Gateway to the Classics: The World at War by M. B. Synge
The World at War by  M. B. Synge

The Western Front—Verdun, Somme

"There's but one task for all,

For each one life to give,

Who stands if Freedom fall?

Who dies if England live?"

—R. Kipling (For all we have and are).

During 1915 the Allies had made various attempts to break through on the Western Front, but without success. The Germans, on the other hand, had discovered methods of using their masses of artillery, which had resulted in a great breakthrough in Galicia, and a completely successful campaign.

The German Higher Command, therefore, decided to turn their attention during 1916 to the Western Front, and to employ the same methods which had proved so successful against the Russians. They planned to deliver their attack early in the year before the Allies could prepare a spring offensive, and the place they chose was Verdun. The reason they chose Verdun was because it was situated at the point of a bulge in the line, and could be attacked from three sides at once, as the map will show. Having decided on the place, the Germans proceeded to mass an amazing quantity of guns of all sizes in the neighbourhood, which they managed to do with comparative secrecy, partly owing to the superiority in the air, which they held at that time, and partly because the country, with its evergreen fir-wooded heights, lent itself admirably to concealment.

The leadership of the enterprise was entrusted to the German Crown Prince, in order to give it prestige, and picked troops were assembled under his command. At the beginning of the battle the Germans had seven army corps assembled against the two army corps of the French defenders.

At dawn on 21st February the great bombardment began. Grand masses of heavy guns concentrated their fire on short lengths of the French trenches, and literally obliterated them. Then, when this hurricane of explosives was moved on to another point, thousands of light field guns maintained an unending curtain of fire on the communication trenches behind, so that no reinforcements could come up.

The German infantry did not then storm forward in waves to take the shattered lines, as had previously been done by both sides, but patrols came cautiously forward to discover if it was safe for the main body of troops to advance. In this way the Germans hoped to hammer their way through by weight of metal alone, saving the valuable lives of their infantry, and only using them to protect their gunners while the latter were moving forward the guns.

But they had reckoned without the French, who foiled their plan. They withdrew practically all their men from the front line, so that a great percentage of that tremendous storm of metal expended itself in the earth in vain: they then came out of their shelters, and caught and annihilated the patrols. Then the masses of grey-clad Germans were forced to come on and meet them face to face—and often hand to hand, and in spite of the odds against them, the spirit of Verdun enabled the French to hold them at bay. This desperate resolve to oppose the Germans to the last was the main defence of Verdun. That deathless cry "Ils ne passeront pas!" which became the battle cry of France, was the outward manifestation of a spirit which could not be broken.

On Friday, 26th February, the Kaiser himself arrived to see the capture of the Douanmont plateau, the key to the whole position: the German and neutral papers had been filled with anticipation of the fall of Verdun, and a special train containing neutral journalists had been brought to Etain, so that they might proceed to the plateau next day, and proclaim the prowess of German arms to the world. Then at the last moment, the Breton Army Corps, hastily brought to Verdun, delivered a brilliant counter-attack, and not only saved the situation, but, pushing the enemy back more than a mile, so entrapped him that he could not extricate himself in this area. From this moment Verdun became more than a military objective—its moral and political importance predominated. To France it had become the very heart of her defence: to Germany the emblem of thwarted ambition. The Kaiser had boasted and promised Verdun to his people, and it is alleged that his estimate of its worth was 200,000 German casualties.

The German plan had broken down, but, in spite of the terrible daily loss of life, they were now committed to a desperate venture for which nothing but ultimate success would atone. Meanwhile the Allies were now certain that Verdun was the only German objective at the moment, and reinforcements were being hurried there by every line and road. From this time onward the defence was practically assured, but for the sake of prestige and the moral of the people at home, the Germans became more and more involved in operations wherein enormous numbers of men were sacrificed. The battles and counter-battles, which raged round Verdun, each one forming an epic in itself, continued until the last week in June, when the British and French offensive on the Somme was launched. In this mad holocaust, continued beyond all limits of common-sense, in order to try and save the name of the Emperor and his son, nearly half a million Germans became casualties, out of the million who were brought into action there.

"Three hundred thousand men, but not enough

To break this township on a winding stream.

More yet must fall, and more, 'ere the red stuff

That built a nation's manhood may redeem

The Master's hopes, and realise his dream.

"They pave the way to Verdun; on their dust

The Hohenzollern mount, and, hand in hand,

Gaze haggard south: for yet another thrust

And higher hills must heap, 'ere they may stand

To feed their eyes upon the promised land."

While this titanic struggle had been going on during the first half of the year, the new British armies had been gathering in France, and learning their work in comparatively quiet portions of the line, until by the end of June they were considered ready to take the offensive. The ground chosen was on both sides of the Somme, the British on the north, the French on the south. The Allies had the greatest confidence that they would be able to break through on a large scale, partly because of the abundance of guns and material which they had collected, and partly because they possessed a greater superiority in numbers than they had had hitherto.

The battle was heralded by a tremendous bombardment along the whole front from 24th June to 1st July, on which day the troops got out of their trenches, and advanced. The French met with a certain amount of success, probably because the Germans had not considered them capable of making an attack so soon after the terrible toll of Verdun. The British, however, met with much stiffer resistance, and although they gained a certain amount of ground, the first day's fighting cost them 50,000 casualties. Such losses as these were prohibitive, and it was obvious that the attack could not continue on this scale. The tactics had to be changed, and from this moment the battle of the Somme became a series of local attacks, nibbling away at the German defences. The new British troops, together with the South African forces, fought magnificently, and continued to make small gains of ground almost daily, but at a terrible cost in human lives. These gains, however, were sufficient to maintain the confidence of the British people for some time, and there was always the hope and expectation that the breaking-point of the Germans would be reached.

Perhaps it was not fully realised at the time that a great change had taken place in the German direction of the war on the Western Front. On 29th August, Hindenburg, with Ludendorff as his right-hand man, had become Chief of the Staff in place of Falkenhayn, who had been removed after his costly failure at Verdun. These two men were the great military geniuses of the war, and they were the first to realise how best to modify the principles of war to suit modern conditions. Their new system of defence proved as successful as their new methods of attack had proved in Galicia in 1915, and the battle of the Somme continued without any decisive success until the middle of November, when it died away in rain and mud.

One feature of this battle was the first introduction of the tank. The tanks had been manufactured with the greatest secrecy, and there is no doubt that they came as a complete surprise to the Germans, and exercised a great moral effect. Unfortunately there were not enough of them, and no definite plan for their use had been made, nor any arrangements for taking advantage of the terror and consternation of the enemy when first they appeared. The surprise was gone, and no vital result had been obtained. It was the same when the Germans first used their gas at Ypres. Surprise is invaluable, but it must be exploited to the full at once: the enemy must not be given time to recover from it.

The battle of the Somme certainly relieved the pressure at Verdun, and enabled the French to regain nearly all the ground which they had lost: a certain amount of ground had been taken, but there was left an unbroken German battle line. Perhaps the greatest result of this battle was that it proved that the new British armies and Dominion troops were the equal of any troops in the world in heroism and powers of endurance, and this fact gave great hopes for success in the coming year.

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