This article is an edited transcript of Battle of the Somme with Paul Reed on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 29 June 2016.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme, on 1 July 1916, remains the most devastating and bloody in British military history. Here we examine the main reasons why Britain lost so many men that day and how the British Army learnt from its errors.
The British failed to appreciate how deep the German dugouts were
Though the level of intelligence gathering before the Somme was good, the British didn’t have infrared equipment to see deep into the ground. They had no idea how deep the German dugouts were and no reason to doubt their assumption that the Germans, like the British, kept most of their men on the front line. They didn’t.
This was among the key learnings from the Somme – the Germans didn’t keep the bulk of their troops in forward positions, they kept them in the second and third lines, where they had deep dugouts.
They sheltered the majority of their troops there, deep underground, for the course of the seven days of bombardment.
Many of the dugouts were kitted out with electric light, generators, cooking facilities, bunk beds and furniture.
The majority of the German troops were safe down there in their dugouts, even while their trenches were being pounded by shell fire.
The men who garrisoned those trenches survived and there were very few casualties caused by the preliminary bombardment. This meant, of course, that all those German survivors were able to man weapons and mow down advancing British troops in No Man’s Land.
The British failed to use artillery effectively
The British Army’s biggest mistake was to overestimate the damage its artillery would do during the initial seven-day bombardment.
There was an assumption that the artillery assault would have such an impact on the Germans that, in its aftermath, men could simply move out and occupy ground that had already been captured by the bombardment. That was a grave error.
One of the problems with the bombardment was that it didn’t deal with the German wire effectively enough.
Shrapnel was used to take out wire by exploding a shell that rained hundreds of lead balls in the air like a big shotgun cartridge. If you fired enough of those shrapnel shells simultaneously, enough balls would come down to take out the wire.
Unfortunately, some of the fuses that the British were using were not very good. Survivors have recalled arriving at the uncut German wire and encountering an ammunition dump, where unexploded shrapnel shells were just sitting there in the mud having failed to explode.
Such poor wire cutting meant the men often had to try and cut the way through themselves, which under such battlefield conditions was close to impossible.
British planning was too rigid
In situations where men went into battle and it transpired that German machine gun positions had been missed, you would ideally have an artillery liaison officer on hand to call back artillery fire and take out the enemy machine gun post.
Sadly, such flexibility was not possible on the first day of the Somme. No one could call back artillery fire without the expressed permission of a senior officer.
This damaging inflexibility was another key learning from the Somme. As the war went on artillery men were embedded with infantry units as they went into battle, making it possible to react to situations on the ground.