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SOMME: INTO THE BREACH
THE REASONS FOR THE DISASTER
The main reason for the disaster on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme was that Generals Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France, and Sir Henry Rawlinson, the commander of British troops on the Somme, were not able to agree on a sensible attack plan. Their failure to do so appears to be linked to what happened during the first major British attack on the Western Front, at Neuve Chapelle, during March 1915. At Neuve Chapelle, Rawlinson made a mistake. He used the reserves on the first day when he should have kept them back so that they could exploit any breakthrough. To make matters worse, he then blamed a junior general, only admitting that he was responsible after the junior general complained. Rawlinson was forced to apologize, and he would have been sacked by Sir John French, who at the time was the Commander-in-Chief, had not Haig stood up for him.
Rawlinson’s career was saved, but he was effectively neutered. He could not oppose Haig without contravening the unwritten rule between gentlemen which stated that if your life or career was saved by a brother officer, you must never betray him. As a result of Haig’s action, Rawlinson was unable to protest when Haig proposed an unrealistic plan for the Somme attack.
The plan which Haig proposed, and which Rawlinson might well have opposed had he not been so constrained, was to attack the German second line as well as the first. Haig’s insistence that the second line should be attacked as well as the first meant that the barrage on the first line was ‘diluted’. The available shells had to be spread over the two German lines rather than being concentrated on the 1st German line. As a result the German resistance in the front line was not quelled prior to the British attack on 1 July 1916. It was an accident waiting to happen as far as the British were concerned.
There were other causes: Firstly British soldiers captured before the 1 July 1916 attack began told their German interrogators what was going to happen. Secondly Rawlinson’s good luck message on the morning of the attack intercepted by the Germans told them the assault was about to commence. Thirdly the decision by Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston to blow up the mine under the German strongpoint near Beaumont Hamel ten minutes before zero hour on 1 July 1916, also alerted the Germans that an attack was imminent. Because of all these factors, when British troops advanced at zero hour, the Germans were in their trenches waiting for them. Click here to return to book’s plot
AUDIOBOOK DETAILS The audiobook contains an unabridged recording of Somme: Into The Breach read by Roy McMillan, the same reader whose audiobook version of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s book Dunkirk: Fight To The Last Man is referred to on the Dunkirk Book pages. The Somme audiobook made it to the No. 1 spot in the Audible weekly charts of best selling audiobooks.
Note from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore: Those readers who have enjoyed the printed book version of Somme should consider listening to the audiobook as well. Because Roy McMillan has attributed different voices and appropriate accents to each of the men whose quotations appear in the book, listening to the book will provide you with a completely different experience. Click here to hear 1st chapter of Somme audiobook. Click here to see details of the Dunkirk audiobook.
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