The Battle in a nutshell, as seen by German historians between the wars...
On the 24th June 1916 the Allied artillery started the seven day preparation for the Battle of the Somme. Three thousand guns, including 1300 heavy guns opened fire on the German lines. The bombardment was to last 180 hours. The British had twelve divisions ready for the assault with eight in reserve, the French a total of eleven. All in all 31 Allied divisions were going to attack on a thirty km front.
Facing them were eight German divisions; those of the XIV. Reservekorps north of the river, and those of the XVII. Korps to the south. In reserve were a further four divisions, two of whom had been recently badly mauled in Verdun and had been sent to the Somme to recover. They were supported by 850 guns of various calibers.
In the Somme sector the Germans had well prepared defensive positions with numerous trench lines protected by fields of barbed wire obstacles. By the first of July, however, the Allied artillery fire managed to destroy these obstacles in many sectors and the German infantry manning the front line suffered heavy losses. The German artillery also lost many irreplaceable guns and gun crews during the preparation phase.
The attack on the northern bank of the river started at 8.30 am, on the southern bank two hours later. Protected in part by fog and smoke the British and French sent a division against the front line sector of each German regiment. While to the north the Germans were able to beat back most attacks, the British troops from La Boisselle to the Somme River managed to break into the front lines. At the begin of the attack mines had been exploded at La Boisselle and Fricourt, causing more losses for the German defenders.
South of the Somme the situation was critical. French troops followed a very successful barrage and broke through the German lines to a depth of 2.5 km, wiping out the defenders as they went.
By evening the Germans were able to stabilise the front line of defence, but on a length of twenty kms they had lost ground to a depth of between one to 2.5 km. Large amounts of infantry had been lost and many field artillery pieces captured. All available German reserves were already in combat or on the way to the front. The Allied losses were immense. On this first day the British had lost 60 000 men, dead, wounded and missing.
Into the night the fighting continued and on the morning of the second the Allied assaults resumed. Along the sides of the river the situation became critical, the Allies concentrating their efforts there. The advances on the second day were small as by this time the German reserves had arrived. In the days that followed the fighting raged on with little headway being made as the defenders fought for each village and forest.
The Allies had not only a heavy artillery advantage but their air superiority also took a heavy toll. The pilots were able to direct the artillery fire and attack German troops with machine gun fire. It was to be some time before German flyers appeared on the scene and managed to even the score in a few sectors.
By the evening of the fifth of July the Germans had managed to bring eleven new divisions to the sector, although in many cases these replaced units that no longer existed.
Until the end of the month the fighting raged in the different sectors of the Somme battlefield, a battlefield that resembled a lunar landscape covered with shell holes and rubble. In the four weeks the Allies had succeeded in breaking through the German second line only in certain sectors. In other sectors the second line had barely been reached. The biggest gain had been five km. The cost had been 200 000 dead, wounded, missing or captured British and French soldiers. In spite of the heavy artillery fire, isolated groups of German infantry or machine guns succeeded again and again in beating back attacks, causing heavy losses to the enemy.
The German regiments at this stage had lost 120,000 men. The losses had not only occurred in defensive fighting, but also in counter attacks, trying to recapture land lost in the preceding days.
The names of the individual sectors would go down in history and would live in the memories of all the soldiers involved until the day they died.
Thiepval, where the R.I.R. 99 and bayer. R.I.R. 8 fought a bitter defence, the Bavarians taking the Schwabenfeste in a powerful counter attack. Ovillers, where the Garde Fusilliers held out while the battle had already passed over them. Fricourt, defended for ten hours by the 3. Komp of the R.I.R. 11 with two light field guns. Almost surrounded they fought their way back to the new lines at night. Contalmaison, retaken by the 3. Garde Infanterie Division on the fourth of July, taken once again by the English on the eighth. Longueval, Herbecourt, Assevillers, Estrees, Mametzwald, Troneswald, Delvillewald ..... each area having a special meaning to the units that fought there.
In August the Allied offensive continued, but by this time the Germans were counterattacking more often. The attacks no longer concentrated themselves along the banks of the Somme but now extended to and past the Albert-Bapaume Road. Although August was to see four "Großkampftage" (Major combat days) the losses on both sides were slightly less than those in the month before. In spite of this the average German division had to be relieved after approx. fourteen days combat, sending only broken remnants to the rear. The fate of the relief units was not much different. Progress madein August by either side was minimal, a hard slog with little to show for it.
