Battle of Albert (1916)


Battle of Albert (1916)

The Battle of Albert, 1 - 13 July 1916, was the opening phase of the British and French offensive that became the Battle of the Somme.

Limitations of sheer artillery volume

The British concentrated and deployed artillery on a scale unprecedented up until then, by which they hoped to destroy German defences prior to the attack : [Farndale 1986, page 144]
Field artillery :
*808 18-pounder guns (3.3-inch) : for cutting barbed wire with shrapnel and attacking enemy troops repairing damage
*202 4.5-inch howitzersHeavy artillery :
*32 4.7-inch guns : for counter-battery fire
*128 60-pounder guns (5-inch) : for counter-battery fire
*20 6-inch guns : cutting barbed wire, and counter-battery fire
*1 9.2-inch railway gun
*1 12-inch railway gun
*104 6-inch howitzers
*64 8-inch howitzers
*60 9.2-inch howitzers
*11 12-inch railway howitzers [Farndale, 1986, refers only to "11 12-inch howitzers". However, 12-inch howitzers on siege carriages only arrived in August, so any 12-inch howitzers could only have been on railway mountings.]
*6 15-inch howitzersMortars :
*2-inch medium mortars : for cuttting barbed wire

The French supplied the following artillery to assist the British bombardment :
*60 75-mm guns (gas only)
*24 120-mm guns
*16 220-mm howitzers

This total of 1,537 guns provided one field gun per 20 yards of front, and one heavy gun per fifty-eight yards. It was employed against a total of 22,000 yards of front, but to this must be added 300,000 yards of support trenches. [Sheffield 2001, page 171] If one considers that 1 million out of 1.5 million of the shells fired in the preliminary bombardment were shrapnel which could blow aside barbed wire but not harm enemy soldiers under cover, and that many of the remaining high-explosive shells failed to explode due to poor quality of mass-produced fuzes, it is evident in hindsight compared to later battles that the bombardment had little chance of destroying a significant percentage of defenders.

In the event, the 1.7 million shells fired in the 7-day preparatory barrage and first day of the battle, and the 17 mines fired just prior to the assault failed to destroy the German defenders on most parts of the front. Most German defenders survived the barrage in shell-proof observation posts and bunkers and were able to man frontline defences when the assault began. This would later lead to reevaluation of British artillery doctrine, with a change of emphasis from destructive to neutralising fire i.e. a realisation that a determined enemy and his arms could not be simply destroyed by artillery but his ability to fight back at the moment could be severely limited if correctly targeted.

Haig's desire to break through versus Rawlinson's "bite and hold"

General Rawlinson, as the commander of the British Fourth Army which had the major responsibility in the battle, originally proposed an initial offensive limited to gaining a foothold in part of the German first line and holding it against expected German counterattacks. One reason was to avoid having the infantry advance beyond the range of their supporting artillery, which would find it difficult to advance across the battlefield because the Somme was farming country with few roads. Another was that the first German line was situated on "forward" slopes i.e. on or below the crests of the ridge of low hills facing the British along the line Gommecourt - Serre - Beaumont Hamel - Thiepval - Ovillers - la Boisselle - Fricourt. This meant that the German first line was above but at least visible to British artillery - trench lines cut in the white chalk showed as white stripes across the hills. Only on the sector further south from Fricourt - Mametz - Montauban did the British observers actually overlook the German first line positions.

However, the second German position was situated some 2 miles behind the first position, on "reverse slopes" visible only to aircraft, on the other side of the ridges running Beaucort - Mouquet Farm - Contalmaison - Bazentin-le-Grand - Longeval, which Rawlinson believed presented a different problem. The barbed wire in front of the German second position was effectively outside the range of the British 18-pounders and trench mortars assigned for wire-cutting, as they stood at the start of this battle [Duffy 2007 Page 121] . In fact reverse-slopes could only be attacked by howitzers and mortars due to their ability to fire over the crest of hills, but the British did not yet possess an instantaneous fuze which was needed to enable field howitzers to cut barbed wire using high-explosive shells. Without an instantaneous fuze, high-explosive shells penetrated the ground slightly before exploding and hence wasted most of their energy in digging holes. Fuze No. 106 become available after the Somme battles and gave the British the capability to burst high-explosive shells at ground level and hence eliminate barbed wire in any position. On the Somme the British had to rely on flat-trajectory guns firing shrapnel, and "toffee-apple" mortars, with a range of only 570 yards, to blow aside barbed wire.

