Primary Documents - Philip Gibbs on the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916

Philip Gibbs 1st July 1916 saw the onset of the predominantly British-led Somme Offensive.  Planned as a means of relieving German pressure upon the French at Verdun, and viewed by British Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig as a means of achieving a breakthrough on the Western Front, the offensive opened with significant British casualties, some 60,000 on the first day alone.  The British had mistakenly expected German resistance to be crushed following a week-long preliminary bombardment of the German lines but instead found machine-gunners awaiting their infantry advance.

The Somme Offensive did not provide the much sought after breakthrough but largely resulted in continued trench stalemate, although some territorial gain was achieved by Allied forces.  Casualty estimates vary widely: the Allied losses (chiefly British and French) have been put at 600,000 with German casualties estimated to be 500,000.

Reproduced below is a summary of the opening of the offensive by one of Britain's official war reporters, Philip Gibbs.  Written during wartime, and given his official position, his account is accordingly upbeat.

Click here to read Sir Douglas Haig's Somme despatch.  Click here to read the summary written by German commander Crown Prince RupprechtClick here to read the official Germany account of the offensive written by General von Steinacker.

Click here to read Alfred Dambitsch's Somme memoirs; click here to read Alfred Ball's memoirs.

The Battle of the Somme by Official British War Correspondent Philip Gibbs

From January to May of this year the German Command on the Western front was concentrating all its energy and all its available strength in manpower and gun power upon the attack of Verdun.  The Crown Prince had staked all his reputation upon this adventure, which he believed would end in the capture of the strongest French fortress and the destruction of the French armies.

He demanded men and more men until every unit that could be spared from other fronts of the line had been thrown into this furnace.  Divisions were called in from other theatres of war, and increased the strength on the Western front to a total of about 130 divisions.

But the months passed, and Verdun still held out above piles of German corpses on its slopes, and in June Germany looked East and saw a great menace.  The Russian offensive was becoming violent.  German generals on the Russian fronts sent desperate messages for help.  "Send us more men" they said; and from the Western front four divisions containing 39 battalions were sent to them.

They must have been sent grudgingly, for now another menace threatened the enemy, and it was on the Western side.  The British armies were getting ready to strike.  In spite of Verdun, France still had men enough - withdrawn from a part of the line in which they had been relieved by the British - to cooperate in a new attack.

It was our offensive that the German Command feared most, for they had no exact knowledge of our strength or of the quality of our new troops.  They knew that our army had grown prodigiously since the assault on Loos, nearly a year before.

They had heard of the Canadian reinforcements, and the coming of the Australians, and the steady increase of recruiting in England, and month by month they had heard the louder roar of our guns along the line, and had seen their destructive effect spreading and becoming more terrible.

They knew of the steady, quiet concentration of batteries and divisions on the north and south of the Ancre.

The German Command expected a heavy blow, and prepared for it, but as yet had no knowledge of the driving force behind it.  What confidence they had of being able to resist the British attack was based upon the wonderful strength of the lines which they had been digging and fortifying since the autumn of the first year of war - "impregnable positions" they had called them - the inexperience of our troops, their own immense quantity of machine guns, the courage and skill of their gunners, and their profound belief in the superiority of German generalship.

In order to prevent espionage during the coming struggle, and to conceal the movement of troops and guns, they ordered the civil populations to be removed from villages close behind their positions, drew cordons of military police across the country, picketed cross-roads, and established a network of counter espionage to prevent any leakage of information.

To inspire the German troops with a spirit of martial fervour (not easily aroused to fever-pitch after the bloody losses before Verdun) Orders of the Day were issued to the battalions counselling them to hold fast against the hated English, who stood foremost in the way of peace (that was the gist of a manifesto by Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, which I found in a dugout at Montauban), and promising them a speedy ending to the war.

Great stores of material and munitions were concentrated at railheads and dumps ready to be sent up to the firing lines, and the perfection of German organization may well have seemed flawless - before the attack began.

The British attack began with the great bombardment several days before July 1st and was a revelation, to the German Command and to the soldiers who had to endure it, of the new and enormous power of our artillery.

A number of batteries were unmasked for the first time, and the German gunners found that in "heavies" and in expenditure of high explosives they were outclassed.

They were startled, too, by the skill and accuracy of the British gunners whom they had scorned as "amateurs" and by the daring of our airmen who flew over their lines with the utmost audacity "spotting" for the guns, and registering on batteries, communication trenches, cross-roads, railheads, and every vital point of organization in the German war-machine working opposite the British lines north and south of the Ancre.

Even before the British infantry had left their trenches at dawn on July 1st German officers behind the firing lines saw with anxiety that all the organization which had worked so smoothly in times of ordinary trench-warfare was now working only in a hazardous way under a deadly storm of shells.

