British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig is often criticised for attacking on the Somme in 1916. After all, it was a formidably defended part of the Western Front and much of his force was inexperienced. But such criticism is very wide of the mark.
The Allied offensive campaign of 1916, initially conceived to be a war-winning simultaneous strike on three fronts by all Allies with maximum force, came down to a few Divisions of the British and French Armies, attacking on ground not of their choosing and where there was no possibility of strategic gain, and for the British much earlier than they wished. This page explains how.
The Allies begin to co-ordinate their efforts
In June 1915, French Commander-in-Chief General Joffre proposed that the Allies (at this time France, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Serbia and Russia) begin to co-ordinate their efforts in a more effective way. Thus, the First Inter-Allied Military Conference took place at Chantilly on 7 July 1915. But irregular conferences were not enough. On 17 November 1915 the Prime Ministers of France and Great Britain met in Paris. They agreed and adopted the principle of a permanent committee to co-ordinate action.
The strategy for 1916 is set
Soon after the Prime Ministers meeting, Joffre circulated a memorandum: The Plan of Action Proposed by France to the Coalition. In this document he proposed simultaneous large-scale attacks with maximum forces by French, British, Italian and Russian troops as soon as conditions were favourable in 1916. Until then, all would wear down the German and Austro-Hungarian forces by vigorous action. It also called for the evacuation of Gallipoli, the strengthening of defences in Egypt and Salonika, the occupation by Italy of Albania and all efforts to keep Rumania free of German control. The Second Inter-Allied Military Conference on 6-8 December 1915 unanimously supported these proposals.
Britain’s War Committee endorses the plan
Chief of the Imperial General Staff Lieut-General Sir Archibald Murray, who had attended both Inter-Allied Conferences, placed before the Cabinet War Committee a document entitled A paper by the General Staff on the Future Conduct of the War, on 16 December 1915. It was the first comprehensive document of its kind that the War Office had presented to the Government. Twelve days later (in the interval General Sir William Robertson had been appointed CIGS, replacing Murray, and General Sir Douglas Haig had replaced Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France and Flanders), the War Committee stated its definite decision regarding strategy. The main points of this were that France and Flanders would continue to be regarded as the main theatre of operations, and that every effort would be made to carry out offensive operations in spring 1916 in close co-operation with the Allies, and in the greatest possible strength.
Joffre reveals his outline plan to the Allies
Soon after Haig’s appointment, he attended a meeting called by Joffre which took place at Chantilly on 29 December 1915. Also present was French President Raymond Poincaré, Prime Minister Aristide Briand, Minister of War General Gallieni and Generals Dubail, de Langle de Cary and Foch. Here, and in subsequent correspondence, Joffre pressed Haig hard to relieve the French Tenth Army and urged him to participate in a study of a combined Franco-British offensive on a 60 mile front, across the Somme. He said he had ordered Foch to prepare an offensive from the River Somme south to to Lassigny (half way between Roye and Compiegne). He told Haig “the French offensive would be greatly aided by a simultaneous offensive of the British forces between the Somme and Arras“. His reason for this choice was stated that “it will be a considerable advantage to attack the enemy of a front where for long months the reciprocal activity of the troops opposed to each other has been less than elsewhere“. Haig agreed to take over the Tenth Army front in the Lens area, but before he had chance to reply to Joffre’s offensive proposal, the French commander told him of a new plan.
Joffre presents his modified plan: proposes to commit British force to battle of attrition: Haig disagrees
On 20 January 1916, Joffre told Haig that by the end of April he would have five offensives prepared. Three would be in the south-east, one in the Champagne and one on the Oise-Somme front as discussed. But which one would be selected would depend on the military situation. Meanwhile it would be important for the enemy to be worn down. He requested that Haig attack north of the Somme on a large scale – a minimum 7 mile front – about20 April 1916. This had no strategic intent but was simply to cause damage to the enemy. It would therefore not be part of a great offensive in which a large force of 15-18 British Divisions could be deployed, but only as part of a war of attrition – a “bataille d’usure” – to soften up the enemy beforehand. Haig said he could not agree: his forces would not be ready, its would be politically unacceptable at home and would be regarded by the enemy as defeat.
The British War Committee also begins to have second thoughts
At the next meeting of the War Committee on 13 January 1916, the rider “…although it must not be assumed that such offensive operations are finally decided on” was added to the minutes of 28 December. Clearly, not all of the War Committee was firmly committed to Joffre’s plan.
The British Army begins to consider its operational plans
Haig, having received some hints of French thinking for the offensive, ordered Third Army (Allenby) to prepare some schemes. They were to plan for a 10-mile front and report how many Divisions would be required; and they were to consider what frontage could be attacked and where it should be, if they had 20 Divisions available. He also ordered Second Army (Plumer) to develop schemes for an attack against the Messines-Wytschete Ridge, Lille and Houthulst Forest in Flanders. On 9 January 1916, he called the first “Army Commanders Conference”, which took place weekly thereafter.