Goes & Cron write
" All of us Somme fighters had participated in one or more "Grosskampftag" and know what an almost inhuman strain it put on the soldiers, not only physical, but also mentally. We lay as if abandoned in shell holes while all around us was the deafening explosions of shells which threw up an impenetrable wall of dust, earth and shell splinters. Choked by gas, attacked from above by aircraft, cut off from the outside world, not knowing where our comrades to the left or right were, if they were still alive or had been pounded into the earth by the iron hammer from above. The isolation during the days and nights of drumfire was a terrible experience and each and every one of us had seen his death in the clouds of dust and powder. We were astounded that we had made it without being killed or wounded in this hell where death was more probable than life. We wondered at ourselves, answering an inner voice and standing fast in the fog and dust to throw back the advancing enemy in close combat..."
Throughout August the 26. and 11. Infantry divisions defended Guillemont and Faffemont Farm from constant British attacks. Maurepas was held by the 24. I.D. then the 8. bayer I.D. who fought back the French. The 26. R.D. fought tenaciously to hold the Thiepval pocket while the 16. I.D. and the 1. and 4. G.I.D.s fought hard as well. To the south of the Somme August had started relatively quietly compared to the north bank, but towards the end of themonth a French attack on Soyecourt was decimated and a six division attack on the 31 August met the same fate.
September was to see the intensity of the fighting reaching a new high. The Allies stretched the front toward the north and south a total of fifty kms. In mid September the fighting was to reach a crescendo. The attack had been preceded with many smaller attacks sapping the strength of the defenders. By the middle of the month the front line ran more or less from Courcelette over Martinpuich, Flers, Morval, Combles, Rancourt to Moislains. After a three day barrage, the attack started on a thirty km front, concentrating on the centre of the battlefield where the French and British forces joined. Guillemont and Ginchy fell to the Allies and Combles and Thiepval were fighting a desperate defence. At Flers the tank took to the battlefield for the first time. Of the fifty tanks available a number fell out due to mechanical difficulties or German artillery fire and obstacles. About half made it to the front line to see actual combat. The tank had an obvious initial shock effect, the German infantry panicking when confronted with these steel monsters spitting machine gun bullets. The panic caused by the tanks helped the British infantry to break through the German lines at Flers and Martinpuich. On the 25th of September the Allies (British from the north, French from the south ) had almost surrounded Combles, forcing the Germans to abandon it. On the 27th Thiepval fell as well.
On a front of 25 kms the Germans lost one or two km of land. At this stage the fighting died down for a while. The German front had held, but a lot of land had fallen into enemy hands.
At the beginning of September, to the south of the Somme, the French were fighting their way forward. From Barleux down to Chilly General Michelet's troops attacked. By the end of the first day they had pushed the Germans back one or two kms on a front of ten kms. They managed to take Soyecourt and Chilly, but then stopped to consolidate. The Germans counterattacked and retook Vermandovillers. A series of bitter attacks and counter attacks followed, the French taking little chunks of ground and finally capturing what was left of Diniecourt and Vermandovillers, but the German line held and they achieved no breakthrough.
Although the fighting had been going on for three months the Allied High Command still believed in a possible success. In October and November the battle flared up again seven times, bloody attacks followed by bloody counter attacks. Each attack was followed by days of bitter fighting in which attacker and defender tried to consolidate gains or recuperate losses. Villages and forests changed hands a number of times, the fighting concentrating itself in the area between the Albert-Bapaume road and the Somme river.
On the mid October the Sailly was hotly contested while to the south of the Somme the French launched a series of attacks that were beaten back. At the end of October the Germans managed to retake Maisonnette farm.
Even in the rainy month of November the battle continued, reaching ferocious levels again as the British fought hard to take the Butte de Warlencourt while the French did the same south of the river at St.-Pierre-Vaast.
On the eighteenth November the British attacked again, managing to take a few villages, but not breaking the German line. It was the last "Grosskampftag" of the battle.
The Kaiser wrote to Kronprinz Ruprecht von Bayern,
"Your Majesty's excellent leadership in a difficult situation has brought the French-British attacks to a standstill. The breakthrough has failed. The Battle on the Somme is our victory. This victory has enabled us to achieve victory in Romania as well. The heavy losses and enormous amounts of material used (by the Allies) over the last five months are in no way justified by the fifteen km of ground gained and the failure to break the morale of the German troops."