Food and supplies of all kinds could not be sent up to front line trenches without many casualties, and sometimes could not be sent up at all.  Telephone wires were cut, and communications broken between the front and headquarter staffs. Staff officers sent up to report were killed on the way to the lines.  Troops moving forward from reserve areas came under heavy fire and lost many men before arriving in the support trenches.

Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, sitting aloof from all this in personal safety, must have known before July 1st that his resources in men and material would be strained to the uttermost by the British attack, but he could take a broader view than men closer to the scene of battle, and taking into account the courage of his troops (he had no need to doubt that), the immense strength of their positions, dug and tunnelled beyond the power of high explosives, the number of his machine guns, the concentration of his artillery and the rawness of the British troops, he could count up the possible cost and believe that in spite of a heavy price to pay there would be no great break in his lines.

At 7.30 a.m. on July 1st the British infantry left their trenches and attacked on the right angle southwards from Gommecourt, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers, and La Boiselle, and eastwards from Fricourt, below Mametz and Montauban.

For a week the German troops - Bavarians and Prussians - had been crouching in their dugouts, listening to the ceaseless crashing of the British "drum-fire."

In places like Beaumont Hamel the men down in the deep tunnels - some of them large enough to hold a battalion and a half - were safe as long as they stayed there.  But to get in or out was death.  Trenches disappeared into a sea of shell-craters, and the men holding them - for some men had to stay on duty there - were blown to fragments of flesh.

Many of the shallower dugouts were smashed in by heavy shells, and officers and men lay dead there as I saw them lying on the first days of July, in Fricourt and Mametz and Montauban.

The living men kept their courage, but below ground, under that tumult of bursting shells, wrote pitiful letters to their people at home describing the horror of those hours.

We are quite shut off from the rest of the world," wrote one of them.  "Nothing comes to us.  No letters.  The English keep such a barrage on our approaches it is terrible.  Tomorrow evening it will be seven days since this bombardment began.  We cannot hold out much longer.  Everything is shot to pieces.

As far as the German troops were concerned there were no signs of cowardice, or "low morale," as we call it more kindly, in those early days of the struggle.  They fought with a desperate courage, holding on to positions in rearguard actions when our guns were slashing them, and when our men were getting near to them making us pay a heavy price for every little copse or gully or section of trench, and above all serving their machine guns at La Boiselle, Ovillers, above Fricourt, round Contalmaison, and at all points of their gradual retreat, with a splendid obstinacy until they were killed or captured.

But they could not check our men or stop their progress.

After the first week of battle the German General Staff had learnt the truth about the qualities of those British "New Armies" which had been mocked and caricatured in German comic papers.  They learnt that these "amateur soldiers" had the qualities of the finest troops in the world - not only extreme valour but skill and cunning, not only a great power of endurance under the heaviest fire, but a spirit of attack which was terrible in its effect.

They were great bayonet fighters.  Once having gained a bit of earth or a ruined village nothing would budge them unless they could be blasted out by gunfire.  General Sixt von Arnim put down some candid notes in his report to Prince Rupprecht.

The English infantry shows great dash in attack, a factor to which immense confidence in its overwhelming artillery greatly contributes.  It has shown great tenacity in defence.  This was especially noticeable in the case of small parties which when once established with machine guns in the corner of a wood or a group of houses were very difficult to drive out.

The German losses were piling up.  The great agony of the German troops under our shell fire was reaching unnatural limits of torture.  The early prisoners I saw - Prussians and Bavarians of the 14th Reserve Corps - were nerve-broken, and told frightful stories of the way in which their regiments had been cut to pieces.

The German Generals had to fill up the gaps, to put new barriers of men against the waves of British infantry.  They flung new troops into the line, called up hurriedly from reserve depots.

But now, for the first time, their staff work showed signs of disorder and demoralization.  When the Prussian Guards reserves were brought up from Valenciennes to counterattack at Contalmaison they were sent on to the battlefield without maps or local guides, and walked straight into our barrage.  A whole battalion was cut to pieces, and many others suffered frightful things.  Some of the prisoners told me that they had lost three-quarters of their number in casualties and our troops advanced over heaps of killed and wounded.

The 122nd Bavarian Regiment in Contalmaison was among those which suffered horribly.  Owing to our ceaseless gunfire they could get no food supplies and no water.  The dugouts were crowded, so that they had to take turns to get into these shelters, and outside our shells were bursting over every yard of ground.

"Those who went outside," a prisoner told me, "were killed or wounded.  Some of them had their heads blown off, and some of them had both their legs torn off, and some of them their arms.  But we went on taking turns in the hole, although those who went outside knew that it was their turn to die, most likely.  At last most of those who came into the hole were wounded, some of them badly, so that we lay in blood."

It is one little picture in a great panorama of bloodshed.

The German Command was not thinking much about the human suffering of its troops.  It was thinking, necessarily, of the next defensive line upon which they would have to fall back if the pressure of the British offensive could be maintained - the Longueval-Bazentin-Pozieres line.  It was getting nervous.  Owing to the enormous efforts made in the Verdun offensive the supplies of ammunition were not adequate to the enormous demand.

