Regiment and three of its batteries have also survived. 1 Battery as “The Blazers”, 3 Battery RFA as 13 (Martinique) Battery and 5 battery as 5 (Gibraltar 1779–83) Battery. This divisions attack just north of the Albert Bapaume road towards Orvilliers also failed with heavy casualties
The Heavy Artillery of III Corps included:-
1 Siege Battery equipped with four 6” howitzers, part of 27th heavy Artillery group. This became 73 battery, now part of 4/73 (Sphinx) Battery.
90 Heavy Battery RGA, equipped with four 60 pounder guns. part of 22 Heavy Artillery Group became the current day 38 (Seringapatam) Battery.
1/1 London (Woolwich) Heavy battery was part of 34 Heavy Artillery Group RGA, equipped with four 4.7” guns.
XV Corps was to the right of III Corps. One of its two assaulting infantry divisions was the regular 7th Infantry Division. The artillery group included XXXV (35) Brigade RFA, which still survives as 29 Commando Regiment, as does one of its batteries 12 Battery RFA, now 8 Alma Commando Battery as do F and T Battery RHA which served as part of XIV brigade RHA. The attacks by the 7th Infantry division were among the most successful of the day, due in part to the innovative creeping barrage fired by the artillery of the corps.
1/2 Lancashire Heavy Battery, based in Sefton Barracks Liverpool, in the current day 208 battery recruiting area was part of the 18th Heavy Artillery Group equipped with four 4.7” Guns
The attacks by the two New Army Divisions of XIIIth Corps were the most successful of the day.
115Heavy Battery RGA, the current day 18 (Quebec 1759) Battery was also equipped with four 60 pounder guns as part of 29th heavy Artillery Group in support of the XIII Corps. This was the right hand British Corps in the attack on the 1st day of the Somme. Their counter battery fire was particularly effective, supported by additional French heavy guns and a factor in the breakthrough in the XIII Corps sector.
1/1 Lancashire Heavy Battery was part of 29 Heavy Artillery group supporting XIII Corps, This too was raised in Sefton Road, Liverpool.
The story on each Corps sector is different. There are the personal accounts of the men who served the guns. And there is the story of how the Army developed the techniques learned at a painful cost to turn the Somme into the “Muddy Grave of the German army.”
If you would like to visit these places and see what the Gunners did on the Somme, there are still places available on the Somme Centenary Gunner Tour.
The first day of the Somme is best known for 57,000 casualties suffered by the British Army; the largest in a single day, and the event that supports the idea of British generals as “Butchers and Bunglers.” Yet, paradoxically, it was concern for safety which led to disastrously high casualties and failure of most of the attacks.
ir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the Fourth Army. His initial plan for a methodical advance was rejected.
The battle of the Somme originated from a decision taken in December 1915, that the Entente powers, Britain, France, Italy and Russia would all launch an attack as soon as possible in 1916. The Somme was selected as the site of the Anglo French offensive because it was the junction between the two armies. It was originally envisaged that the French Army would take the lead. However, the German offensive at Verdun, started in February 1916 cost the French and Germans armies over 200,000 casualties each. By June 1916 not only would the British have to take the lead at the Somme, offensive but the bear This had two consequences, there were fewer French troops available which meant that the British would have to take the lead. Furthermore, the attack of the Somme was imperative to take pressure from the French at Verdun.
The British Army had limited experience of offensive battles, and had never planned an operation of the scale of the battle of the Somme. In March 1915 the British had launched a successful breach into the German lines at Neuve Chapelle, supported by a concentrated barrage by the artillery of the British Expeditionary Force. During other attacks in 1915 a shortage of artillery ammunition had prevented the British from repeating this level of fire support. However, by 1916 British industry had geared up to supply the vastly expanded British Expeditionary force swelled by millions of volunteers who Kitchener’s New Army recruited in 1914-15.
