The British achieved only some of the objectives, at an unnecessary high cost. In the long term the French army and Verdun were saved as they were very close to total collapse. The Allies had defeated the Germans at another battle and were close to winning the war. Victory was finally achieved although at great cost.
Firstly we have to know what the objectives were. The major offensives were to break through German lines with a massive bombardment. The second was to relieve the pressure on the French soldiers at Verdun. Thirdly, was to wear the Germans down and lastly, to improve their defensive positions.
To break through the German lines, the British and the French had to move to at least 15km in order to do this. But at the furthest point, they were still only 8km from where they started.
The next offensive, was achieved to a certain degree-by May 1916, German attack at Verdun was subsided (before the Somme, the attack was thinning out), the Germans were forced to move troops to the Somme, and the Germans had many losses 650, 000 at the Somme. (Reserve divisions were required at the Somme to replace the lost men).
The main aim of wearing the German soldiers down, was to kill as many Germans as possible as part of the war of attrition. This objective was achieved, but at a very unnecessarily high cost. One German soldier called the field where it took place a muddy grave. The German casualty rate was very high, and one and a quarter of a million men lost their lives at the Somme. With 420,000 British soldiers injured or killed. Achieving this goal showed the Germans that the British and French were a national front.
But improving the defensive positions was much harder to achieve. Haig was anticipating that 15 kilometers of German trenches would be stormed and seized by the British troops on the first day of the infantry attack, initially to gain a strategic stronghold in Baupaume. However, it took five months to capture just eight kilometers of German trenches.
One of the most important reasons why the battle failed was that the German positions were impregnable. The German forces were on higher ground than the British giving a good view of the troops preparing the attacks. Also the Germans’ trenches had been there since 1914 and the German troops had not been standing idly. They had been improving their trenches for two years now and their dugouts had been dug deep and reinforced with concrete. This ensured that the British shells did not have the effect that the generals had hoped. This played a part in the British and French unable to improve defensive positions. They also had a sophisticate system of concrete tunnels and trenches.
During the Allies seven-day bombardment on the German trenches an estimated 1,500,000 shells, and 2,000 pieces of artillery was hurled over along a 30km German front line. Sir Douglas Haig was so confident that the bombardment had succeeded he said, “Not even a rat would be alive.” But the shells were poor – a third of shells fired, didn’t explode.
The soldiers were also told to walk across no man’s land. The results of the attack were however surprising and reversed. 58,000 British casualties were inflicted on the first day of the infantry attack, of which over 18,000 had been killed, making it the worst day in terms of casualties in British military history. The objective was to dent the German morale; instead the British had their own morale severely dented.
Haig has been described as ‘the butcher of the Somme’. Many believed that his use of inflexible tactics lead to an unnecessary number deaths. Despite the huge number of casualties, Haig insisted that they carried on using the same tactics. This only increased the death rate. In Haigs defence, he was under immense pressure to make the attack and he also believed that there was no alternative to the big push. Having no alternative tactics, meant that there was no element of surprise for the Germans.
On the other hand the Battle of the Somme was not a total disaster. There were positive points that came out of the battle. For example it definitely assisted the French at Verdun because some of the German forces fighting in Verdun had to withdraw to help out their comrades fighting in the Somme. It was so important to draw the Germans away from Verdun because the French army was on the brink of defeat. So if the Somme had not been launched the French would most likely have surrendered leaving the British to face the German army alone. So if you think of it like that the Battle of the Somme was the battle, which prevented the Germans from winning the war.
Haig had little time for new military ideas. He was very much steeped in the ways that he knew – conventional tactics. In 1916, Haig put his belief in one final mighty push against the Germans to be executed in the Somme region of France. The French had been asking for some form of military assistance from the British to help them in their battle with the Germans at Verdun. Haig’s plan was to launch an attack on the Germans that would require them to remove some of their troops from the Verdun battlefield thus relieving the French in Verdun. The Somme led to the loss of 600,000 men on the Allies side; 400,000 were British or Commonwealth troops. When the battle had ended, they had gained ten miles of land. Haig has been criticised by some for his belief in the simple advance of infantry troops on enemy lines. With 20,000 Allied soldiers killed on Day One and 40,000 injured, some historians have claimed that Haig should have learned from these statistics and adjusted his tactics. He did not. However, the Somme attack was not just about antiquated tactics as the battle witnessed the use of the rolling artillery barrage that should have helped the Allied troops as they advanced. That it did not was more a comment on the fact that the Germans had dug in more deeply than British intelligence had bargained for and was less susceptible to artillery fire. Once the artillery firing had stopped, the British had all but signaled that the infantry was on its way.
Haig believed that the war could only be won on the Western Front. This caused friction with Lloyd George, secretary of state for war and prime minister from December 1916 who disagreed with this strategy, supported alternative schemes and intrigued against Haig. The great German attacks of the spring of 1918 almost broke the British army, but inspired the creation of a single command of allied forces on the Western Front under the French commander Ferdinand Foch, strongly supported by Haig. Between August and November 1918 the Allied forces under Haig’s command achieved a series of victories against the German army which resulted in the end of the war.
‘The Battle of the Somme began in early hours of the 1st July 1916, when nearly a quarter of a million shells were fired at the German positions in just over an hour, an average of 3,500 a minute. So intense was the barrage that it was heard in London. At 7.28 a.m. ten mines were exploded under the German trenches. Two minutes later, British and French troops attacked along a 25-mile front. The main objective was “to break through the German lines by means of a massive infantry assault, to try to create the conditions in which cavalry could then move forward rapidly to exploit the breakthrough.” (7)
On the first day of the battle thirteen British divisions went “over the top” in regular waves. The bombardment failed to destroy either the barbed-wire or the concrete bunkers protecting the German soldiers. This meant that the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive positions on higher ground. “The attack was a total failure. The barrage did not obliterate the Germans. Their machine guns knocked the British over in rows: 19,000 killed, 57,000 casualties sustained – the greatest loss in a single day ever suffered by a British army and the greatest suffered by any army in the First World War. Haig had talked beforehand of breaking off the offensive if it were not at once successful. Now he set his teeth and kept doggedly on – or rather, the men kept on for him.”
Haig was helped in this by newspapers reporting that the offensive was a success. William Beach Thomas, in The Daily Mail, under the headline, “Enemy Outgunned”, wrote: “We are laying siege not to a place but to the German Army – that great engine which had at last mounted to its final perfection and utter lust of dominion. In the first battle, we have beaten the Germans by greater dash in the infantry and vastly superior weight in munitions.” (9) In a later report he claimed: The very attitudes of the dead, fallen eagerly forwards, have the look of expectant hope. You would say they died with the light of victory in their eyes.”
General Douglas Haig continued to order further attacks on German positions at the Somme and on the 13th November the British Army captured the fortress at Beaumont Hamel. However, heavy snow forced Haig to abandon his gains. With the winter weather deteriorating Haig now brought an end to the Somme offensive. Since the 1st July, the British has suffered 420,000 casualties. The French lost nearly 200,000 and it is estimated that German casualties were in the region of 500,000. Allied forces gained some land but it reached only 12km at its deepest points. Despite mounting criticism over his seeming disregard of British lives, Haig survived as Commander-in-Chief. One of the main reasons for this was the support he received from Northcliffe’s newspapers.’