Why were the Allies able to go from defeat in 1916 to Victory in 1918?



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Probably the most important learning experience undergone on the Somme related to artillery. Even during the battle, some commanders learned the importance of concentrating artillery fire. Comparing the attack of 14-15 July 1916 to that of a fortnight before, we find two thirds of the guns firing at one eighteenth the length of trench. By the end of the battle, it was more widely accepted that German artillery batteries were themselves a prime target which had to be dealt with before and during an attack.

The Somme saw the one of the first uses of the ‘creeping barrage’, a wall of exploding shells which moved forward slowly over enemy trenches with infantry following close behind. It ensured the Germans stayed under cover until the British soldiers were upon them. In the early days of the Somme, these barrages sometimes moved too fast for the troops behind them, allowing the Germans to emerge from their bunkers and man their defences before the British arrived. But over the next two years the barrages would become increasingly sophisticated, incorporating different weapons and multiple variations in timing.

In the period after the Somme, British artillery became increasingly adept at using a variety of methods to bring their guns into action quickly, accurately and decisively. These included dispensing with the practice of firing ‘ranging shots’ which gave the Germans prior warning of an attack, in favour of ‘pre-registration’ of artillery using a grid map system. Heavier guns - like the 12-inch howitzer below - and innovations in the shells designed for them allowed British artillery to perform a wide range of tasks, from destroying barbed wire to knocking out enemy guns.



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How were the INFANTRY utilized differently after 1916?

Before, during and after the Somme, British infantry were re-equipped with light machine guns and rifle grenades, as well as being able to call upon their usual pre-war weapons. As a result, while infantry battalions became steadily smaller throughout the war, the quantity of firepower they could produce became steadily larger.

In the winter of 1916-1917, as a direct result of experience on the Somme, the infantry were formally reorganized to make the ‘platoon’ (40 men) the key tactical unit, rather than the larger ‘company’ (150 men). Platoon commanders were given control of these new infantry weapons, so that they had available both automatic fire (machine gun) and indirect fire (such as trench mortars). Compared to their predecessors, junior commanders - subalterns and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) - were expected by 1917 to exercise far greater control and initiative over the battle at a local level.

A new system of standard formations and drills, combining fire and movement, was promulgated throughout the army to make use of this devolution of weapons and responsibility. When combined with accurate artillery fire in sufficient quantity, these changes made it possible for British infantry in 1917 to regularly break into strongly defended positions.

A central problem the army experienced during World War One was the difficulty of co-coordinating different arms and taking advantage of fleeting opportunities. On the Somme, soldiers in the front line found it extremely hard to communicate with rear areas and supporting units. Both telegraph wires and human runners were very vulnerable to enemy shellfire. Even when local successes occurred - as they did even on 1 July 1916 - by the time news got back to headquarters it was too late.

The British recognised the problem of communications, and in December 1916 ‘signallers’ were instructed to follow close behind the attack, burying cables connected in a ‘ladder’ system so that one break would not disable the network. In the photograph below from October 1917, Royal Engineers carry drums of telephone wire to connect units on the battlefield near Ypres. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began experiments with the use of radio (which doesn’t require vulnerable cables) , but sets remained too bulky and temperamental to use extensively. In its planning for the Battle of the Menin Road in September 1917, 1st Australian Division specified seven different means of communication between headquarters and the front line, including telegraph and telephone, visual signalling, wireless, power buzzers, motor cycle dispatch riders, runners and pigeons. These developments did not solve the problem of communications, but they did make it more likely that messages would get through.



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What impact did NEW WEAPONS have on military successes 1917 to 1918?

Although artillery and infantry remained central to the successful fighting of battles, the British army also made use of many pieces of new technology. Some of these are well known - the tank, the airplane and poison gas all achieved considerable success at different points in the war - but others are less familiar.

Enemy barbed wire was a major problem for British forces on the Somme, and it was very difficult to destroy with conventional artillery fire, which often either left the wire unscathed or broke up the ground so severely that it became impassable anyway. In response, the British created the ‘106 fuse’ which caused artillery shells to explode on the slightest contact and to expend their force horizontally rather than burying themselves in the ground. It was extremely effective at cutting barbed wire. Available in small quantities in 1916, it was in 1917 that it came into its own as a weapon against wire and troops.

No new weapon was a war winner in itself. World War One tanks, for example, were mechanically unreliable, desperately uncomfortable to fight in, and remained vulnerable to enemy artillery and impassable ground. The Germans quickly developed counter-measures to every Allied technical innovation. New technology had to be integrated with existing arms in order to achieve the best performance. It was not until the last year of the war that the British became truly adept at combining new weapons and tactics to break into and then break through the German lines. Although tanks were first used at the Battle of Flers on the Somme in 1916, they did not start to come into their own until the Battle of Cambrai, in November 1917, and were arguably only truly well integrated into ‘all-arms’ battles in the summer of 1918.

Why was INTELLIGENCE/SURVEILLANCE much improved after 1917?

Many of the most important technical developments of the war related to the gathering of information. The key role of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), on the Somme and after, was to observe and correct British artillery fire. This meant not only carrying observers, but attempting to identify and communicate with British forces on the ground. Throughout the war, aerial photography steadily improved.

