A machine war: The technological legacy of the Battle of the Somme

Repairing telephone wires in the Ancre Area, Hamel, October 1916. Copyright IWM (Q 1589)
Repairing telephone wires in the Ancre Area, Hamel, October 1916. Copyright IWM (Q 1589)

Tomorrow will be the centenary of the Somme and due to Canada Day the Centre will be closed, so I thought I would post something in advance of our usual Friday blog. Aside from the day of remembrance in Newfoundland, the Somme doesn’t come onto the Canadian radar until September, when the Canadian Corps was engaged at Courcelette. However, the earlier months of the Somme would have a huge effect in how the rest of the war was fought, particularly on the logistics and organisation of the large-scale battles to come.

By 1916, it had become clear that the war was not going to be won quickly, nor would it be possible to re-take large swathes of territory back from the German army on the Western Front; they were too well dug in. This meant that the only way to win was to wear down the enemy, forcing the Germans to use all their reserves and resources to hold what they had until they broke under the Allied mass. It was an awful way to fight a war, and required an enormous commitment not only of soldiers, but also artillery, shells, supplies, and the means to transport them.

The months before the day of the beginning of the offensive will look extremely familiar to those who know about the Canadian preparations for Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917, and indeed, command at Vimy made use of, and refined many of the preparatory techniques used at the Somme. Gone were the days where the BEF lacked shells; on 1 July 250 000 shells were fired, with hundreds of thousands more fired during the next 6 months of the battle. The British at the Somme and the French at Verdun both realised the artillery was the future, and no battle from 1916 onwards would lack a bombardment, though the creeping barrage had yet to be successfully adopted.

Artillery officers were now firing on a largely unseen enemy, sometimes from emplacements several miles behind the lines, and had to find new ways to locate their targets. This was where the Royal Flying Corps came in. Originally seen as peripheral to warfare in 1914, the airplane was used increasingly to scout out enemy gun emplacements, an exceedingly dangerous job as the plane had to fly low enough that a camera could be used to take photographs of the guns. In the months before the Somme attack, RFC scouts crisscrossed the German lines, photographing trenches and gun pits for the information of the gunners below.

Finally, the BEF had to move roughly 400 000 soldiers to the front lines at the Somme, along with artillery, shells and the horses needed to transport them. Additionally, existing infrastructure in this largely agrarian area was not sufficient to house or provide water for the men who would be camped there. The Royal Engineers dug hundreds of wells and laid miles of railway and pipes, most of which would be destroyed during the battle. Miles of telephone lines were also installed to direct the battle and communicate between the headquarters far at the rear and the front lines.

On 1 July, most of those 400 000 soldiers would go over the top, many in the first wave at 7:30 am. By the end of the day almost 20 000 would be dead and some 38 000 wounded, many of whom laid where they fell for hours waiting for medical attention. England was thrown into mourning as communities grappled with the loss of their youths, and the whole dominion of Newfoundland was inundated with telegrams notifying of the death or wounding of some 710 of their own. From this point onward, the war in Europe would never be the same; technology and mass movement had taken over, and the machine war had begun.


NB: Those reading may notice that I have not mentioned the use of tanks on the Somme. Undoubtedly, tanks were the novelty of the battle, though they were not used until Courcelette in September 1916. For the purpose of this essay, I have chosen to discuss the large-scale organisation and technologies that would influence the battles to come; in my mind, the tanks had little far-reaching influence in this period, other than as a tangible symbol of mechanised warfare.




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