The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Somme Redux

After Friday's post in which I wrote less than flattering things about the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, and his role in the Somme offensive, I heard from a friend, a retired Marine officer and amateur historian, who took me to task. The Somme, he argued, was a significant learning experience for the allies, in particular for Douglas Haig, and led to major changes in tactics that ultimately bought about the allied victory in 1918. He thought I was entirely too hard on Haig, whose development as a commander and increased understanding of the demands of modern warfare proved that he was the hero and not the villain of the allied cause in World War I.

My friend was more than surprised when I agreed with him, at least in essentials. But my earlier post was not about Haig's overall role as allied commander, but his role as commander during the Somme offensive. I agree that he and other allied commanders learned much from the Somme, but why did it take them so long, and at such a horrendous cost in lives, to learn their lessons?

The realities of modern warfare, particularly the effectiveness of machine guns on slow-moving, heavily burdened infantry moving forward in ranks, should have been evident after the first ten minutes of the offensive. It was certainly evident to the German soldiers who manned the machine guns. Afterwards, one German soldier described the scene as he and his comrades climbed out of their underground dugouts and turned their attention and their guns to the oncoming British troops:
"...the shout of the sentry, ‘They are coming,’ … Helmet, belt and rifle and up the steps … there they come, the khaki-yellows, they are not twenty metres in front of our trench. They advance slowly, fully equipped … machine-gun fire tears holes in their ranks.” 
British Troops Advance into German fire
It was evident as well to the British troops as they faced the withering fire of the German guns. One private, a fortunate survivor of that first day, recalled the events:
“We strolled along as though walking in a park. Then, suddenly, we were in the midst of a storm of machine gun bullets and I saw men beginning to twirl around and fall in all kinds of curious ways as they were hit.”
Additionally, Haig and his commanders should have realized rather quickly that the week-long artillery bombardment -- an estimated 1.7 million shells, including many duds -- had failed to destroy the German underground bunkers and dugouts, a failure directly responsible for the deaths of ten of thousands of his men. Not only did the bombardment fail to kill many Germans, it also didn't accomplish another of its prime objectives: the destruction of the enemy's barbed wire defenses. Another survivor, a corporal of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, described what he experienced:
“[The artillery barrage] hadn’t made any impact on those barbed-wire entanglements. The result was we never got anywhere near the Germans. Never got anywhere near them. Our lads was mown down. They were just simply slaughtered.” 
British Artillery at the Somme
As I mentioned in Friday's post, it was the worst day in British military history with 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. As it continued for months the Somme became a kind of British Verdun, a tragic meat grinder that resulted in very little gain. Haig was certain it would lead to a major breakthrough. Instead it became nothing more than a war of attrition. One of the reasons for these failures by the allied command structure was the simple fact that senior commanders rarely visited the trenches especially during major offensive operations. Because they hadn't observed first-hand the results of their plans and decisions, they saw no reason to alter them.
Tank and infantrymen at the Somme
Haig should also have recognized sooner and taken advantage of the effectiveness of the allies' newest weapon, the tank, but he was unable to discard the traditional infantry tactics that had been made obsolete by the technology of rapid-firing weapons. The tank was used to great effect in one of the least costly victories of the Somme offensive, but Haig seemed unimpressed by what he called a "desperate innovation."

The allied command also tried to hide the devastating carnage from the British people behind headlines celebrating a "Great Day on the Somme." But once the hospitals began to fill up with the wounded and the names of the dead were published, the people were horrified.

As I told my friend, good commanders learn from their failures, and so I suppose we can grant that Haig ultimately learned from the mistakes of the Somme. But great commanders anticipate what they may face before they send their troops into battle. They realize the likelihood of Murphy's Law appearing when one least expects it, and they plan accordingly. There's little evidence that Haig was that sort of commander.

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