Rawlinson first wanted to capture and consolidate along the German first line from Serre to Maricourt, advance his artillery then plan and stage a separate assault on the German second line, in accordance with his cautious doctrine of "bite and hold" [Hart 2006 Page 64] . Haig rejected this :

"His [Rawlinson's] intention is merely to take the enemy's first and second system of trenches and 'kill Germans'. He looks upon the gaining of three or four kilometres more or less of ground immaterial. I think we can do better than this by aiming at getting as large a combined force of French and British across the Somme and fighting the enemy in the open !" [Hart 2006 Pages 64-65] .
Haig demanded and got a plan for a breakthrough battle that aimed at capturing the German second line in the initial assault, even as far as Bapaume, 7 miles from the start line. [Keegan Page 291] One implication of this was that the initial week-long British artillery bombardment was over-extended and diluted by being spread in depth over both first and second German defensive positions [Hart 2006, Pages 65-67] , the first consisting of up to three trench lines and the second position of up to two trench lines, instead of being concentrated on just the first German position. This extended the zone bombarded from 1,250 yards to an average of 2,500 yards. [Duffy 2007, Page 126-127]

British counter-battery fire

In this battle there tended to always be enough highly-trained and motivated German survivors after barrages to man their defensive weapons such as machine-guns. In addition the Germans had paid extraordinary attention to battlefield communication means and procedures, such as very deeply laid telephone lines, carefully coordinated infantry-artillery liaison procedures, and signalling procedures to ensure that frontline troops were usually able to call for and get supporting defensive artillery fire when called upon. Again, the British counter-battery fire in many cases failed to suppress German gun batteries and hence they were available to answer calls for assistance once the main attack had begun. There were communication problems between the British Army and the RFC (Royal Flying Corps) : "... when army pilots had been closely linked to guns, all was well. The removal of these pilots to the more rarified atmosphere of the RFC did not help this co-operation. However, on Zero-Day 1st July, the enemy guns had not been silenced and were able to bring down heavy defensive fire on the attacking infantry [of III Corps] ... Though an attempt had been made to co-ordinate the counter-battery fire, its effects had varied from being extremely successful [VIII and XV Corps front] to almost non-effective [III Corps] ... they were let down by shortages of and inadequate equipment and communications". [Farndale 1986, pages 148-149]

German guns appear to have survived the initial long bombardment by not firing and hence not revealing their positions :

"...there was an unbroken stream of calls for assistance from the front line to engage these terrible means of destruction [mortars] with counter fire. The artillery declared that it was unable to respond to the wishes of the infantry if it was to preserve its guns and so remain ready to fire defensively once the general attack came..." : Landwehr Leutnant M. Gerster, Reserve Infantry Regiment 119, speaking of events about 29th June near Beaumont Hamel. [Sheldon 2007, page 133]
The telephone lines between the German front lines and their artillery support was in fact cut in many places, but the front line troops were still able to use signal flares to request effective artillery support. The main effect of German artillery fire on 1st July was to saturate nomansland and the British frontline with fire and hence prevented the British from sending forward reinforcements to consolidate the small gains that surviving attacking troops made. The result was that small groups that managed to capture German positions, such as the 36th (Ulster) Division at the Schwaben Redoudbt, could not be reinforced, and hence were soon killed or captured by German reinforcements.

Faulty implementation of creeping barrages

The divisional artillery of most British attacking infantry Corps failed to correctly follow the new tactics for coordinating infantry assaults and creeping barrages (creeping barrages were intended to lay down fire in front of attacking troops to force the enemy to remain under cover). VIII Corps guns lifted the barrage 100 yards every 2 minutes instead of 50-yard increments per minute as had been intended and hence because nomansland was so narrow the barrage began on rather than in front of the German trenches and then lifted beyond leaving the advancing troops to face unsuppressed defenders; XIII Corps with the exception of 18th Division abandoned the creeping barrage altogether, and 18th Divsion alone attacked with any success; III Corps artillery employed old discredited tactics of "raking" back and forth rather than providing a consistently forward-movement of fire behind which the infantry could advance and the attack failed. X Corps gunfire jumped from trench to trench and some "walked" up communications trenches, again instead of consistently moving forward at a pace the infantry could follow. 9th Brigade adjusted its tactics by advancing close behind the barrage and was able to take the first German trench but was forced to withdraw when the barrage then jumped away to the second line of trenches leaving it uncovered. XV Corps had mixed success : 21st Division artillery "searched" backwards and forwards making it very difficult for infantry to advance behind it and was unsuccessful; artillery of 50th Brigade of 17th Division lifted 500 yards and hence its infantry advanced with no protection and failed; 7th Division's artillery lifted 50 yards as planned and its infantry were successful. [Farndale 1986, pages 146-147]

1st July 1916

The result of faulty British planning and tactics and German preparedness was that the first day of the attack constituted a major German victory on most of the front which the British attacked. The British army suffered its highest-ever casualty rate in a single day, in return for a modest advance on the extreme right where it captured and held Mametz and Montauban.

