Map courtesy of Gsl at Wikipedia.Org
..... Rawlinson's original first objectives
...... Haig's revised first objectives
Red-dashed arrows - Haig's planned second objectives
Red dot/dash arrows - exploitation to Bapaume + 3rd Army holding actions opposite Monchy au Bois/Ransart
Red dot arrow - cavalry movement towards Monchy-le-Preux and Arras


Sir Douglas Haig and Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson at Fourth Army HQ, Querrieu

Planning the Somme Offensive

Contents:
Origins Haig's Concept
Haig takes over An Insurance Policy
A Joint Offensive The Plan
The Impact of Verdun Gommecourt
'Bite and Hold' The First Day on the Somme

Origins

he idea for the Somme Offensive was born in the winter of 1915-16 and took shape against the back drop of a series of Allied reverses first at Verdun and later in the Trentino region of Northern Italy. On the 6-8th December 1915 a conference of the main Allied governments took place at the ornate chateau at Chantilly, north of Paris. There, the idea was born that the war might be brought to an end through a strategy of three simultaneous offensives on the Western, Russian and Italian fronts in the summer of 1916.

Either side of Christmas 1915 two events took place that would shape the offensive planned for the Western Front. First, on 19th December, Sir Douglas Haig took command of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Second, on the 30th December, Gen. Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre, C-in-C French Army, proposed a joint offensive on a 60-mile front astride the Somme River. [Back]

Haig takes over

Haig had held senior command throughout the war and believed himself perfectly equipped to fulfil the role of Commander in Chief of the BEF. A cavalryman by training and pre-war experience, Haig has become one of the most controversial figures in military history; portrayed as either a heartless incompetent or a far-sighted leader by the protagonists within several generations of military historians. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two points of view if one takes an overall view of his command, however, many parts of the Battle of the Somme do not represent his or some of his subordinates' finest hours. [Back]

A Joint Offensive

There was very little about the Somme area that suggested itself as the ideal location for a joint Anglo-French offensive other than that here the two armies joined. Certainly, it was such an unlooked for choice that it took several days after the offensive started before the German High Command (OHL) accepted that this was anything more than a diversion for attacks expected either further north or in Alsace-Lorraine. Joffre, however, was adamant that this was the best place for the new British divisions to support a major French offensive and Haig went along with his ideas although, at the same time, he laid plans for possible offensives in his preferred area at, and to the south of, Ypres. [Back]

The Impact of Verdun

A full outline of the timetable of the planning of the offensive can be found on the Somme Timeline page. Suffice to say that what started out as a British-supported French offensive rapidly became a French-supported British offensive as the depravations of the Verdun campaign bled the French Army white.

The impact of the opening of the Battle of Verdun on 21st February 1916 was almost instant. A new British Army, the Fourth, under Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson, rapidly took over a stretch of front line north of the Somme to release the French 10th Army for deployment elsewhere and preparations for a relieving offensive were hurriedly considered. [Back]

'Bite and Hold'

Rawlinson also inherited the planning of the Somme offensive which he planned as a limited 'Bite and Hold operation designed, as he put it, to:

"kill as many Germans as possible with the least loss to ourselves".

To this end, he proposed, in the absence of explicit instructions from above, a limited advance taking objectives of local tactical importance well prepared by his artillery which could then be easily defended against the inevitable German counter-attacks. [Back]

Haig's Concept

Haig viewed this plan as too conservative and demanded both an expansion of the front to be attacked and a deepening of the thrust to be made. That this necessarily diluted the impact of the planned artillery bombardment seems not have carried too much weight in Haig's thinking at this time. Increasingly, he came to believe that the offensive might reap great rewards, thinking that there might even come a time when his cavalry would gallop through a rupture in the German lines in a great sweep north towards Arras presaging a return to fluid warfare rather than the static siege warfare of the trenches.

Under severe pressure, Rawlinson gave in to his superior's demands but successfully held out for a prolonged artillery bombardment. This, he argued, was needed in order to deal with the barbed wire, dugouts and strongpoints that stretched across the two lines of German trenches to be taken in the first rush along most of the front. [Back]

An Insurance Policy

Haig was not, however, about to put all of his eggs in the Somme basket. In the middle of January, he had asked Gen Plumer (GOC Second Army), to prepare plans for attacks at Messines, Ypres and Lille and, as late as June 16th, he was still considering his options for the location of the main British attack in the summer of 1916. There were two reasons for this prevarication:

The Plan

The plan eventually put in place involved twelve divisions from the Fourth Army (plus two battalions from the 48th Division) attacking on a 20,000 yard front from Serre in the north to Maricourt in the south. Beyond Maricourt, two French divisions to the north of the Somme and three to the south would support the British attack.

The plan required the British divisions to take in one bound the first and second German lines from Serre to Pozieres and then, because the distance to the second German line was deemed too great here, a position east of the villages of Contalmaison and Montauban at the southern end of the British line. The troops of the French 6th Army were to advance either side of the Somme river to positions also midway between the first and second German lines.

The date for the start of the offensive was set for Thursday, 29th June 1916 with the bombardment due to start on Saturday, 24th June. [Back]

Gommecourt

One of the issues that had pre-occupied both Haig and Rawlinson was the northern end of the line where the attack was open to the threat of flanking fire from the German artillery surrounding the hamlet of Gommecourt. The Gommecourt salient was a position of immense strength and a place of psychological if not strategic importance to the German Army - it was their most westerly possession in France and the tree at the furthest projection of Gommecourt Park was called the 'Kaiser's Oak'.

