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Canada in the First World War - The Somme
Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme was planned as part of an encompassing offensive against the Central Powers by the Entente. There were to be offensives by the Italians, the Russians, and the French and British, all launched at the same time. The Somme offensive was originally intended as a primarily French attack supported by the British, but the German assault on Verdun pre-empted that plan.
As the Italian and Russian offensives were halted and turned into blood baths, French forces intended for use at the Somme were transferred to Verdun to hold the line there. As casualties mounted among the forces engaged eyes turned toward the British who were idle by comparison to their allies. The offensive on the Somme now became a primarily British affair with some support from the French.
Field Marshal Haig, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, did not want to fight at the Somme. His preferred plan called for an offensive in Flanders to clear the channel ports. The French, however, wanted at least the semblance of a combined offensive and that could only happen at the Somme River. Initially hoping to launch his offensive on August 15, 1916, the failed offensives on the Eastern and Italian fronts, and especially the French predicament at Verdun forced the advancement of the date to June 29, 1916. Weather delayed the actual attack to July 1st. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Verdun was entering its 132nd day.
The preparations for the battle were enormous, one artillery piece for every seventeen yards of front, one ton of artillery ammunition for every square yard of German front line, 3,500 shells fired a minute. The plan was simple, the artillery would obliterate the German defences, the infantry would simply walk over and occupy what was left and the Cavalry Corps would break out into the open country north of the river and restart the war of manoeuvre lost in 1914.
At zero hour the British soldiers left their trenches and formed into lines for the march across the battlefield. As they marched shoulder to shoulder they discovered the barbed wire had not been obliterated and they were forced to bunch up in order to move through the gaps in the wire. Some officers noted that unexploded shells lay every few yards and they wondered what that meant for the German trenches. When the Germans came out of their concrete dugouts, buried too deep to be touched by the massive bombardment, they found to their incredulity that the British were strung out before them like targets in a shooting gallery. In minutes they obliterated the British assault.
One of the units attacking that day was the Newfoundland Regiment. In 1916 Newfoundland was a Dominion, an equal to Canada within the Empire, it would not join the Canadian Confederation until 1949. Small as it was Newfoundland raised a battalion for service in the war. The Newfoundland Regiment served with the 29th Division at Gallipoli and was now taking its part in the line at the Battle of the Somme. Part of the second wave of the assault, 810 men were detailed to the attack, only 68 escaped injury. They were one of 32 battalions that day that suffered more than 50 per cent casualties.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme saw the worst one day casualties of the war, over 19,000 dead, over 26,000 wounded. It highlighted the inability of the artillery to obliterate well prepared defences. The poor quality of the artillery fuses was shown in the inability to cut the barbed wire, the large number of duds (unexploded shells) estimated as high as one third of rounds fired, showed the need for better quality control at the factory. Perhaps greatest of all was the failure of the British infantry tactics. In order to retain control throughout the battle the British soldiers had been lined up shoulder to shoulder making them easy targets for the German machine gunners and riflemen. Few of the junior officers and even fewer of the NCOs knew what the objectives were and as senior officers became casualties units lost impetus as the survivors had no idea what was expected of them.
For all the seeming futility of the battle, the offensive on the Somme succeeded in its strategic objective. The Germans withdrew two divisions and some artillery from the Verdun battlefront. On July 10th the Germans launched their last offensive operation at Verdun, the Battle of the Somme still had four months to run.
The Canadian Corps relieved the 1st Australian Corps on September 3rd. They had until September 15th to ready themselves for a new assault on the German lines. Part of the readying was a small operation to gain better trench positions on September 9th. The 2nd Battalion launched a three company assault on the German lines succeeding in capturing a trench line about 500 metres wide and 200 metres deep. This limited assault resulted in almost 200 casualties with 48 of them killed.
The renewed offensive planned for September 15th was intended to help both the Russians and French. The Russian offensive in the east had turned into a bloodbath for them, and while the Germans were no longer on the offensive at Verdun the French were, and suffering horrendous losses. The British would launch an eleven division offensive, to which the Canadian Corps would contribute two divisions. The Canadian objective was the hamlet of Courcelette.
A new tactic and a new weapon were to be used in this offensive. The new tactic was the creeping barrage. Whereas the earlier barrage on the Somme was intended to obliterate the enemy, the ineffectiveness of this tactic led to the idea that the artillery, if it could not destroy the enemy could at least mask the infantry from him and make the enemy keep his head down. The creeping barrage would move slowly across the landscape, destroying the wire just in front of the infantry and masking them at the same time from the enemy. The infantry were to stay just behind the barrage. As the barrage passed over the enemy lines the Germans were expected to take cover in their dugouts giving the infantry just enough time to rush and occupy the trenches before the Germans realized the barrage had lifted and that the British were on them.
The distance between the barrage and infantry was supposed to be a minimum of 50 metres with a preferred distance of 75 to 100 metres. Over cratered and muddy ground, not the shallow slippery mud we know of in urban areas but a deep sucking mud that could easily immobilize a man, it was difficult for the infantry to keep pace even with a creeping barrage.
By the time the Canadians went forward on September 15th, the British had suffered over 250,000 casualties in the Battle of the Somme. The 2nd and 3rd Divisions were to be the attacking units in this assault, the 3rd on the left protecting the flank of the 2nd, which was to capture Courcelette. The attack commenced at 620 am, by 800 am the first wave had captured their objectives. The second wave moved forward to take over the advance which was to begin at 6 pm. Three battalions fought their way into Courcelette and held it against seventeen German counterattacks. The Canadians added over 7,000 casualties to the British total.
On September 26th the Battle of Thiepval Ridge began. It was a four division assault intended to capture some high ground. The 1st and 2nd Divisions were assigned to this attack. The nature of the battle allowed for no surprise. The artillery had three days to soften up the enemy after which the infantry were expected to bludgeon their way into the enemy lines. The attack began at 1235 pm and within hours many of the objectives were captured. As was usual the Germans ferociously counterattacked, not only from directly in front of the Canadians, but some from the flank as the British 11th Division had been held up in its advance. This battle within the Battle of the Somme lasted three days. The Canadians held onto their gains and the Germans were forced to retreat some metres further backwards. The month of September had cost the Canadian Corps over 10,000 casualties.
From October 1 the Canadian Corps was involved in the Battle of the Ancre Heights, another battle within the Battle of the Somme. Their objective was a German trench known as the Regina Trench. The Canadians would be assaulting a strongly fortified position held by fresh troops of a German Marine division. In a daylight assault, the Canadian battalions, many at half-strength from the preceding month’s fighting, captured their objective only to driven out with heavy losses by German counterattacks. The Canadians were ordered to try again on the 8th. Again they failed. In mid-October the Canadian Corps was pulled out of the Somme sector. Since their entry into the area they had suffered nearly 20,000 casualties from a starting strength of 65,000.
The new 4th Canadian Division was added to the British 2nd Corps. They were assigned the same objectives that the Canadian Corps had failed to capture. With massive artillery support the 4th Division captured Regina Trench on October 21st. The Division was involved in operations until November 18th capturing further German trenches. On November 19th heavy winter rains brought the Battle of the Somme to an end. The 4th Division added over 4,300 casualties to the Canadian total in a month of fighting. The British had taken over 430,000 casualties in the four months of the Somme, the French added just over 200,000. The Germans lost an estimated 500,000. Strategically the Battle of the Somme was a success, it had drawn German troops away from the Battle of Verdun. But the price had been extremely high.