In stark contrast, the French attack was successful and incurred relatively few casualties by the standards of the day. The XX Corps advanced beyond Curlu north of the Somme and was only halted because it depended on the British to protect its left flank, and the British did not advance beyond Montauban. South of the Somme the French I Colonial Corps and XXXV Corps approached the German second position and took 4,000 prisoners.

For these reasons the events of the "First Day on the Somme" as they affected the British tend to obsure the overall picture of what was a joint British-French operation.

2nd to 13th July

The "fog of war" meant that it took time for much information on the extent of failure, the few successes and lessons to be learned to get back to the British high command and for changes to be implemented. They were hence slow to attempt to exploit the only success of 1st July, the capture of Mametz and Montauban south of the Albert-Bapaume road.

However, General Farndale asserts that "It was clear by last light on 1st July, where it had been used, the creeping barrage was a success" [Farndale 1986, 147] and hence there was enough tactical information available to provide the British with some optimism for future operations.

For the remainder of this period the British carried out numerous small assaults while they digested the results of the first major attack. On 9th July the artillery order for the next phase of the battle was signed, and this still left responsibility for details to individual Corps BGRAs, and perpetuated the loose rather than tight coordination of artillery and infantry which had contributed to the failures of 1st July.

The French attack astride and south of the Somme was far more successful than that of the British north of the Somme. However, the British failure to advance meant the French XX Corps north of the Somme could not continue its advance as it needed to protect its left flank. Opposite the French sector the geography was less favouable to defenders, German trenches and dugouts were not as strong as those further north, and there had been greater turnover of defending German units. [Sheldon 2007, page 128] . The French 6th Army advanced as far as 10 km at points along a 20 km front and occupied the entire Flaucourt plateau (which constituted the principal defence of Péronne) while taking 12,000 prisoners, 85 cannons, 26 minenwerfers, 100 machine guns, and other assorted materials, all with relatively minimal losses.

On 11 July the British bombarded and attacked Trones Wood (between Montauban and Guillemont), which was considered necessary to be held before the next stage of the battle, the attack on the German second position towards Guillemont and Longeval, could be launched. The British occupied Trones and part of the wood by the 12th but could not capture the entire wood until the 14th.

Lessons learned by the British

The next major British set-piece opening barrage, before the Battle of Arras in April 1917, would concentrate 963 heavy guns at one every 21 yards [Sheffield, page 191] , more than twice the concentration applied on the Somme, and supplied with much larger quantities of ammunition of higher quality, including the new No. 106 instantaneous percussion fuze. Hence it was only after the Somme experience that the British realised, and became able to bring to bear, the enormous volumes of artillery fire required to achieve any breakthrough in the prevailing siege-like stalemate. In conjunction with lessons learned on infantry-artillery coordination and counter-battery fire, and industrial quality-control, this led to far greater British opening-day success at Arras than on the Somme.

British and French disagreement on what to do next

The French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre, believed that the British had underperformed, and insisted that they attack and break through at Thiepval spur and Pozières Ridge, which was precisely where they had failed so far, in order to open up the path to the German second position. Rawlinson also favoured this approach, believing he needed to maintain pressure on the German reserves that had been drawn in and wear them out :

"... It is also necessary to secure, as early as possible, all important tactical points still in the position of the Germans in their front line system and intermediate line, with a view to an ultimate attack on the German Second Line" : General Rawlinson [General Rawlinson, quoted in R Prior & T Wilson, "Command on the Western Front", Pages 185-6]

Haig disagreed, and instead stated his preference to exploit the tactical breakthrough so far achieved in the south, at a meeting with Joffre on 3rd July. Haig wanted the French to attack Guillemont while the British attacked Longueval from their break-in enclave at Mametz - Montauban. This angered Joffre, who may have believed that the British, by taking the pressure off the Germans in their own sector of the Somme, were leading the French to take a major share in the battle instead of relieving the German pressure on them at Verdun. Haig refused to allow Joffre to dictate tactics to him, and according to Christopher Duffy : "... from that time onwards the British and French efforts on the Somme scarecely counted as a joint offensive". [Duffy 2007, Page 172]