Rawlinson had long since stated that an attack on Gommecourt was beyond his means and that, at best, he proposed to release gas and smoke in an effort to occupy the salient's defences. Eventually, Haig decided that the neutralisation of this position would be best handled by Gen Edmund Allenby's Third Army. Allenby handed over the planning and execution of the attack to Lt Gen Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow's VII Corps but not before both men had strongly advocated making a diversionary attack on a position of enemy weakness that the Germans would feel obliged to reinforce, such as Vimy Ridge, rather than one of great strength as at Gommecourt.

The idea rejected by Haig, Snow set to the planning of the Gommecourt diversion and two Territorial Divisions were selected for the attack: 46th (North Midland) Division and the 56th (1st London) Division. During the months of May and June these two divisions laboured mightily to put in place the necessary infrastructure needed to mount the attack. Then, the same men who had borne the burden of digging, carrying, wiring and building went 'over the top' to attack the strongest German position on the Western Front. Their attack was described by the British Official History of the Great War thus:

"It must, however, be distinctly borne in mind that in Sir Douglas Haig's plan nothing depended on the capture of Gommecourt…. There was no intention of exploiting the capture of Gommecourt by sending a force southwards from the village to roll up the German line or clear the ridge leading south-east behind it. No troops were provided or available for such a purpose. A success at Gommecourt would merely shorten the British line by cutting off an enemy salient."

For the details of the plan of attack at Gommecourt go here. [Back]

The First Day on the Somme

At 7.30 a.m. on Saturday 1st July 1916, the men of the British divisions selected for the attack clambered out of their trenches and started to trudge purposefully across No Man's Land towards the German wire. Ten minutes earlier, a huge mine had been set off under Hawthorn Ridge near Beaumont Hamel giving the German artillerymen and machine gunners more than enough time to bring their guns into action.

By the end of a day of carnage unprecedented in the history of the British Army, 19,240 men had been killed, 2,152 were missing and another 35,593 were wounded; a total of 57,740 casualties in not much more than twelve hour's fighting. Across two thirds of the length of the British front what was left of the attacking units were back in their trenches. Only in the south, where the Germans did not expect an attack by the French, were the attacking troops on their first day objectives.

At Gommecourt, the two attacking divisions had suffered 6,769 casualties with the 56th Division suffering over 60% of the total. They had failed to take Gommecourt and they had failed to protect the northern wing of the main offensive at Serre where the attack had been brief and bloody. The Gommecourt 'diversion' was a costly and fatally flawed failure for which 2,206 men paid the ultimate price.

The rest of this web site and the books 'Pro Patria Mori'  and 'A Lack of Offensive Spirit?  are devoted to the attack on Gommecourt and honoour the sacrifice of the officers and men of the 56th (1st London) and 46th (North Midland) Divisions.

"At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."

© Alan MacDonald 2006/7. All rights reserved. No publication without permission.


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VII Corps' plan for the attack on Gommecourt
46th (North Midland) Division attacked SE from direction of Foncquevillers
56th (1st London) Division attacked NE from direction of Hebuterne

Sir Douglas Haig on use of the German artillery at Verdun,
4th March 1916

"Firstly, the artillery bombardment has been concentrated in one effort, immediately preceding the infantry attack. Little or no time seems to have been devoted to the registration of the heavy artillery and, so far as information goes, the bombardment has been of comparatively short duration but of the greatest intensity...

The result of the combination of surprise and an overwhelming artillery preparation was that the infantry appear to have had little more to do in their first advance than to take possession of ground already practically won by the artillery."

Haig's analysis of the German bombardment at Verdun coloured views about the likely effectiveness of the British artillery on the Somme.

Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson's diary entry prior to meeting with Haig to discuss his plans for the offensive

"I shall have a tussle with (Haig) over the limited objective for I hear he is inclined to favour the unlimited with the chance of breaking the German line."

Rawlinson's Diary
30th March 1916

The Somme or Messines?

"It is not certain which of these attacks (i.e. Second Army at Messines or Fourth Army on the Somme) will be launched first."

GHQ Letter to Army Commanders
OAD 912, 27th May 1916

Attrition or Breakthrough?

"It does not appear to me that the gain of 2 or 3 more kilometres of ground is of much consequence… Our object rather seems to be to kill as many Germans as possible with the least loss to ourselves."

Rawlinson's Diary
March 1916

"I studied Sir H Rawlinson's proposals for attack. His intention is merely to take the Enemy's first and second system of trenches and 'kill Germans'. He looks upon the gaining of 3 or 4 kilometres or less of ground immaterial. I think we can do better than this by aiming at getting as large a combined force of French and British across the Somme and fighting the Enemy in the open!"

Haig's Diary
5th April 1916.

Alan MacDonald's books about Gommecourt

'PRO PATRIA MORI'

'Pro Patria Mori', the account of the 56th Division's involvement at Gommecourt, was first published in 2006.  A revised edition was published in August 2008

For more about the book please go HERE.

'A LACK OF OFFENSIVE SPIRIT?'
The 46th (North Midland) Division at Gommecourt,
1st July 1916

For more about this book please follow this link

Both books are available through this web site or through Amazon Books and by order through all good bookshops

The strength of the Gommecourt salient

"It seems improbable that G.H.Q. realised the strength - and that strength enormously increased by flanking artillery defence - of the Gommecourt salient. If an attack is to be made merely in order to hold enemy troops and prevent their employment elsewhere, a weak or vulnerable part of the enemy's front should be chosen, not the strongest. Further, Gommecourt was particularly easy of defence, and from the shape of the ground it was a most difficult place from which to disengage troops in the event of partial failure or incomplete success."

Official History of the War
Military Operations: France & Belgium 1916, Vol 1