The largest ever British Army would be supported by the huge quantity of artillery pieces, 1072 light and 442 medium and heavy guns
GHQ issued no special instruction on the co-operation of infantry and artillery as, in the words of the official history, this main feature of the theory of the assault was well understood. In summary, towards the the close of the bombardment, shortly before Zero, the artillery would put down an intense barrage on the enemy front trenches; at Zero this would be lifted and dropped on the next trench, from which it would be lifted at a fixed time. Before each lift, the infantry under cover of the barrage was to creep to within as close assaulting distance as the barrage permitted. This was around 100 yards from the enemy’s front parapet and the infantry was to assault as soon as the barrage lifted.”
It was impressed on all, at conferences by both Haig and Rawlinson that “nothing could exist at the conclusion of the bombardment in the area covered by it.” Owing to this optimism, the problem of evicting the Germans from the labyrinth of trenches was seen just as one of assault only. It was not seen as a race for the parapet between the attackers across no man’s land against the defenders in the their dug outs. Instead it was seen as something that could be done at leisure.
Not everyone shared this assumption. “Some Regimental officers suggested that the infantry might creep even nearer to the barrage, as was done later on and in at least one instance on the 1st of July. Forty yards was suggested instead of a hundred but it did not receive official approval. (1)
The race to the parapet was the essence of attacking a trench. It can be envisaged as a rather deadly form of ‘rock-paper-scissors’. The defenders can either be in their dugouts or manning the trenches. The attackers can either send artillery rounds or infantrymen. Defenders lining trenches would slaughter attacking infantry but were vulnerable to artillery fire. Defenders would be reasonably safe in their dugouts, but could do nothing if the attackers were waiting at the top of the dugout steps. The key was for the assaulting infantry to be so close to the artillery barrage that the defenders had no time to react.
The shrapnel shells from the British 18 Pdr Field gun were highly directional, and ejected forwards, like the blast from a shotgun. In the Boer war the British found that infantry could advance to within 50 yards with some safety. Japanese troops had also used these tactics in the Russo-Japanese War, as had the French in their costly 1915 offensive in Champagne. The “dapper and charismatic” artilleryman Robert Nivelle had developed a creeping barrage (le barrage roulant) 80-100m ahead of the leading infantry. (2)
The trouble with this tactic was that it had a fatal cost. Artillery rounds do not all land in the same place, but are scattered in a cigar shaped pattern, through variation in the propellant and further dispersed by variations in the wind and of temperature and human error in laying the piece. So “getting close to the barrage” inevitably meant “in a place likely to be struck by shrapnel from a shell that fell shorter than most”. Indeed the rule of thumb, later in the war, was that unless the infantry were taking casualties from their own artillery fire, then they were not close enough.
So the commanders faced a dilemma. The men lost to artillery fire would usually be far lower than the casualties suffered from the machine guns of alert defenders. However, if the artillery preparation was going to leave the defenders unable to resist then would it be right to expose the infantry to friendly fire casualties?
To make matters worse, the gunners firing the barrage were mostly Kitchener’s Army men. Their gunners, technicians and officers had limited training and experience, and were using ammunition and guns produced by newly expanded or hired suppliers. It might have been sensible to apply nn extra safety margin. The plans for the 1st July seem to bear this out.
The fire plan for the first day of the Somme specified an artillery barrage that would lift from the German front line trenches at zero hour, even though the distance between the British and German Trenches was much wider – from 200-800 metres across most of the assault frontage. Some British units left their trenches before zero hour, and worked their way as close as possible to the German trenches. Where they did, the British succeeded in capturing the German front lines; the Ulstermen at the Schwaben redoubt, the Highland Light infantry at the Leipzig redoubt and the 30th Division near Maricourt. Elsewhere, success was more illusive and on much of the front the assaulting infantry faced fully manned trenches.
The excessive safety distance between the starting barrage and the infantry wasn’t the only reason that casualties were so heavy and the gains so slight on the 1st July. There needed to be enough breaches in the German wire. Where the wire was intact, the advance stopped. It helped if the defenders were crushed in their dugouts or demoralised by the barrage. There were more, and heavier guns, and the dug outs were less deep south of the Albert-Bapaume. The Germans had to be prevented from bringing down their own defensive barrage preventing movement across no mans land. There were fewer German guns south of the Albert Bapaume Road, and the British could call on the more numerous French heavy guns for counter battery .
