Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Why was the First World War so bloody?

'Battle Of The Somme, Attack of the Ulster Division', by artist J.P. Beadle.
One hundred years ago the Fourth Army was getting ready to go 'over the top'. Dawn tomorrow would be the start of the Battle of the Somme, the big push that would break through the German line and mark the beginning of the end of the First World War.

It didn't happen. Instead it was the bloodiest day in the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war the British Army had ever fought.

By the end of the day over 19,000 British soldiers were dead, nearly 40,000 were wounded and the Germans had recaptured nearly all the ground they had lost. Amongst the units decimated were regiments of Kitchener's volunteers, including the 700 men from the Accrington Pals, who suffered 235 killed and 350 wounded in about half an hour.

The battle is regarded as the epitome of the pointlessness of the First World War. Brave men sent to their deaths by incompetent and uncaring leaders in an utterly pointless battle.

There is a lot of truth in this, but it isn't the whole story. General Haig made mistakes, but he knew his army wasn't ready. However he also knew that if he didn't attack, the French to the south may well crumble.

But there were also wider reasons for the disaster. This was just one day in a war that was to kill twelve million combatants, the most destructive war in European history to that point.

Why?

A different scale of slaughter

Looking back from 2016 ,the First World War can appear just a grim prequel to the even more bloody Second World War. However to the people who fought in it, it came after a century that became known as Pax Britannia. 'Peace' was a very relative concept, as this was actually a time of almost continuous fighting around the British Empire, but those were battles of a very different scale to the Somme.

Typical colonial wars involved no more than a handful of combat deaths for the Imperial Forces.When 1300 British and allied soldiers were killed by Zulus at the Battle of Isandhlwana, it was considered a major loss. When it took three years and 6000 combat deaths to bring the rebellious Boer farmers to heel it was considered an unprecedented disaster.

The sort of the battle the British public was used to was the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, where the army of the Islamic state of the Sudan was destroyed for the loss of only 47 British and Egyptian dead.

New defence, old offence

However the butcher's bill of 1st July 1916 would not have been such a shock to the Sudanese. At Omdurman their 52,000 man army had lost 12,000 dead in a few hours, a casualty rate twice as high as the Fourth Army's.

The Anglo-Egyptian Army that had defeated them had been armed with the latest weapons of industrial warfare.

These included;

  • Field artillery guns with recoil mechanisms. Previously guns had to be manually wheeled back into position every time they fired. As well as having greater range, the new guns could now fire as fast as the crew could load them.
  • The Maxim machine gun. Older machine guns, like the Gatling Gun were bigger, heavier, fired more slowly and tended to jam when most needed.
  • Infantry rifles with high velocity bullets. These were lethal at a mile, and were fed by magazines allowing a rate of fire of twenty rounds as minute. They also used smokeless ammunition, so you didn't give your position away when you fired.
Against this new weapons the Sudanese had only swords, spears and courage.

Technology had given the British Army the advantage at Omdurman, but on the Somme it was turned against them. The German Army they faced had the same weapons they'd used against the Sudanese, plus barbed wire and concrete bunkers.

The only new offensive weapon of the war was the hand grenade, then called the Mills Bomb. They were useful for attacking trenches, but when you're facing a Maxim gun with a range of 2000 yards, a weapon whose range is as far as you can throw it is not much use. Apart from that Haig's men had bayonets that were little more use than African swords.

Attacks in the First World War therefore usually consisted of trying to pulverise the enemy with heavy artillery before the infantry went 'over the top'.

However even if only enough Germans survived to crew a single machine gun, they could stop a battalion.

The morale of Kitchener's volunteer army that morning was sky high. The men advanced into the fire just as bravely as the Sudanese had done. However in an age of industrial warfare this made very little difference. Whether a soldier was brave was of little more relevance now than whether he was handsome.

Facing the defensive weapons of the new century whilst using the offensive weapons of the old is one reason why the butcher's bill was so high in the First World War, but it wasn't the only reason.

Communication Breakdown

Haig was also burdened with the communication systems of the last century.


Although radio had now been invented and was used by the ships of the Royal Navy, there were no portable sets. Instead then army had to rely on telephone lines, which could be cut by artillery, runners who could get killed and carrier pigeons who could not only be killed, but eaten afterwards.

These systems worked reasonably well when defending, but were completely useless when attacking. As a result the much maligned British Generals had to fight most of their battles blind. On the rare occasions that the British forces broke through the German lines, they were often unable to let their commanders know. The Germans by contrast knew exactly where the British were and could direct reinforcements to where they were most need.

And that was the next big problem: there were always lots and lots of reinforcements.

Industrial Warfare

But first let's go back a century or so.

On 18 June 1815 Napoleon met his Waterloo. Three and a half thousand men died in Wellington's army. The chance of being killed on that day was actually higher than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, but there are two important caveats.

Firstly, at Waterloo, there wasn't a second day. The Battle of the Somme lasted more than four months.

Secondly, the battlefield of Waterloo was only three miles wide, which was about the size battlefields had always been.

Fast forward fifty five years and The Battle of Sedan, the climax of the Franco-Prussian War, was fought on a front seven miles long.

In 1916 Haig attacked on a front of 17 miles, which was just a small part of the 440 mile long Western Front which stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border.

And the reason battlefields were getting bigger was because armies were getting bigger. In 1815 Wellington had faced 73,000 French. In 1870 the French faced 200,000 Prussians. By 1916 there were 2.85 million Germans soldiers on the Western Front. That's enough men for them all to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, four ranks deep, from the North Sea to the Swiss Alps, and that's not counting their Austro-Hungarian allies. 

There had been other times in history where commanders had come up against formidable defences. The solution then had always been you go round the flank. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution it was possible to feed and supply armies on a scale never before seen. As a result there simply were no more flanks.

Somehow these vast armies were fed and watered, supplied with bullets and shells, and the wounded and sick cared for. So well cared for, relatively speaking, that the First World War may actually be the first war in history in which more soldiers died from enemy action than from disease.

Even in the Boer War, only a decade and a half earlier, only a quarter of those that died did so in combat.

Conditions at the front were terrible, but somehow the men were kept alive long enough for the enemy to kill them.

This mass mobilisation of men into the trenches was unique to the Great War. Armies were just as large in the Second World War, but they were also more mechanised. This meant that for every fighting man there were at least two more working in a support roll servicing, repairing or refuelling the men and the vehicles. They were still soldiers and it was still dangerous, but nothing like as dangerous as going 'over the top' in 1916.

The rise of armoured fighting vehicles also brought back manoeuvre into warfare. Tank forces could be concentrated in a few miles of battlefront, and once the breakthrough had been made they could exploit the gap faster than a rifleman with a 50kg pack. Radios kept the front line in touch with HQ and the infantry would travel in lorries or, by the end of the Second World War, their own armoured vehicles. 
So it was historical changes in the nature of warfare which made the first day of the Battle of the Somme such a particularly horrible incident in a particularly horrible war. Brighter generals would not have made much difference.

The only way to avoid have avoided the slaughter would have been not to fight at all, but in 1916 there were few who were for that option.

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