Continuing with our First World War timeline, today we talk about two of the bloodiest battles: Somme and Verdun. We have already discussed them in previous updates, but as the battles continued, things kept on happening. Today however, I will be focussing on how these two conflicts came to a halt – or rather a temporary pause – much to the relief of their combatants and the other victims of the war. And in a very coincidental way, this is only fitting, as I just went this last Thursday to a reading of War Horse at the Royal Albert Hall…
The Somme: the battle of the Ancre Heights & Ancre
The bloodshed at The Somme ended the 18th of November 1916 at the command of Chief Sir Douglas Haig. The battle had been going on since July that same year: four long months of quarreling were simply not getting the Allies anywhere – particularly since Verdun was being just as tough, if not more as some scholars may argue. October came and Haig was prepared to advance towards Bapaume. However, the weather became an obstacle yet again in this operation, much like we have seen in other operations across different fronts. Rain, mud and mist…Operations were then delayed. In addition, the German army changes tactical arrangements, which mixed up with the reinforcement issues all parties were facing at this stage, the result was a pretty atrocious offensive from both sides. The German corps were also suffering, having serious problems with lack of resources, ammo and weapons for their soldiers. In addition, starvation was starting to become a widespread issue. By the end of October, Haig had to resign himself and accept the fact that no attack would be launch effectively until the ground was dry enough for the army to march and for the war machines to operate without disruption. The Allied troops were also at a serious disadvantage due to the fact that the German army decided to send over 300 aircraft to the Somme for the October operations. The Albatros D.II and D.III turned to be far superior than the British and French crafts. It is worth mentioning here the role of the Canadian Corps through this period, particularly due to their effective use of communications, which was essential for the Allies as with the fogs, mist and smoke visibility was lacking. Therefore everyone had to be in the look out for German planes, bombs and soldiers. It seems that for this purpose the Canadian Corps used everything they had at hand to keep the information flowing: from telephones and runners to visual signals and pigeons. But here came November, and Haig found that just a few days after the final battle at Ancre had started, winter was upon them and snow started to fall during the night of the 17th and the early morning of the 18th of November. The Germans had heavily defended their position with barbed wire and their machine guns, but Haig hoped that the exhaustion of the German troops and pressure to move soldiers to the Eastern front would play to his advantage. It seems that the operation was relatively successful in terms of conquering the objectives south of Serre and Ancre, but the losses were still high – needless to say that many experts consider these objectives rather minor and not great game changers. In any case, both sides retired from this region shortly after the Canadian 4th Division took Desire Support Trench on the 18th of November. No more interaction would take place in this area until January 2017.
Verdun: French Offensive and Troop Relief
The French resistance launched their 1ère Bataille Offensive de Verdun at the beginning of October, resulting in the replacement and relieve of over 20 divisions. The objective of the operation was to recapture Fort Douaumont, which had been partially evacuated by the Germans already. By the 24th of October the French took over the fort. Heavy bombing took place at the site, causing some serious damage with the explosions of pioneer depot. The operation was successful as represented by the 6000 prisoners captured by the french army. The rest of the operations in the area were also successful with the eventual recapture of Fort Vaux. The French army intercepted a message from the German troops announcing their retreat, which enabled them to enter the site without actually engaging in combat. Then, like in the case of the Somme, operations ceased until December. In fact, it is solid to say all the French operations in this area until the end of 1916 were positive for the Allies. The 2ième Bataille Offensive de Verdun was launches before Christmas (15-17 of December). Further bombing strategically aimed at the trenches as well as observation points gave the French the upper hand. But of course, the German troops had been rather diminished by a relocation of soldier to the Eastern front. It has been estimated that by this stage, the German army was reduced to half of what it was at the peak of the conflict in the Western front, which obviously was a serious advantage for the Allies. The German lines collapsed, most of the soldiers were captured and the vast majority of the rest killed in battle or reported as “missing”. By the 17th of December 1916 the French line had been consolidated from Bezonvaux to Côte du Poivre, with an advancement of nearly 3 kilometres from Fort Douaumont. In conclusion, the French managed to put together a solid attach and recovery procedure which was supported by the reduced number of German soldiers and what could be considered a bad choice of strategy from the point of view of the Germans, trying to use tactics that were effective in the Russian front two years before. In addition, Petain’s use of the Noria rotation and relieve system proved to be more effective in the long run.
Sadly, both Allied and German troops would get to see the same battlefields the following year, although for a shorter period of time. Thus, these two battles will go down in history as some of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of all time. But until 2017, let the soldiers of the Western Front have a rest and join us in a moment of silence in this sunny All Hallows Eve, in preparation for a long-awaited and much expected Remembrance Day…
May the souls of the brave rest in peace.