British tactical planning for the start of the Somme offensive, 1916

The British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig and commander of Fourth Army Sir Henry Rawlinson are often criticised for the choice of tactics at the opening of the Somme offensive on 1 July 1916.

Why did the British Army attack on the Somme at all?

See the strategic and political background to the Somme

British military manpower available for the Western Front is increasing …

When the Allies began to agree a plan for 1916, it was done with the knowledge that the British Army in the field was about to be massively expanded thanks to the early steps taken by Kitchener. By 1 January 1916, it had already grown from the original five Divisions of August 1914 (4 infantry and 1 cavalry) to 43 Divisions (38 infantry and 5 cavalry). It was still greatly inexperienced: of the 38 infantry Divisions, 16 of them had only been involved in trench-holding. Approximately 1 million men were in France in early 1916. By 30 June 1916 this was projected to have grown by almost half to 1.4 million. Taking into account the numbers of men on the lines of supply and the number of Divisions required just to hold an inactive front, some 12-15 Divisions could be made available for an offensive by that time. As the numbers grew, the command structure was also expanded. Clearly, the longer the new units were given before being committed to an offensive, the better armed, better trained, better managed and more capable they would become.

… although the supply of munitions is not yet keeping pace

In comparison with the levels of supply and terrible shortages of all sorts of munitions experienced in 1915, the flow of guns, ammunition and other material to France as 1916 moved on seemed prodigious. Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George declared on 30 January 1916 that supply would be ample by April. In fact, his forecast was ambitious and supply remained a constraining factor until well into 1917. As the army would soon find, the rapid gearing-up of production had also led to an overall deterioration in quality, with defective guns and ammunition adding up to fatal results for tens of thousands of men.

Sir Henry RawlinsonThe British Fourth Army is formed

On 5 February 1916, the staff of a Fourth British Army was formed, initially based at Tilques near Saint-Omer. It was to be commanded by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, a highly respected and intelligent infantryman who had commanded IV Corps at First Ypres and in the fighting of 1915. His chief of staff (GSO1) was Major-General Sir Archibald Montgomery, who had been with Rawlinson throughout the war to date. British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig ordered Rawlinson to take over the sector from the Somme to Fonquevillers, south of Sir Edmund Allenby’s Third Army. This is the area selected on 14 February by French Commander-in-Chief Joffre for the British part of the combined Somme offensive. Rawlinson moved Army HQ to Querrieu, between Albert and Amiens. At first, three Corps were allotted to Fourth Army, but on 24 March, III Corps (under Sir William Pulteney) also arrived in Rawlinson’s area. Haig asked Rawlinson to consider the possibilities in the light of the overall plan to launch a combined Allied offensive in June or July.

The intelligence about German dispositions that Fourth Army had available to them

The overall picture of the enemy position on the Somme was well known to British command. The Germans had occupied the position since 1914, and had not been since troubled greatly by their French opponents, who had adopted a ‘live and let live’ approach. The presence and construction of three enemy defensive positions (each consisting of multiple trench lines) on the Somme were understood and well mapped. Two line systems were fully ready, protected by deep and impenetrable belts of wire. The third was as yet under construction. British intelligence about enemy strengths was remarkably good. In the event, 34 German battalions manned the defences attacked, and over the first six days enough reserves arrived that in total manpower the German forces used were about the same as 6 British Divisions. The German units here were known to be of good quality, but they had been in the area for a long time and had not had recent experience of fighting other than in opposing the increasing number of British trench raids, designed to gain intelligence.

Rawlinson reports back to Haig

Fourth Army reported back to Haig on 3 April 1916. Rawlinson said that in view of the ground and the number of troops and guns at his disposal, he could not tackle a front wider than 20,000 yards, with a depth of 2-5,000 yards. He recommended the front be between Maricourt and Serre and that it should be tackled in two forward steps of roughly 2000 yards each – one for the German first line, and then after moving up the guns and fresh troops, the enemy second line would be tackled once the defences had been destroyed. In line with current French doctrine, he recommended a lengthy bombardment of the enemy positions each time, to destroy the wire defences and trench line positions. Much of the bombardment would need to be in daylight, to enable observation of its effects before the attack went in. Rawlinson’s approach was very much like the ‘bite and hold’ successfully applied by Herbert Plumer at Ypres in 1917.

Haig thinks Rawlinson too cautious and expands the plan

Two days later, Haig responded to Rawlinson’s outline plan. He insisted that the attack push on beyond the first enemy line at the first bound. His experience from the Battle of Loos was that there would be a period after the first assault when the enemy was disorganised and demoralised before any reserves could arrive, and if sufficient British troops were moving up then there was a possibility of exploiting the initial success. The infantry should push on, capturing the German guns if they could. Joffre and Foch also believed this could be done (no doubt referring to recent German successes against their army at Verdun, rather than any practical application by the French themselves).

He also wanted a wider (25,000 yard) front, extending the left flank to past Gommecourt. Even Noel Birch, Haig’s artillery advisor, said that this was going too far and that the artillery would be overstretched. Haig also wanted a shorter bombardment.

He turned this criticism into a direct order on 12 April. Rawlinson still thought Haig wrong, but agreed that he would carry it out as ordered. On 19 April, Rawlinson – having conferred with his Corps commanders – replied to Haig that he would modify the tactical plan as ordered. The plan now would be to reach the Pozieres – Grandcourt – Serre ridges on the first day, and that the guns would not be moved up during this time. He pointed out that tackling even part of the enemy’s second line so soon and without adequate gun coverage was a gamble, but that no doubt the Commander-in-Chief was in a position to know if this was a risk worth taking. Haig replied, saying he had considered the question of the bombardment and was now supportive of the long bombardment before the opening assault.

