World War I History: Slaughter on the Somme

Somme-Man

The Limits of Foresight On the Road To The Great War

One hundred years ago today, long lines of British infantry climbed out of their trenches in the Somme region of France and hurled themselves at the entrenched Germans. The next 24 hours would turn out to be the bloodiest day in British military history, with 60,000 casualties. Battalions lost 90 percent of their personnel in an hour. One division, the 36th, took 5,000 casualties in 2 days (56 percent) and had to be pulled out — after one year of training, it had lasted 48 hours in combat. The offensive petered out after three months, having advanced only five miles at the cost of 350,000 British and 70,000 Dominion casualties. For the high casualties and lack of success, historians and memoirists have harshly criticized British generals — “donkeys,” in Alan Clark’s estimation, and “arrogant incompetents” in Robert Graves’ semi-autobiography Good-Bye to All That. More broadly, historians have criticized all World War I generals for failing to anticipate the supremacy of the defensive and the trench system that resulted. But is this criticism for lack of foresight fair? As C.V. Wedgewood said:

History is lived forwards, but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning, and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.

Looking back on World War I, historians can assemble bits of pre-war history to build a narrative predicting the superiority of the defensive and the resulting trench system. However, considered broadly, lessons of battlefield experience before the war were actually ambiguous and indicated a continuation of traditional maneuver warfare, punctuated by periodic sieges of cities and fortresses, as had been the experience in warfare for thousands of years. Here is the pre-World War I history that the generals had available to learn from.

The siege of Richmond and Petersburg at the end of the Civil War (July 1864 to April 1865) is often cited as an example of what the generals of World War I should have expected. The siege positions, extending 35 miles, comprised a continuous line of trenches and fortifications. Union infantry assaults failed, even when supported by surprise or extensive preparation (for example, the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864). With its extensive fortifications, powerful artillery, intense infantry fire, and rapid reinforcement of threatened sectors, the siege did indeed look a lot like the western front in World War I. However, this was an exceptional experience during the Civil War. In the west, the war was one of continuous maneuver, punctuated by periodic city sieges (for example, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, Atlanta). In April 1865, when Grant finally outflanked Lee’s entrenched army, the war in the east broke into open maneuver once again.

The Austro-Prussian war of 1866 never devolved into trenches or sieges at all, but instead saw continuous rapid maneuver aided by railroads and telegraph communications, as had been seen in the American Civil War. The decisive battle, Koniggratz, was positively Napoleonic in its movement of corps over large spaces and in the decisive strike to an exposed flank. The war between two great powers was over in seven weeks.

Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks

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