The worst losses and least success was on the frontage of the VIIIth corps where a “safety factor” played a grotesque part in the tragedy that unfolded. A number of a mines had been dug under the German trenches. Almost all were scheduled to be detonated at 07.28, on the 1st July, two minutes before zero hour. This would allow two minutes for the debris to fall before the British infantry assaulted the crater. One of these was under the Hawthorn redoubt near the village of Beaumont Hamel. The commander of VIII Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wanted this to be fired some hours before the attack, so that the redoubt could be occupied before the assault, but sufficiently in advance that any general alarm would have died down by zero hour. This was vetoed by more senior commanders, but as a compromise the mine would be fired at 07.20, ten minutes before Zero.
This allowed for a plan to occupy the crater early, but it required the heavy artillery bombardment of the redoubt and adjacent trenches to lift during the assault. However, instead of fire lifting only from the immediate area, all of the VIII Corps heavy artillery was ordered to lift at 7:20 a.m. and the field artillery to lift at 7:25 a.m. A light Shrapnel barrage fired by the divisional field artillery, was to continue on the front trench until zero hour but in the 29th Division sector, half of the guns were to lift three minutes early.
This allowed the German defenders ten minutes notice of the impending assault and condemned the infantry from three divisions to heavy casualties and failure across the breadth of their front. It did not matter how well the wire had been cut or whether the infantry crept out into no man’s land. One of the attacking battalions lost all its officers before zero hour.
So why did the seemingly responsible commanders, who were professional experienced soldiers, get this decision so wrong?
One simplistic, but popular explanation is that the commanders were incompetent “butchers and bunglers”iii. Professor Norman Dixon in the Psychology of Military Incompetence (4) argued that there was something about military training which led to poor decision making. Indeed, the performance of General Sir Aylmer Hunter Weston is hard to describe as anything less than incompetent. “Hunter-Bunter” was a strange man with a command style reminiscent of that of the monstrous Blackadder creation General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett. The disastrous decision to lift fire early across the VIII Corps front was very much in keeping with his micro-management and idiosyncratic decision-making. He had a history of over compensating for the risks of friendly fire in Gallipoli. He was found out on the first day on the Somme. Afterwards, although he retained his command, he was never entrusted with command in an offensive and only employed on quiet sectors. Could he have been removed earlier? To be fair to Rawlinson and Haig, Hunter-Weston was new to the Western Front. He had commanded the 29th Division and then the VIII Corps at Cape Helles in Gallipoli and arrived with his corps as an experienced commander and a reputation of relatively competent performance.
Elsewhere in the BEF the disastrous decision about fire plan timings resulted from agreements between groups of people, commanders and subordinates and their staffs.
In the first instance, the senior commanders were not looking at this problem. The correspondence between Rawlinson and Haig shows a focus on the problems of exploiting success. In earlier battles such as Loos and Neuve Chapelle the British infantry had taken the German first line wherever they had adequate artillery support.
The plan for the Somme was a bad compromise. Rawlinson, commander of the fourth army, put forward a plan for a phased advance, initially taking just the first German line, which he and his staff thought was within the capabilities of the resources available. Haig did not think this was ambitious enough. He rejected the plans and insisted that an attempt should be made to breach both the front line and the second line to ensure that any opportunity for a breakthrough was not missed.
On this occasion Haig was able to impose his will on Rawlinson, despite reservations about the artillery being spread too thin made by the newly appointed artillery adviser at GHQ, General Birch. Birch and Rawlinson, having expressed their opinions in private, then issued orders and expressed their confidence in them.
As the Official History notes, not everybody assumed that the enemy would be flattened by the preparatory barrage. There seems to have been sufficient internal criticism for Rawlinson to include the following in the Fourth Army tactical notes;
“it must be remembered that all criticism by subordinates of their superiors, and of orders received from superior authority, will in the end recoil on the heads of the critics and undermine their authority with those below them.” (5)
This was hardly the atmosphere in which to challenge the fundamentals of the plan. The late, great professor Richard Holmes remarked in the episode on the Battle of the Somme in the Western Front BBC series that the generals of the first world war were stronger in physical than moral courage.
