The Battle of the Somme

Question 1

1. In 1916, the Germans launched a major attack on the French fortresses in Verdun. The French were close to defeat but were determined not to surrender. They knew the British were about to launch a major attack on the Western Front which would take pressure off them. They also knew that the Germans were likely to call off the attack at Verdun if they were to defend against the English.

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The Battle of the Somme was known as the ‘Big Push’ that was hoped to end in a British victory- the breakthrough that would end the stalemate on the Western Front.

The generals in charge at the Somme were Haig and Rawlinson. Haig was responsible for the planning of and directing the attack. He used very old-fashioned tactics. He believed that the machine gun was overrated and that we could win the war using cavalry alone.

The principles of the attack were heavy artillery bombardment followed by mass infantry assault. The plan was to constantly bombard the German trenches with shells in order to destroy the front line and create a gap in the barbed-wire for the infantry to pass through It was hoped that if a gap in the front line was created, the Germans would have to use up all their reserve forces as well. The Allies knew the German defences were very strong so realized the preceding bombardment would have to be heavy if the infantry were to have a good chance of breaking through.

Haig planned to attack along a 15 mile front just north of the Somme. Most of this area was well defended high ground. He decided they would use larger shells rather than many smaller ones. In total, a million and a half shells would be fired.

The attack was planned to last five days. The 1st two would be concentrating on cutting the wire and knocking out the German artillery with shells. For the next three days destruction of the trenches and machine-gun posts was to take place in addition.

The Generals, in particular Haig, were confident with their plans and said not ‘even a rat’ would be alive in the German trenches.

It was decided that after the bombardment, the infantry would walk over No Man’s Land. Haig thought there would be no need to run as the trenches would be empty. After the trenches were seized, the cavalry would pour through to pursue the fleeing Germans.

These tactics had been previously used at Chapelle in 1915 where they failed. This, however, did not dishearten the over-confident Haig , he re-used the tactics on a much larger scale.

GCSE History Coursework: Assignment 1

Question 2

2. The Battle of the Somme was one of the worst losses in British Military history, but why did it turn out to be such a disaster? Here are some of the main reasons as to why this loss was so great.

The bombardment was a failure for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Germans knew the attack was coming- spy planes and balloons saw the arrival of fresh troops and supplies. Therefore, they weren’t surprised when the bombardment started. They had practised retreating from their trenches into deeper underground dug-outs- when the bombardment began they sheltered in these.

Also, the shells just tangled the barbed-wire even more so the men couldn’t pass easily.

Many shells did not explode because they were faulty therefore the trenches were only partly destroyed.

The Germans knew that when the shelling stopped, the Allies were approaching so had time to set up machine-gun posts before they arrived.

The infantry attack was a disaster for the following reasons.

The Generals were so over-confident they ordered the men to walk over to the trenches as they thought the Germans were dead.

The Germans were ready for them, and faced waves of slow-moving men- easy targets for machine-guns. The rapid fire meant the well-armed Germans just cut through the soldiers until they were all dead,

The Somme was also such a disaster because of the Generals’ tactics. The horrific 1st day did not deter them from continuing for 4 months, knowing there was nearly no chance of a break-through. They were slaughtering the men with no results,

Haig, especially is thought to be mainly to blame for the disaster. He used old-fashioned tactics which had failed miserably before, only this time on a much bigger scale. Basically, he was gambling with men’s lives.

Theoretically Rawlinson was in charge. Possibly, Haig disagreed with the plan but he was reluctant to overrule him.

Overall, the Allies gained only a small amount of land, often lost immediately. This did not justify the loss of 420,000 men.

GCSE History Coursework: Assignment 1

Question 3

3. The British Army at the Somme being described as ‘lions led by donkeys’ was a very clever statement as it is true on many levels.

This quote was spoken by the German General Ludendorff. The fact that he was German is very significant, as by saying this, he is showing true respect for the British soldiers. For a German General to admit this is very revealing as it shows just how brave the soldiers really were.

When Ludendorff says ‘lions’, he is referring to the British soldiers. I agree with him saying this for the following reasons.

All the soldiers fighting at the Somme were volunteers who were not expecting the terrible conditions. They were led to believe the war would be over by Christmas. This however, wasn’t the case.

Even though they soon realised how bad thing were, few ran away. They always followed the Generals’ orders without argument. This includes the order to walk over No-Mans Land which they probably thought was dangerous but they went ahead anyway.

The soldiers always fought to their full potential, knowing there was a great chance of them dying. They carried on, even when they saw men dying around them. At the Somme, they were led to believe the bombardment had been a success and fought on. It was soon obvious this was not the case but the men courageously carried on throughout the German machine-gunning.

Often whole villages enlisted together so became known as ‘Pals’, this was the case of the ‘Accrington Pals’. At the Somme 584 of the 720 Pals who fought died. In summary, whole villages of men were nearly completely wiped out.

Conversely, perhaps the men behaved more like sheep than lions in following the obviously risky order to walk. It would have been braver to stand up to the Generals, maybe saving hundreds of lives.

When Ludendorff says ‘donkeys’, he is referring to the incompetence of the Generals. Donkeys are stereotyped to be stubborn and unthinking.

The Generals are ‘donkeys’ for theses reasons:-

Firstly, their tactics were often ridiculous and old-fashioned. The order telling the soldiers to walk was unthinking and cost many lives.

They were over-confident and thought the order to walk would be fine as they expected all the Germans to be dead. They had not organised contingency plans as they were so certain of success.

Even after the disasters of the 1st day, they were not deterred and continued using their strategy, losing more men.

Their basic strategy was that if more Germans were killed than British, an Allied victory would result. Basically, they slaughtered men for their own glory.

Also, Haig did not stand up to Rawlinson even though it is likely he didn’t agree with his tactics. His defence however, is that even if he did, Rawlinson would ignore him. This shows that some of the Generals were stubborn and inflexible with their tactics. They were unimaginative and obstinate even at the price of their own men.

Finally, some had no real interest in their soldiers. Many never visited the trenches so had no idea what they were sending their men into.

However, describing the Generals as donkeys is not always correct or accurate.

The Allies were ultimately victorious which wouldn’t have been possible if the Generals were totally incompetent

Also, the German army at the Somme was extremely good, therefore it wasn’t necessarily the tactics that had failed, it was just bad luck.

The Generals at the Somme were put under great strain. It is very likely that no other British General could’ve withstood the pressure.

The General particularly in question when discussing the Somme is Haig. He wasn’t as incompetent as people think and being known as the ‘bungler’ or ‘butcher’ is rather harsh. He often varied his tactics to cope with the problems encountered and was devoted to his men. Also, he was trusted by the soldiers, a thing which many Generals lacked.

When people cheered for him at the end of the war, he showed great modesty, claiming it was the soldiers they should be cheering for.

In conclusion, it is clear to see there is a lot of evidence both agreeing and disagreeing with General Ludendorff’s statement. I however, agree overall with the quotation ‘lions led by donkeys’. Even though the Generals were not as incompetent as people often think, they made some stupid mistakes that cost Britain thousands of innocent men.

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