Haig’s second in command, General Rawlinson, realised the bombardment hadn’t worked and thought that it would be a good idea ‘to proceed by shorter steps’ but he did not tell this to Haig – as he didn’t like criticism of his plans.
Haig wrote in his diary that the wire had ‘never been so well cut’. So the plan continued.
As the British troops went ‘over the top’ they were ‘mown down’ by the German machine guns. Some battalions were destroyed within minutes, and only a few reached enemy lines to fulfil their objectives.
It was the worst ever day in British military history with 60 000 casualties, of those 20 000 had been killed. The battle to continued for another four and a half months, It involved troops from Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, New Zealand, South Africa as well as Britain and France . It made soldiers seriously question the point of the war and the way it was waged. By November, when it ended in terrible weather, around 650 000 allied soldiers had been killed or wounded compared to about 500 000 German soldiers. Only six miles of territory was gained, though it did help in saving Verdun.
After the war, Haig was awarded £100 000 by the government, made an earl, then (in 1921) a Baron.
Combined losses at the Somme and Verdun may have significantly impacted the ultimate defeat of Germany.
Possible essay questions
1) Is it fair to accuse the generals of attritions of causing ‘useless slaughter’ on the western front?
2) Do the commanders of the First World War deserve their reputation as ‘butchers and bunglers?’
The Haig controversy
British historian Lloyd George
Post was strategist J.Fuller and Liddell Hart
Siegfried Sassoon Poem ‘the General’ created a harsh, long lasting impression
1960s popularity of ‘oh what a lovely war’ in theatre and cinema (an anti British general film/play)
1961 Alan Clarks book The Donkeys (taken from the supposed conversation between the two German Generals Ludendorff and Hoffman:
Ludendorff: 'The English soldiers fight like lions.'
Hoffman: 'True. But don't we know they are lions led by donkeys?')
1988 John Laffins Book British Butchers and Bunglers of the First World War.
BBC’s Blackadder Goes Forth, Stephen Fry was able to depict Haig as a ‘Chateau General ’, with the point of the battle to ‘move General Haig’s drinks cabinet ten yards nearer to Berlin’
Some modern writers such as John Terraine, Paddy Griffith, Peter Simkins claim:
That improvements in the British army made by the Generals have been overlooked
The British army in the beginning was small and colonial
Germanys army was over 30 times bigger than the British army.
Britain had to fight against the strongest army in the world.
British leadership grew in strength and fighting ability, an example of this being there ability to take over from the French after Verdun as Germany’s deadliest enemy.
The allies knew they couldn’t remain defensive forever as it was politically unsound and it would allow the German troops to transfer to the eastern front and take Russia out of the war.
Gary Sheffield military historian thinks the battle of he Somme turned the British troops into a ‘hard-bitten and effective force’
Possible essay question
Does Haig deserve his reputation as ‘the Butcher of the Somme’?