It should be said that the BEF was very quick to learn and the next major attack, on the 14th July, less than two weeks after the first day, was conducted with a much greater concentration of artillery fire and with the infantry following a creeping barrage.
There is a modern relevance of the battle of the Somme. This was a major high profile project into which much had been invested and expected. The resources available weren’t enough to deliver the hoped for results. At the heart of the plan were flaws that, could have been spotted and rectified but were not. The plan required subordinates to achieve “stretch targets”, “do more with less”, and “sell the party line” within an organisational culture that inhibited internal criticism.
The safety margin dilemma occurs frequently across all walks of life. If anything, the compensation culture makes it harder to choose to take risks. It is very hard to imagine the modern British Army willingly encroach on safety distances even if was the only way to win a battle.
We may not face machine guns and un-cut wire, but we often make important business and other decisions against a back ground of pressure from peers and superiors to agree to deliver uncertain commitments as part of a team effort. Many of us are under pressure to support decisions that have been made and face severe personal and career sanctions for whistle blowing. What is it that we can do to be more effective both as leaders in these situations and followers?
If you would like to visit the Somme and see the story of the artillery on the Somme join Gunner Tours on the Somme Centenary tour. email@example.com
The centenary of the battle of the Somme, which took place between June-and November 1916, has a special significance in Gunner history. This was the largest battle fought by the British army, costing 400,000 casualties. While public interest in the battle centres on the infantry who went 'over the top' on the first of July, the Gunner battle started a week earlier with the opening bombardment by the largest number of guns assembled.The Somme was essentially an artillery battle, with the guns the only weapons capable of clearing wire, destroying and neutralising defences and artillery. This was an awesome responsibility, and the success or failure of the infantry was down to the effectiveness of the fire plan. The story of how the Royal Artillery learned during the campaign is one of successful innovation, and a matter of pride to Gunners.It is also a human story. We will see where Gunner staff work made a difference; where Gunners went over the top with the infantry and where . Gunners worked to the point of exhaustion in the service of the guns.This tour will tell this story at the places where this largest artillery battle took place 100 years after the opening barrage was fired.
(1) Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds; Military Operations: France and Belgium, 1916, Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme,, 1932
(2) Strong P and Marble S, Artillery in the Great War
(3) John Laffin;s polemic “Butchers and Bunglers of World War one” is the publication which is most associated with the term.
(4) Dixon N F, On The Psychology Of Military Incompetence, Basic Books, 1976
Blackadder goes Forth was the final series of the Blackadder BBC TV comedy programme. “The series placed the recurring characters of Blackadder, Baldrick and George in a trench in Flanders during World War I, and followed their various doomed attempts to escape from the trenches to avoid certain death under the misguided command of General Melchett.” The six programmes in this series were a satirical comedy set in the trenches of the Western Front. The characters were grotesque and funny, but the series ended with the poignant death of most of them in a hail of bullets in 1917, in slow motion with a final scene cutting into a shot of a field of poppies.
This was the “Oh What Lovely War” version of the First World War, with a heavy handed moral slant, but it is also glorious comic satire. And being funny is one of the core values of the British Army. Not the official Core Values of the British Army , which are Courage, Discipline, Respect for others, Integrity, Loyalty and Selfless Commitment. All worthy ideals but they do not round out the character of the British Army. There are at least three other unofficial core values –“ Sense of Humour”; “BS Baffles Brains” and above all “Don’t get Caught” all come to mind.
There is a grain of truth in each episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. Starting with the existence of a Captain Blackadder in the Royal Field Artillery, as reported by the Radio Times in 2014. The Imperial War Museum (IWM) has a copy of his diary. This is listed as providing details of his service in 151 Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. However, Peter Hart and Nigel Steel, both senior staff members of the IWM, record his unit as the 152 Battery – so I am not sure which is right. Both of these batteries were raised in Scotland, equipped with four 8″ Howitzers and deployed to France in August 1916. Blackadder took part in the major battles from the 1916 battle of the Somme to the end of the war and his observations are a primary source for these battles. During this time he rose from lieutenant to major and decorated for gallantry for organising the withdrawal of his guns , ammunition and stores under heavy fire.