Fourth Army staff turns plan into detailed orders

The tactical doctrine adopted by Fourth Army came from a combination of British and French experience, plus a view on the potential effectiveness of the new Divisions.

When the infantry attack commenced, the artillery would lift from the German front line onto successive more distant objectives, in accordance with an agreed timetable. This was within the skills of even the untried artillery units of the New Armies. It was impressed upon soldiers at all levels that the weight of the bombardment would be unprecedented, and that it would destroy everything. The infantry therefore could occupy the area that had been scourged, in an orderly fashion.

Notes prepared by GHQ instructed that the attacking infantry should leave from trenches no more than 200 yards from the enemy front line. But some Divisional commanders said that to achieve this would mean digging new trenches several hundred yards ahead, and that this must surely give the game away. Both Fourth and Third Armies left this to a local Divisional decision, and in the event some Divisions did close the gap to be covered. Others relied on pushing the lead assault parties out into no man’s land, about 100 yards from the enemy line that was still under fire from the British bombardment.

A GHQ note, issued by Chief of the General Staff Sir Launcelot Kiggell, on 8 May 1916 reminded the Divisions that the officers and men of the New Armies were as yet untried, and that the general quality of the army was not what it had been a year ago. The army could now only react to fixed orders and could not be expected to take appropriate tactical action at a local level. When attacking, infantry must do so in lines or waves, at least four lines deep. There would be no parties assigned to any other tasks in terms of infiltration or penetration of the enemy positions. Even Haig demurred, but when he sought the views of his commanders who were infantrymen, they said they concurred with this approach.

The Army, Corps and Divisional staffs produced voluminous, very detailed operational orders. This was not an unreasonable thing to do: the majority of the force that would attack had little or no experience of a major offensive, and the staffs believed they needed precise instructions. They thought of everything – but the plans left no room for initiative or local decision-making. If a New Army battalion found itself in trouble, or was presented with an unforeseen opportunity, it did not have the orders or experience to much about it.

No attempt and secrecy or deception

There was no attempt at maintaining secrecy or deceiving the enemy of Allied intent, with the exception that some preparations were made in Third Army area near Arras, that looked like the ones on the Somme. The vast preparations behind the lines, the increased raiding activity, and the registration of the artillery all served to clearly demonstrate to the enemy that an attack was forthcoming. In the Gommecourt area, where the attack was only to be a diversion, it was intended that he should see the preparations. The Allied press, and all the talk behind the lines, was of the coming “Big Push”. The only surprise was the date and time of the attack, and in the event even this was clearly signalled to the enemy.

The tactical objectives are finalised

South of the Albert-Bapaume road, the British objective (red dot-dash line) for the first phase of the attack was to capture the first enemy trench system (shown in dark green) but not go as far as the second. This meant that British and French artillery could concentrate fire to destroy the front line before the infantry attacked. Once the objective was reached, the guns would move up for the second phase attack on the second enemy line. This was much as Henry Rawlinson wanted it.

Somme objectives - south

From Pozieres northward, first-phase objectives were as Haig wanted them and included the second enemy line. Here the artillery would have to try to destroy the wire and trench systems in both lines, before the infantry assault went in. This was Haig’s idea: push on while the enemy is disorganised.

Somme objectives - north

The basis of a disaster

Haig’s plan was to capture ground, breaking past the first enemy line and into the second enemy line on the first day. All possibilities to exploit enemy disorganisation should be grasped from then on. Yet at the same time, the army was applying rigid, inflexible, tactics as regards the way their infantry should conduct the attack.

There were serious weaknesses in the plan: the infantry would need to cover 4,000 yards to reach the initial objectives set; the artillery, much expanded as it was, would be spread too thinly over a 25,000 yard front, and would now need to try to hit some of the enemy’s second line as well as the first; there was an under-estimation of the powers of recovery of the enemy defenders, and too few fresh or mobile troops if an opportunity to exploit a breakthrough was offered. Perhaps the most serious flaw was the belief that the weight of artillery would be so effective.

The orders given to the attacking units, while comprehensive, were inflexible and gave no room for initiative.

Should Haig and Rawlinson and their staffs known these things and done something different? Could they have avoided the tens of thousands of casualties of the opening attack?

It is easy in retrospect to believe that they should. But the experience and evidence they had, on which they made fateful decisions regarding the initial attack, would lead many to exactly the same conclusions that they came to. Perhaps Rawlinson should have stood his ground and been more insistent on a ‘bite and hold’ approach. Perhaps the Divisional commanders should have taken more steps to shorten the distance their troops would need to cover. Perhaps the more experienced units could have been given a more flexible tactical approach to the assault (the better ones did this anyway) and the staffs should have thought the New Army units more capable of initiative than was believed. Perhaps the artillery advisors should have insisted on a more realistic view of the effect of the bombardments. But they did not, and a fundamental and very rapid rethink was required by mid July 1916.


  • British Official History, Military Operations, France and Flanders, 1916, Volume 1.
  • “Soldiers and Statesmen 1914-1918”, by Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, Cassell, 1926.
  • “The private papers of Douglas Haig”, edited by Robert Blake, Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952.


The Battles of the Somme, 1916

The strategic and political background to the Somme