The British developed a number of other sophisticated means for locating enemy guns, including flash-spotting (looking for the muzzle-flash from enemy artillery pieces) and sound-ranging (calculating the position of enemy artillery from their sound). Taken together, these improvements allowed the British to target German artillery far more effectively in 1917. This counter-battery fire was a crucial ingredient in British successes in the second half of the war.

Battles of attrition – as many engagements of World War One tended to be – often lack decisive results. Because of this, information about the enemy was also a means of deciding success or failure. This, in turn, could give Intelligence officers tremendous influence over command decisions. Although the intelligence branch of British General Headquarters expanded enormously in 1917, the year after the Somme, it often provided over-optimistic information about the state of German reserves and morale - factors which were much more open to interpretation than the location of enemy guns.



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None of the British army’s tactical and technical developments would have been of much use if soldiers did not have the equipment, weapons and munitions to put them into effect. The Battle of the Somme stretched the improvised system of British logistics almost to breaking point. Over the winter of 1916-1917, the way that the British managed supplies was completely reorganized, partly under the supervision of Sir Eric Geddes, a civilian brought in because of his pre-war expertise in railway organization. A new system of ‘prediction’ of where and when supplies would be needed, and a new emphasis on effective transport enabled British troops to fight more effectively. In particular, by 1917, British gunners were able to operate for the first time without serious restriction on the quantity of shells they could fire.



What changes were introduced to the TRAINING of British soldiers?

Even before the Battle of the Somme had begun, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had already made an effort to study its performance in battle and to learn from its successes and failures in 1915. This process of self-examination continued during and after the Somme. The British army had traditionally been suspicious of rigorously-imposed doctrine, partly because of the sheer range of roles its pre-war soldiers had to fill, and partly because of strong traditions of regimental independence.

But the Somme demonstrated that standards of training - particularly in rifle fire - and methods in attack varied greatly throughout the army. Successful tactics developed by one unit were not necessarily spread throughout the BEF. In trying to turn a large number of civilians into soldiers quickly, the army found it necessary to standardise its procedures. From the summer of 1916 onwards, a series of training pamphlets were produced. They summarised the lessons learned on the Somme, laid down simple instructions for combat operations, and made sure that British soldiers adapted to the new demands of the modern battlefield.

In the last years of the war, General Headquarters in France paid particular attention to the training of its junior commanders.



Did the British army follow a steep learning curve to emerge victorious in 1918?

Military historians have come to talk of a ‘learning curve’ for the British army on the Western Front. This should not, however, necessarily be taken to mean a smooth progression of expertise. Many soldiers, at all levels of command, made mistakes or misinterpreted their experiences. Sometimes the wrong lessons were learned, or circumstances prevented the use of the most effective tactics. Given the high turnover of personnel, improvements could be hard to sustain. Yet we can point to individuals whose long term experience of battle allowed them to adapt to the demands of the Western Front.

Rowland Fielding was an officer who served variously with the Coldstream Guards, the Connaught Rangers and the London Regiment from 1915 until the end of the war. On the Somme in September 1916, his battalion launched an attack which failed because the artillery preparation missed a German trench close to the British front line. Two years later, he wrote of the relationship between infantry and artillery:

. . . the sense of comradeship and understanding between the two arms is almost perfect nowadays. Each appreciates the difficulties of the other’s job … It is generally better economy to risk a few casualties from our own fire than that the artillery should shoot too much for safety. More casualties may be caused in the attack by the machine guns of the enemy remaining in action between our infantry and our barrage, than are ever likely to result from accidents through closer shooting.’

In 1917, not least as a result of its experiences on the Somme, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) developed the ability to regularly break into German defended positions. Given careful planning, abundant artillery support, and reasonable luck, the British were capable of making limited advances, while inflicting heavy casualties on their opponents. However, even successful operations still resulted in heavy casualties. It remained extremely difficult to convert initial tactical success into decisive victory. This was partly the consequence of contemporary technical developments in communications and transport, but mainly the result of the size, ability and determination of the opposing forces packed into a relatively small area of north-west Europe.

In the summer and autumn of 1918, the British were finally able to string together a sequence of victories which left German forces in disorganised retreat towards their own borders, and played a major role the final victory. The massive German offensive of earlier 1918 had failed to achieve its objectives, and decisively weakened their army. At the same time, the British demonstrated their ability to fight battles making use of every arm - infantry, artillery, tanks, planes, cavalry and armored cars - in which they not only broke into but broke through the German lines, as at Amiens on 8 August 1918.



The BEF also showed the logistical and organisational ability which enabled it to mount a series of such battles in quick succession. Arguably, this sequence of ‘all-arms’ battles was a crucial step in the development of modern warfare, and a remarkable achievement for the citizen army that had suffered on the Somme.

Task – Why were the allies able to turn defeat into victory between 1916 and 1918?

  1. What were the main changes in the way the British army used its artillery and infantry after 1916?

  2. What improvements in communications helped to coordinate British forces and resources better?

  3. Explain the strengths and weaknesses of the new weapons introduce after 1916?

  4. How did intelligence gathering and logistics improve after 1917?

  5. Was the British soldier much improved by 1918?

  6. When, where and how did the British army get a breakthrough in the war? Explain fully.



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