The real Blackadder, with his accounting background looks a little more like Tim McInnerny’s Captain Darling.
However, the extracts from his diary from summer 1917 in the 3rd battle of Ypres make it clear that he was far from a pen pusher with a paper-clip fetish.
The road to the new position is a mere apology for a road and as we are taking down the first gun at night the road surface collapses and the gun sinks to its cradle. It has lain there for three days now and we have not been able to shift it — two caterpillars failed to move it. Now we have had heavy rain so it is very doubtful if we will get the guns to their new place at all. The result of three nights’ work is to get one gun into a hole and another off to a workshop. Tonight I am to get the gun out of the ditch and another to the workshop if possible. The Hun shelled the battery all afternoon, broke another limber and badly damaged the road again. About midnight he again shelled and set off more ammunition but all the men got clear. I got the gun out of the ditch with two engines and into the new position. It was difficult to get the gun away to the workshop owing to the road being cut up but we succeeded without mishap about 3 a.m.”
29 July (1917) At night, about 11 p.m., the old Hun began to strafe us and all around. The guns got it first of all so I ordered all to clear out. Then he worked up towards the fighting post, a concrete erection left by the Hun. Several of the gunners had come up here for shelter some very badly shaken. The shells were falling very near now, the concussion putting out the lights several times, then, all of a sudden, a tremendous crash and all darkness and smoke almost suffocating us — a direct hit on the post! We lit the candles again, but could hardly see for the smoke.
After ascertaining all were untouched I tried to get out, the shelling having moved to the guns again, but found the entrance blocked with debris. All wires had been broken too so we were out of touch with the guns and headquarters. We soon worked a passage out and set to work to get into communication. Meantime some of the ammunition on No. 3 gun had been set on fire and the limber and stores were burning merrily: I got this gunner to come with me to put the fire out, this we did without mishap and returned to the concrete post. About 2 a.m. the shelling stopped and at dawn we reckoned up the damage done. Casualties, nil, material destroyed, very little. The fighting post was only slightly damaged and will stand many more hits thanks to the excellent work of` the Hun.”
Once again, it is ‘Der Tag’ and again we are nibbling at the Bosche line. Our Battery is busy closing up the Hun guns and during the day in addition to carrying out our programme during the attack, we received many calls from aeroplanes who saw Hun guns active. The Hun strafed the Battery area just before zero hour and broke all the communications to the guns, but we got these put right just in time. He did little damage though he hit No. 2 gun pit twice. During the day too, he endeavoured to neutralise the Batteries about our area with shrapnel and high velocity guns, but we got off with no damage.
Lieutenant Robert Blackadder 152nd (sic) Siege Battery Royal Garrison Artillery. (Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground)
1. Steele and Hart Passchendaele: The Sacrificial Ground – on e of the best histories of this battle, drawing heavily on personal accounts and one of the few that tells the story from the Gunner’s perspective.
2. https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/366252 The entry credited to Paul Evans look like the work of Firepower’s archivist
3.http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=101508 The pictures of 152 Seige battery, triggered by someone’s family research.
In June 2015, a party from 26 Regiment, based in Guetersloh, Germany, carried out Exercise Mansergh NorthAG, a battlefield study of the Cold War battlefields of Western Germany and Berlin. This was their leg in Ubique 300 taking the Captain General’s Baton everywhere the Royal Regiment of Artillery served in the past three centuries.
Fortunately, the armed forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact never came into armed conflict, but for nearly 50 years this is where armies planned to fight at short notice. The North German Plain is one
of the few places where it is possible to study how the Britain and its allies would fight against a modern well equipped army. It is sobering to consider how chemical and tactical nuclear weapons might have been used, and how and why they were replaced by more effective precision weapons.
There were casualties including fatalities. Hundreds of Germans died trying to escape Eastern Germany in addition to servicemen and women injured in training. The marks of the divided city of Berlin are evidence of the human and economic cost and a reminder of the psychological and intelligence war that took place throughout these decades.
