The German commander, Erich von Falkenhayn, embarked on a mission based upon an attack on the great French fortress town of Verdun. The city itself was protected by a ring of forts but Falkenhayn’s intention was simply to bring the French to battle and “bleed the French Army white”. So began the bloodiest single battle of the war in February, with the Germans attempting to capture the forts then rain artillery down on the defenders of the city. Under the overall direction of Marshal Pétaine the French resisted strongly and through the initiatives of General Robert Nivelle there were many daring and successful counter attacks. Losses on both sides were staggering, with an estimated million final casualties, slightly fewer Germans than Frenchmen. The French C-in-C, Marshal Joseph Joffre, asked the British to open another front to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Britain agreed and the scene was set for the worst day in the history of the British Army. It was the 1st of July, the opening day of the Battle of The Somme.
There has always been heated argument over the conduct of the battle and the strategy and tactics of its commanding general, Douglas Haig.
There had been a prolonged artillery barrage from the British lines along the River Somme aimed at the much better reinforced trench and bunker system built by German engineers since the end of the ‘Race to the Sea’. Conditions were heavily overcast so there was no aerial observation of the fall of shot. Neither the trenches nor the barbed wire barricades were damaged.
Even so, Haig was so certain of the German position’s destruction that he ordered British infantry to leave their trenches and simply walk to the enemy position. The British suffered 58,000 casualties on the first day alone, mown down by machine gun fire, most of them before the middle of the day. Almost a repeat run of the Battle of Loos but with far greater casualties. Haig shared Lord Kitchener’s view of warfare at that time, viz. send in the infantry to soften up the enemy then clear the field with the cavalry. Both were cavalrymen, unfortunately for the British infantry!
A walk into hell – 7.30 am, 1st July 1916
The Battle of the Somme continued until November of 1916 and is commemorated at the massive memorial at Thiepval, where it is thought that the first shots were fired. It is the largest memorial in the world, supported by sixteen pillars engraved with the names of the British fallen. I have made a decent estimate of the numbers there and they amount to around 75-78,000 men. This is the more horrifying because it does not include those for whom a burial was possible. These names are those of whom no trace was ever found, as frequently happened in artillery bombardments.
Just a month before the opening of the Somme offensive, Britain found itself challenged by another fleet for the first time since Trafalgar. The ‘great naval race’ since the Dreadnoughts appeared had seemingly encouraged the German High Seas Fleet to engage the Royal Navy off the Jutland Peninsula.
It is difficult to postulate a winner in this conflict but the RN started off quite badly. Vice Admiral David Beatty sailed his force of battle cruisers from Rossyth and made contact with Admiral Hipper’s German force of battle cruisers quite early. Perhaps German gunnery was better (its optics certainly were) but though Beatty claimed he was trying to move the German ships into the path of Admiral John Jellicoe’s oncoming battleships from Scapa Flow he was slow to engage the Germans, whereas he quickly lost three battle cruisers to their fire – a fourth was to be sunk soon after. It later emerged that all British battle cruisers of that design had inadequate armour plating above their ammunition magazines making them vulnerable to falling shot. One ship of that class, not a casualty of that battle, was HMS Hood.
Light was starting to fade when Jellicoe’s capital ships engaged and after a few desultory hits on both sides and one old German battleship sunk, the High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer turned and made for their home ports, never to challenge the RN again. Indeed as the war drew to its close in 1918, the German Kriegsmarine mutineed rather than go to sea again.
Unsurprisingly, both sides claimed victory at the Battle of Jutland.