Consequences for the German army

On 12 July the German Chief of the General Staff Erich von Falkenhayn called off his attack on the French at Verdun. This may be viewed as a strategic consequence of pressure exerted on German defenders during the Battle of Albert and the need to send reinforcements. However, the German attack on Fort Souville on 11th July had already failed and the Battle of Verdun had by then degenerated into a costly stalemate and the Russian Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern front was placing new demands on German forces.

A direct result of the Battle of Albert was that von Falkenhayn dismissed Second Army's chief of staff Major General Grünert, who he blaimed for the French successes during this battle, and replaced him with his own operations officer, the defensive specialist Colonel Fritz von Lossberg on 2nd July. Von Lossberg began changing German defensive doctrine from one of holding the front line in force, as previously ordered by Second Army's commander Fritz von Below and von Falkenhayn, to a new doctrine of flexible defense in depth to minimise casualties, with reserves held to recover lost ground by counter-attacks. [John Keegan, "The First World War", published by Vintage Books, 2000, pages 296-297.]

While the Battle of Albert can be viewed as a German tactical victory over the British, and at worst a stalemate, at the strategic level the situation was viewed as worrying. The growing British artillery strength, backed by the increasingly large supplies of guns and ammunition from the United States, demonstrated that in future the allies would hold artillery superiority, especially as Britain could be expected to improve its usage of this advantage. This battle also demonstrated the first coordinated offensives by the Allies, compared with the piecemeal offensives to date :

"...for the first time since the commencement of the war, unity of action on the fronts of the Quadruple Alliance has become a fact, on which our enemies can congratulate themselves. We have got to face a Russian, an Italian and a Franco-English offensive at the same time..." Kölnische Volkszeitung, 4th July. [Duffy 2006, Page 165]
A German intelligence report of 4th July concluded :
"...we can be pretty sure that they will continue to pursue their aim by new attacks, perhaps backed up by even more artillery and ammunition... the British have invested too many hopes in the success of this attack for them to be deflected from their course by an initial failure". [KA 10 ID, Bd 46, Aus Unterhaltungen mit englischen Gefangenen vor der Front des XIV. R. K., Army HQ 4th July 1916. quoted by Duffy 2006, Page 169]
Germany was forced to abandon an intended attack by Sixth Army further north, instead diverting its divisions to the Somme front - 14 by 9th July. [Duffy 2006, Page 173.] Haig's apparent willingness to commit the British army to a war of attrition alarmed German leaders as it was recognised that Germany lacked the manpower and reserves to itself fight a war of attrition.

General von Below was effectively demoted to command First Army north of the Somme river, with General Max von Gallwitz in command both of the overall Somme front, and of Second Army which was now responsible for the zone south of the Somme river. In addition, the Germans divided their army corps on the Somme into "Gruppen" named after their commanders to achieve better control of the now enlarged troop numbers. Divisions could be transferred between Gruppen but each Grup had its set area of responsibility : Gruppe Stein (XIV Reserve Corps) in the north, Gruppe Sixt von Armin (IV Corps) in the centre and Gruppe Gossler (VI Reserve Corps) in the south. This arrangement was scheduled to be implemented early on 14th July [Duffy 2006, Page 176.] , unfortunately for the Germans at precisely the same moment when the British launched the next phase of their offensive, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge.

ee also

Notes

References

*Chris Baker, [http://www.1914-1918.net/bat15_albert.htm Battle of Albert]
*Christopher Duffy, "Through German Eyes. The British & The Somme 1916". London: Phoenix, 2007. ISBN 978 0 7538 2202 9
*General Sir Martin Farndale, "History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Western Front 1914-18". London: Royal Artillery Institution, 1986. ISBN 1 870114 00 0
*Peter Hart, "The Somme". London: Cassell Military Paperbacks, 2006. ISBN 978 0 3043 6735 1
*John Keegan, "The First World War". New York: Vintage Books, 2000. ISBN 0 375 70045 5
*Jack Sheldon, "The German Army on the Somme 1914-1916". Barnesley UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2007. ISBN 978 1 84415 513 2
*Gary Sheffield, "Forgotten Victory. The First World War : Myths and Realities". London: Headline Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0 7472 6460 0


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