Why was the Battle of the Somme 1916 such a disaster for the British Army?

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Why was the Battle of the Somme 1916 such a disaster for the British Army? Why was the Battle of the Somme 1916 such a disaster for the British Army? ` `Until 1916, Great Britain had played relatively little part in the serious fighting of the war. As Russia's Brusilov Offensive had ground to a halt, Italy had suffered in the Alps, Serbia had been overrun and more importantly France was close to breaking point at Verdun, the allies turned to Britain to make a more decisive contribution to their combined effort. There needed to be a great offensive to relieve the pressure elsewhere in Europe and perhaps to end the war altogether. With this in mind, the British high command devised a plan for a joint attack with the French at the River Somme. However, far from delivering a telling blow to the German army, the resulting battle became the most notorious British military disaster there has ever been. `The overall plan had been to use the new British national army for the first time in this battle, and the preparation of these men for war had been ongoing since 1914. 'Kitchener's Army' went to the Somme having had little (if any) previous experience of battle. They were not highly regarded by their commanders and the bulk of the officers and equipment had been directed to the regular army which was at the front from the start of the war at the expense of the new volunteers.


Only about 1/3 of the shells fired were high explosive. Given the excess of shrapnel shells, a use was found for them in the cutting of the barbed wire entanglements which had been placed between the opposing trenches. This was achieved to nothing like the desired extent, and when the infantry advanced on 1st July they found far too few gaps in the wire through which to pass. In fact, it is probable that again high explosive would have been the better ammunition to use, for although shrapnel might create more cuts through the wire, high explosive could disorder it, throwing it around and creating larger gaps for the infantry. `Two problems of quality also affected the initial bombardment. Firstly, the shells were often badly made, exploding too early so the force of the explosion was directed harmlessly into the air rather than into the ground where it could damage the German dugouts, or not at all - a noticeable proportion of them were useless 'duds'. Secondly, the gunners were often the 'green' troops of Kitchener's Army, and consequently lacked the accuracy of the more experienced regulars. The result of all this was that despite seven days of the heaviest bombardment yet seen in the war, the artillery had achieved nothing like total success. `The inflexibility of the British plan was perhaps its greatest weakness. It was assumed that the great bombardment would work, since, according to the generals, nothing could have survived the week of continuous attack by the artillery.


A cavalry attack, however, had not been envisaged by Rawlinson who saw the advancing of infantry alone as the key to winning battles. The cavalry was pulled back, and the opportunity for a breakthrough was lost. `The main problem for the British attack on 1st June lay in the almost total inflexibility of the plan under which they were operating. In spite of the failings of the bombardment which to some extent were reported, and which should have been more thoroughly investigated, the attack was made because the plan said it should be carried out. It was not considered that there would be any serious German resistance from their front trenches because the plan said that there would not. It was not thought that there need be any changes to the timetable of the attack because the plan said that there would be no need. Despite the occasional report of difficulties which came back from the front line, belief in the plan was so total that there was no thought of changing things. Although factors like the ground chosen to fight on, the artillery's failings, and the level of training of the army (the experienced French did noticeably better) should not be ignored, it was the inability to adapt to circumstances which caused the disaster of the Somme. Although the offensive was fruitlessly continued for some weeks against the villages and woods of the battlefield, the failure of 1st June meant that any gain would have been at too high a price for the battle to be described as a success.

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