The German gunners were trying to compete with the British in continuity of bombardments and the shells were running short.  Guns were wearing out under this incessant strain, and it was difficult to replace them.  General von Gallwitz received reports of "an alarmingly large number of bursts in the bore, particularly in field guns."

General von Arnim complained that "reserve supplies of ammunition were only available in very small quantities."  The German telephone system proved "totally inadequate in consequence of the development which the fighting took."

The German air service was surprisingly weak, and the British airmen had established a complete mastery.

"The numerical superiority of the enemy's airmen," noted General von Arnim, "and the fact that their machines were better made, became disagreeably apparent to us, particularly in their direction of the enemy's artillery fire and in bomb-dropping."

On July 15th, one of the greatest days in the history of the Somme battles, the British troops broke the German second line at Longueval and the Bazentins, and inflicted great losses upon the enemy, who fought with their usual courage until the British bayonets were among them.

A day or two later the fortress of Ovillers fell, and the remnants of the garrison - 150 strong - after a desperate and gallant resistance in ditches and tunnels where they had fought to the last, surrendered with honour.

Then began the long battle of the woods - Devil's Wood, High Wood, Trones Wood - continued through August with most fierce and bloody fighting, which ended in our favour and forced the enemy back, gradually but steadily, in spite of the terrific bombardments which filled those woods with hell-fire, and the constant counter-attacks delivered by the Germans.

"Counter-attack!" came the order from the German Staff - and battalions of men marched out obediently to certain death, sometimes with incredible folly on the part of their commanding officers, who ordered these attacks to be made without the slightest chance of success.

In all the letters written during those weeks of fighting and captured by us from dead or living men there is one great cry of agony and horror.

"I stood on the brink of the most terrible days of my life," wrote one of them.  "They were those of the battle of the Somme.  It began with a night attack on August 13th-14th.  The attack lasted till the evening of the 18th, when the English wrote on our bodies in letters of blood 'It is all over with you.'  A handful of half-mad, wretched creatures, worn out in body and mind, were all that was left of a whole battalion.  We were that handful."

"We entrained at Savigny," wrote a man of one of these regiments, "and at once knew our destination.  It was our old Blood-bath - the Somme."

In many letters this phrase was used.  The Somme was called the "Bath of Blood" by the German troops who waded across its shell-craters, and in the ditches which were heaped with their dead.  But what I have described is only the beginning of the battle, and the bath was to be filled deeper in the months that followed.

The tale of defeat, of great losses, of grave and increasing anxiety, was told clearly enough - as I have read in captured letters - by the faces of German officers who went about in these towns behind the lines with gloomy looks, and whose tempers, never of the sweetest, became irritable and unbearable so that the soldiers hated them for all this cursing and bullying.  A certain battalion commander has a nervous breakdown because he has to meet his colonel in the morning.

"He is dying with fear and anxiety," writes one of his comrades.  Other men, not battalion commanders, are even more afraid of their superior officers, upon whom this bad news from the Somme has an evil effect.

The bad news was spread by divisions taken out of the line and sent back to rest.  The men reported that their battalions had been cut to pieces.  Some of their regiments had lost three-quarters of their strength.  They described the frightful effect of the British artillery - the smashed trenches, the shell-craters, the great horror.

It is not good for the morale of men who are just going up there to take their turn.

The man who was afraid of his colonel "sits all day long writing home with the picture of his wife and children before his eyes."  He is afraid of other things.

Bavarian soldiers quarrelled with Prussians, accused them (unjustly) of shirking the Somme battlefields and leaving the Bavarians to go to the blood-bath.

"All the Bavarian troops are being sent to the Somme (this much is certain, you can see no Prussians there), and this in spite of the losses the 1st Bavarian Corps suffered recently at Verdun!  And how we did suffer!... It appears that we are in for another turn, at least the 5th Bavarian Division.  Everybody has been talking about it for a long time.  To the devil with it!  Every Bavarian regiment is being sent into it, and it's a swindle."

It was in no cheerful mood that men went away to the Somme battlefields.  Those battalions of grey-clad men entrained without any of the old enthusiasm with which they had gone to earlier battles.  Their gloom was noticed by the officers.

"Sing, you sheep's heads, sing!" they shouted.

They were compelled to sing, by order.

"In the afternoon," wrote a man of the 18th Reserve Division, "we had to go out again: we were to learn to sing.  The greater part did not join in, and the song went feebly.  Then we had to march round in a circle and sing, and that vent no better.  After that we had an hour off, and on the way back to billets we were to sing 'Deutschland uber Alles,' but this broke down completely.  One never hears songs of the Fatherland any more."

They were silent, grave-eyed men who marched through the streets of French and Belgian towns to be entrained for the Somme front, for they had forebodings of the fate before them.

Yet none of their forebodings were equal in intensity of fear to the frightful reality into which they were flung.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. IV, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".

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