World War I: Remembering the French soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Somme
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A hundred years ago on July 1, 1916, British and French forces launched an offensive on Germany’s army in the Somme region of northern France. While the date remains seared in the memories of the British, it has been largely forgotten by the French.
Over one million people of all nationalities were left dead, wounded or missing during the Battle of the Somme – the deadliest conflict of World War I. But a century later, France’s involvement in the five-month long offensive has been all but forgotten. To mark the centenary of the battle, FRANCE 24 spoke to Commander Michaël Bourlet, head of the history and geography department at the Saint-Cyr Coëtquidan military academy in western France, who recalled the French army’s role in the fighting.
FRANCE 24: Why did the French and British decide to launch a joint offensive at the Somme in July 1916?
Michaël Bourlet: You have to go back to the months before the offensive, as well as the end of 1915. While the situation was complicated on both sides of the conflict, it was especially so for the Allies, which had launched more attacks on the Western Front than the Germans. This had cost the French 350,000 men, and the British around 100,000. But they decided to launch yet another offensive. During an Allied meeting at French headquarters in Chantilly on December 6, 1915, General |Joseph] Joffre expressed his desire to coordinate Allied efforts to bring down the Central Powers. Of course, the Western Front remained a priority. But the French and British couldn’t agree on where to attack. The British backed a northern offensive, in the direction of Belgium’s ports, while Joffre wanted to strike German lines part way between France and Britain’s armies in the Somme. The French general’s strategy was accepted on February 14, 1916.
So, it was an offensive that was initially devised and planned by the French. The attack was supposed to happen along a 70 km-long front between [the towns] of Hébuterne and Lassigny, 40 to 50 km of which was the responsibility of the French. But the Battle of Verdun, launched by the Germans in late February, interfered with these plans by using up a considerable number of French reserves in the Meuse [region]. Joffre, however, decided to move forward with the offensive at the Somme, partly because he wanted to honour his commitment to the Allies, but also to relieve fighting at Verdun. The strategy was revised to shrink the area of attack from 70 to 40 km, as well as to account for a reduced number of French forces.
FRANCE 24: What was France’s level of engagement at the Somme during the start of the offensive on July 1?
Michaël Bourlet: [French General Ferdinand] Foch, who was in charge of the operation and commander of the Army Group North, had only 22 divisions and 555 pieces of artillery, instead of the 39 divisions and 1,700 pieces of artillery initially planned… On the other hand, British General [Douglas] Haig had around 30 divisions. He also had the support of Canadian, New Zealander, Australian and South African troops. Overall, French and British forces were backed by more than 330 aircraft and nearly 3,000 cannons. Before the start of the offensive, there was no doubt of victory, especially because the Germans, who were already fighting at Verdun, had inferior numbers.
FRANCE 24: But the offensive didn’t happen as planned, and July 1 went down as a tragic day for the British army, which lost 20,000 men in just a few hours. Is it true, however, that the French made some advances?
Michaël Bourlet: The French did indeed fare better on July 1. There were losses too, but they weren’t as heavy. On a tactical level, French troops were able to advance several kilometres and even seize German trenches. The French command had learned its lessons from 1915 and Verdun. It had mastered the different modes of combat (close co-operation between infantry, artillery and aviation), for example, and also had better artillery pieces and more soldiers with combat experience than their British allies.
Despite the Allied forces failures in July, the French set to work in August preparing for a new offensive. On September 3, they mounted a new assault. Their progress was slow, with fierce fighting around the towns of Combles and Bouchavesnes. By September 20, French forces had entered into the worst phase of fighting. The battle broke down, with French soldiers worn down by severe weather and Germany’s stubborn resistance. On November 18, the offensive in the Somme came to a halt. But the high command refused to give up and even contemplated attacking one last time, betting on a weakened German army. Poor weather and Joffre’s resignation put an end to that idea.
This failure can be explained by a lack of collaboration between the Allies. There wasn’t yet a central command, which wouldn’t be formed until 1918… Besides that, the Allies did not use their artillery effectively. I’m tempted to say that there was too much methodology behind the offensive, which slowed down operations, rendering them processional and averse to improvisation. A number of opportunities to advance were squandered. Exhausted, the Germans adopted a series of measures aimed at limiting the weakening of their forces. According to the German historian Gerd Krumeich, they fought with the mentality that they were defending their country. Like the French at Verdun, it was a defensive victory.
FRANCE 24: We often talk about the hell the French soldiers experienced at Verdun, but what was it like for them at the Somme?
Michaël Bourlet: We can say it was also hell at the Somme, because the fighting conditions were very similar. The terrible weather played a major role in the Franco-British defeat. Heavy rain transformed the battlefield into an enormous bog. [Of the over one million French soldiers who fought at the Somme] between July 1 and November 20, more than 200,000 were killed, wounded or declared missing. These were major losses, despite being inferior to those suffered by the British [420,000 men] and the Germans [650,000 men].
FRANCE 24: Why has the Battle of the Somme been largely forgotten in France, despite there being more casualties per month than at Verdun?
Michaël Bourlet: The battle wasn’t immediately forgotten. After the war, it was commemorated by a number of veterans’ organisations. The French battlefield is also marked by a number of monuments, including a cemetery in the town of Rancourt… But the battle was a failure that coincided with the French’s [victory over] the Germans at Verdun. As a result, Verdun has become symbolic, and the Somme has fallen into obscurity. At the same time, the British appropriated commemorations of the battle, which has come to represent a major trauma for the British army. But it was also an important moment for South Africans, Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians.
Commander Michaël Bourlet is also the author of the French blog Sources de la Grande Guerre.