The Somme strategic plan is agreed
By 14 February 1916,, after further discussion with Haig, Joffre abandoned his plan for the British to engage the enemy in wearing-out battles well before the main offensive. It was settled that a combined Franco-British offensive should be carried out across the Somme about 1 July 1916, with a smaller attack by the British in the area between La Bassee and Ypres. The French Sixth Army would place a Corps north of the river to act as a flank for his larger attack to the south of it.
The enemy intervenes
On 21 February 1916 the Germans struck the heaviest possible blow against the French, at Verdun. Fighting continued here throughout the year. The enemy intended to destroy the French Army in a battle of attrition. By 26 February it had become clear to Joffre that the German attack at Verdun was no short-term effort. He asked Haig to press on with relieving Tenth Army, to be able to release forces to add to his reserves. On 3 March, Joffre requested that Haig do all he could to hold German reserves from reinforcing the Verdun front, and to continue to prepare for the attack north of the Somme – at an early date if the situation demanded it. By 27 March, Joffre had turned this into a more concrete plan: the Allies would now attack between Lassigny and Hébuterne.
The British War Committee wavers
By 31 March 1916, CIGS Sir William Robertson was having to press the Government for a definite decision on whether there was to be an offensive or not. It was only after Sir Douglas Haig, the man in the field responsible for deploying the forces that would make such an attack, asked the direct question – and Robertson passed this on – that the answer was forthcoming form the politicians. On 7 April 1916, the War Committee approved British participation in the combined offensive.
French problems at Verdun make Somme offensive doubtful
General Joffre (left), General Sir Douglas Haig and General Foch walking in the gardens at Beauquesne, 18 September 1916. Joffre was offered retirement after the Battle. (Imperial War Museum image Q992, with thanks).
After reviewing the various attack schemes that his Army commanders had prepared, Haig decided on 10 April to press on with the most promising: an attack on the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge, using the immense underground mines that were already underway. (This is essence was what took place in June 1917). By the end of the month, it was looking as through the Somme offensive would not take place at all, so desperate was the French position at Verdun. It had become apparent that the French now expected the British to make the great offensive effort of the year. Jofre’s great plan for a simultaneous, all-out effort by all Allies had now dwindled to this. But there were very mixed messages. On 20 May, Georges Clemenceau told Haig, through his private secretary, that the feeling (of the politicians) was nowopposed to any offensive until the Allies were in a strong position; that Briand now said there should be no offensive this year, and that Foch agreed with him. Under the impression that the attack on the Somme was becoming less likely, Haig ordered Plumer to push on with the Messines attack with all speed. When he met Joffre on 26 May, the latter told Haig that if losses went on at Verdun at the rate they were, the French Army would be ruined. On 29 May, Haig warned Rawlinson (commander of Fourth Army, recently established to command the Somme offensive) that he might have to attack without any French assistance at all. As late as 5 June, Haig was still considering moving British reserves from the Somme to Flanders.
The Army warns the Government not to expect too much from the Somme offensive
On 29 May, at the suggestion of Haig, Sir William Robertson reminded the Government that in view of the small number of French and British Divisions available for the offensive, far-reaching results should not be expected. The idea of a simultaneous Allied attack with maximum force was no longer a possibility.
The French insist that the British take the offensive on the Somme
Two days later, on 31 May, another meeting took place, in President Poincaré’s railway car at Saleux near Amiens. Haig attended, as did Briand, Joffre, de Castelnau, Foch and new French Minister for War General Pierre Roques. Poincaré had heard that his Generals were not united on what to do. Foch had stated to some politicians that he was against any offensive at the moment; he himself had heard from Pétain and Nivelle that they thought Verdun might fall. He said that actions must be taken to ease pressure at Verdun, and asked Haig’s opinion. Haig replied that he had agreed a plan with Joffre and obtained Government support; all he needed was a date, and Joffre had indicated early July. Haig also suggested that France withdraw troops from the almost dormant Salonika theatre, but this suggestion did not meet a favourable response. Indeed, it was not the first time that Britain had asked the same question of France. Joffre said the French Army would assist the British on the Somme. On 3 June, Joffre wrote to Haig giving formal notice that the attack must begin on 1 July 1916.
The date of attack is agreed
On 13 June, Colonel de Vallieres, head of the French Mission at BEF GHQ, reported to Haig that the situation at Verdun was serious, there was political crisis in Paris and that Joffre wished the attack to be brought forward to 25 June. Haig reviewed the situation and reported that the best he could do was 29 June. (It was only bad weather that delayed it until 1 July). Joffre was happy: the British Army was committed to a serious attack.
- 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.