Is It Fair To Blame Haig For The Failure Of The First Day Of The Somme

The Battle of the Somme was one of the biggest military blunders in history. There were 60,000 casualties on the first day. The British were put to shame. After a seven day bombardment it was carelessly assumed that there would be no German survivors; this could not have been more wrong. The German trenches were far more advanced than was thought and they had simply sat out the bombardment in dugouts far below the ground. Another mistake was that the explosions were expected to cut up the wire so that the British soldiers could get through to the German lines.

However, all that had happened was that the explosions had lifted the wire off the ground and then dropped in an even worse state than before. When the bombs stopped the Germans became aware that an infantry attack was imminent and so scrambled to get out from the dugout to get their guns in place. This was the “Race To The Parapet”. The British, however, had no idea of this “race” and they thought that everyone on the other side would be dead. Many of them didn’t even get halfway across no-mans-land before they were cut down by the machine-guns.

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Even after the first wave of men, more and more were sent over the top, even though it was evident that they weren’t making ten metres towards the other front-line. So who was to blame for this catastrophe? Many accuse Field Marshal Haig. He was the man in charge of the attack. It was under his orders that tens of thousands of men walked slowly across no-mans-land to their deaths. However, Haig was not the only one involved in the Somme. He was taking his own orders from higher authority, quite probably back in England.

These people had no way of knowing what conditions were really like across the channel. He may well have been given false or insubstantial information about the German defenses and wire. Many people think that Haig could, and should, have worked this out for himself. After all, they knew by now that the Germans were using very defensive tactics, and this would mean that their trenches would be much more well established. Haig never actually visited the front line, though, and so he had no way of truly experiencing what was happening.

One might argue that this is unacceptable and that it was his duty to visit his trenches and encourage his men. If he had done so, he would have learnt much more about his army and the enemy’s. Instead he remained far behind the lines, probably in a grand French house. His only source of information would have been messengers who would come to him to give him rough situation reports. We don’t know exactly what information he was being given, but it may have been that they were afraid of his reaction to bad news and so told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

The bombs that were used had obviously not been tested thoroughly as they had none of the effects that were expected. They didn’t cut the wire, they didn’t damage the German trenches to a great extent and they didn’t kill the enemy’s soldiers. Yes, they were modern weapons and they had never been used on that level in the field, but they should have simulated an attack on a German trench and examined the effects to confirm their efficiency. Haig himself was a Cavalry man and so was taking advice from another Field Marshal, Sir Henry Rawlinson.

He was an infantry member and was able to guide Haig in the planning of the advance. It was his idea that the soldiers should walk across to preserve their formation, as he did not trust them as much as they deserved. Haig should have seen that this was a bad strategy and, either reconsidered it with Rawlinson or overruled it completely. Even after the initial advance failed, he made no recorded attempts to stop the attack, leaving the following waves to walk out to their deaths.

It would have been extremely hard for him to call back the soldiers who had already gone over-the-top, but he could have at least tried to stop the subsequent waves of infantry after it became obvious there was no hope of success. To conclude, I think that it is fair, to some extent, to blame Haig for the failure of the first day of the Somme, but it is also important to remember that there were others involved as well. I think that an accumulation of mistakes and negligent assumptions combined with Haig’s lack of judgment and logical thinking led to the disaster of the Battle of the Somme.

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