It was fascinating and impressive to see how the soldiers of the modern army explored the past, considered the lessons for the current day and how to apply them in the future.
In wartime it would have been an alternative crossing had the Soviets captured or destroyed other crossings.
It is a forgotten battlefield, not least because the mainly classified documents associated with the Cold War were destroyed as part of the peace dividend in the 1990s.
It was only possible to assemble the information to carry out the study with support from many retired soldiers and officers who taxed their brains to retrieve what were once state secrets. Many thanks to Generals Mungo Melvin, Jonathan Bailey and John Milne and to the various RA Regimental associations, in particular the 50 Missile Association.
The Brandenburg Gate – the symbol of a divided city
Major Simon Fittock, the exercise director, gave his view:-
“I requested Frank’s assistance to deliver a battlefield study, based on the ‘Functions in Combat’ that was designed to look at the Cold War and specifically the multinational Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) centred around the North/Central area of Hannover, West Germany. The tour also visited Berlin to continue its studies of the Information and Intelligence Wars.
Right from the off Frank’s engaging style kicked in. His impromptu introduction on the coach during the journey to our first stand set the context fantastically,
bringing the scenario to life and immediately putting the troops in the era and whilst relating his own memories to our current dispositions and our approach to the very high readiness lifestyle that those in the 70-80’s lived through.
His insight into the era, having lived through exercises and deployments, combined with an acute ability to translate the issues into modern day language and engage with all ranks worked fantastically.
I cannot recommend him highly enough and will certainly be using him again in the future.”
One of the results of this exercises is that we have assembled a useful collection of information and documents about the Cold War. If anyone is interested in studying this period either in Germany or the UK contact Gunner Tours.
Gunner Tours have launched the 2015 public tour programme. They tell the story of the key battles with a focus on the role that the artillery played, and the stories of those who served the guns. Around 25% of the British Army of the First World War served in the Royal Field, Garrison or Horse Artillery, and a similar proportion in the Second World War.
First World War
The First World War was an artillery war. Success and failure was largely determined by how artillery was used and how well the guns were served.
Somme and Arras 19-22 June 2015 A long weekend of four days
and three nights to two of the largest battles of the First World War. The 1916 battle of the Somme was the largest and most costly battle fought by the British Army. The Arras battles of April-May 1917 were the most intense of the war. This area was also where the war on the western front was decided in the open warfare of 1918. £319
Verdun, Somme and Ypres 10-14 August 2015. Five days and four nights. We will visit three of the most important battlefields on the Western Front, and look at the British French and German gunners. The battle for Verdun in 1916 was the first of the huge battles of attrition. The Somme offensive of 1916 was designed to relieve the pressure on the French army at Verdun. The battles for the Ypres salient were the longest and bloodiest battles fought in Belgium. £379
“Wipers” 11-14 September 2015 Four days and three nights. The Belgium city known as Ieper in Flemish and Ypres in French was known to British soldiers as “Wipers.” It was the main seat of British Army’s operations in Belgium from October 1914 to the end of the First World War, and a focus for Remembrance since then. Our tour will look at the artillery side of the story and of the gunners who served and suffered there. £319
BEF Western Front 9-13 November 2015 Five days and four nights, covering the sites of the major battles of the British Expeditionary Force from Mons in 1914 to victory in 1918. £349
Second World War
Gunner Tours is offering two tours to Normandy, based on the specialist knowledge and expertise of our chief guide Frank Baldwin who has written about the role of artillery on D Day and in the Normandy campaign as well as providing the written guide to the D Day Beaches for the Royal Artillery for the 70th Anniversary of D Day.
D Day and the Battle for Normandy 6-10 July 2015 This is five
days and four nights expedition to the D Day sites and some of the battles inland. £359
D Day Beaches and Landing Sites 2-5 October 2015, A visit over a long weekend to the D Day beaches and Landing sites. There is a gunner story on each beach and landing site. £329
For details on each tour click the link in the date or check the details on the Gunner Tours website
TO BOOK A PLACE ON THESE TOURS CALL 01943 433457
Military history, Battlefield heritage and Touring