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War history: Looking back at the day the scene was set for the Battle of the Somme

07:00 28 February 2016

The reality of life at Verdun, where the French came under severe pressure

The reality of life at Verdun, where the French came under severe pressure

Archant

April 1916 and the allies were preparing for a major push, one that would change the course of history.

French commander in chief General Joffre, who wanted the allies to co-ordinate their efforts on the Western Front in a more effective wayFrench commander in chief General Joffre, who wanted the allies to co-ordinate their efforts on the Western Front in a more effective way

Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, focuses on preparations for the all-out allied push that would culminate in the launch of what, at the time, was the largest offensive ever mounted by the British Army: The Battle of The Somme

French commander in chief General Joffre proposed the allies should co-ordinate their efforts on the Western Front in a more effective way. The French felt they had seen little co-operation from the British. As a result, the first Inter-Allied Military Conference took place in Chantilly in July.

No permanent agreement was reached on future conferences or an overall allied strategy for the war. As a result, on November 17, 1915, the prime ministers of France and Great Britain met in Paris and agreed to adopt the principle of a permanent committee to co-ordinate further action.

Subsequently, Joffre sent a memorandum outlining a proposal for simultaneous attacks to be undertaken with maximum force by French, British, Italian and Russian armies in 1916, as soon as conditions were favourable. Until that time the allies would continue to wear down the German and Austro-Hungarian forces. In an attempt to concentrate effort, Gallipoli was to be evacuated and defences in Egypt and Salonika strengthened.

In December, 1915, General Sir Douglas Haig replaced Sir John French as commander in chief of British forces on the Western Front. Haig firmly believed the main theatre of operations would remain on the Western Front in France and Flanders and, in close co-operation with the allies, every effort would be made to carry out an offensive in 1916.

Just before New Year, Haig attended an allied command conference in Chantilly. He was urged by Joffre to participate in a combined Franco-British offensive on a 60-mile front across the Somme.

Before Haig had a chance to think about this and reply, he received a new plan from Joffre. It suggested the French attack German positions in the south east of France. In order to wear them down, Joffre requested Haig attack north of the River Somme on a large scale.

The British attack was to take place on or around April 20, 1916. Its main aim was to wear down the Germans, draw in their reserves and soften them up before a main attack by the French. However, Haig refused, arguing the newly-raised Kitchener battalions that made up a large proportion of the army were not yet ready and it would be politically unacceptable to use such inexperienced British troops in battle.

In England, the War Committee was also reluctant. Haig, aware the French were thinking of an offensive on their own terms, charged his commanders to devise their own plans on the Somme and also in Flanders, on the Messines-Wytschete Ridge and Houthoulst Forest. He also arranged for an army commanders conference to take place weekly.

By Valentine’s Day, 1916, Joffre and Haig had agreed to plan for a combined Anglo-French offensive on the Somme. Smaller diversionary attacks would also take place. It was a plan intended to shatter the Germany army and end the war in 1916.

One huge fly in the ointment arrived on February 21, 1916, when the Germans hit first, launching their heaviest offensive against the French army to date. The battle would continue throughout the year, centred on the emotionally important French town of Verdun.

Back in Britain, the Government was being pressed for a decision. It was only after Haig asked direct questions that politicians gave their approval for a combined offensive.

Haig initially pushed on with a plan to attack on the Messines-Wytschaete ridge using underground mines (this would eventually successfully take place in 1917). Throughout April and May, 1916, prevarication prevailed amongst the French. Haig concluded an offensive on the Somme was looking less and less likely, and ordered General Plumer to continue with plans to attack at Messines.

On one hand, Haig had to deal with his Government; on the other, he had to plan attacks to appease the French. He also had Joffre pressurising him, stating that should the German offensive continue at Verdun, the French army would be ruined.

Only six weeks before the Somme offensive, Haig reluctantly warned General Rawlinson he might have to attack, but, due to losses at Verdun, they would have to attack without French assistance. The chief of the imperial general staff, Sir William Robertson, briefed the Government that in view of the small numbers available for the offensive, far-reaching results could not be expected. As late as May 31, 2016, Haig attended another meeting with the French. The French had been warned Verdun might fall and, in order to relieve the French, actions must be taken to ease the pressure.

Haig stated he had already sought and received permission from the British Government to a plan, which had been agreed with Joffre, but he needed a date. On June 3, Joffre wrote to Haig, giving him notice that in order to relieve the French at Verdun a British attack must begin on July 1, 1916. Haig had the date and would carry on with the original plan to attack on the Somme.

By June 13 German pressure on Verdun had reached epic proportions and Haig was implored to bring the date of attack forward to June 25. He reported the best he could do was the 29th.

The scene was set for what was to become one of the most famous chapters in British military history. The British army’s newest divisions were now committed to a huge attack over the rolling chalky farmlands north of the River Somme.

Galloway have a fully-guided day excursion to the Western Front on Friday, May 13. Visit their website to find out more. You can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles and find battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook page.

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