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The Battle of the Somme by Alan Axelrod Book

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The Battle of the Somme by Alan Axelrod Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: Fought during 1916, the Battle of the Somme was conceived by the French and British as a great offensive to be waged against Germany even as France poured incredible numbers of men into the slaughterhouse that was the desperate defense of Verdun.The French general-in-chief, Joseph “Papa” Joffre, was especially anxious to go on the offensive. For the French high command cherished the belief, born in the era of Napoleon, that the success of French arms depended on attack and that defense was anathema to what the nationalistic philosopher Henri Bergson called the “élan vital” of the French people, a quality, he argued, that set the Gallic race apart from the rest of the world. 

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The Battle of the Somme by Alan Axelrod Book Read Online Chapter One

Chantilly Visions

SET LIKE A JEWEL IN THE CHANTILLY FOREST, THE COMMUNE OF Chantilly, traditional seat of the cousins to the kings, the princes of Condé, lies twenty-four miles northeast of Paris. It is known for Chantilly cream, Chantilly lace, and the racing and breeding of horses. The town is dominated by the conjoined Petit and Grand Châteaux de Chantilly, a vast Renaissance fairy-tale complex that was home to the Mont-morency family and was, in the seventeenth century, one of the great nodes of French civilization. No less a figure than Madame de Sévigné reported that, when Louis XIV visited Chantilly in 1671, François Vatel, the maître d’hôtel to Louis de Bourbon, the Grand Condé, committed suicide for fear that the fish would be late to the banquet table.

The Grand Château was destroyed during the French Revolution, but completely rebuilt during the 1870s. It came under threat early in the Great War when German troops sweeping through northern France marched into Chantilly and, on September 3, 1914, occupied the château. The very thought of the Boche stomping their hobnail boots through the marble and parquet salons of the Grand Châteaux was at once humiliating and infuriating. Fortunately, with the eruption of the First Battle of the Marne to the south and the fatal faltering of the German juggernaut there, the soldiers did not stay long, and the château was not greatly harmed. On September 9, French troops returned to occupy the town, which became a military hospital center and home to a camouflage workshop. As of November 29, 1914, Chantilly also became the new seat of the Grand Quartier-Général (GQG), headquarters of the French army, presided over by Joseph Joffre, the army’s well-fed and (at the time) much-loved senior commander.

The GQG did not take up residence in the château, but in the Hôtel du Grand Condé, a modern hotel built in 1908. For his part, “Papa” Joffre, as the French public affectionately called him, commandeered the nearby Villa Poiret as his own capacious private residence. A grand French villa with multiple high-peaked roofs, the residence spoke of quieter times and suited Joffre’s notoriously inscrutable calm and studied attitude of taciturnity that might easily be taken for utter indifference. Generally imperturbable, fleshy, and slow moving, Joffre hardly looked the part of a supreme commander directing an army under imminent threat of annihilation in a country in the midst of deep invasion.

On July 7, 1915, Joffre hosted what became known as the First Chantilly Conference. One year into a war that the Allies—France, Britain, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, and (since May 1915) Italy—were losing (each in their fashion), it was the very first time the commanders of the co-belligerent armies had come together to debate and decide strategy. The French principals in attendance were Commander-in-Chief Joffre and Alexandre Millerand, the war minister. Representing Britain were Commander-in-Chief Sir John French and the newly installed chief of the General Staff, William Robertson. The other nations—Belgium, Serbia, Russia, and Italy—each sent their senior military leaders.

Joffre took the lead in the conference. But all he delivered was a single message. It was that victory could be achieved only if the Allies fully coordinated their prosecution of the war. It was an astute proposition, but, unfortunately, Joffre was unprepared to flesh it out with a specific plan of action. Some plans were proposed and discussed, but none were passionately advocated, and the conference ended not in disagreement but without particular direction.

Five months later, from December 6 to December 8, 1915, the Second Chantilly Conference was convened. By this time, the war, at least on its main front, the Western Front, had congealed into a stalemate of slaughter along a line of opposing trenches running some 440 miles from the North Sea coast in the north to the border of neutral Switzerland in the south. At this point, some 1.6 million men had been killed, wounded, captured, or gone missing on all sides.

Although Joseph Joffre, general-in-chief of the French army, was technically on command par with Sir Douglas Haig, the British general invariably deferred to him as the senior partner in the Franco-British alliance. WIKIMEDIA


Nobody expected things to turn out this way. Indeed, nobody expected, let alone wanted, a “world” war.

Franz Ferdinand von Österreich-Este was every inch the typical Hapsburg autocrat: elegant, bigoted, and quite out of touch with most of the empire whose throne he was set to inherit whenever his aged uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, happened to give up the ghost. On June 28, 1914, in company with his wife, the Grand Duchess Sophie, Franz Ferdinand arrived in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, once a sovereign nation, now a mere province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The archduke had timed his visit deliberately. June 28 was St. Vitus’ Day, the great Serbian national day of Vidovdan. Serbia wanted to pull Bosnia- Herzegovina out of Austria-Hungary’s imperial clutches and incorporate it as part of an envisioned great Slavic state. The archduke was there to counteract this by asserting the Hapsburg brand.

Waiting for Ferdinand and Sophie on the streets of Sarajevo were five young would-be assassins, armed and trained not by the Serbian government but by the “Black Hand,” a secret society of Serbian extremists. Fortunately for the archduke and grand duchess, the young killers were hardly professionals. The limousine route of the royal couple was no secret. On the contrary, it had been published in the local newspapers because Franz Ferdinand wanted to ensure an enthusiastic turnout along the capital’s streets. The assassins deployed themselves along a three-hundred-yard stretch of the city’s principal avenue, the Appel Quay. The first youngster, at the Cumuria Bridge, was armed with a bomb. The second, a few yards beyond him, had both a bomb and a Browning revolver. The third had a hand grenade. The fourth aspiring assassin was the least likely of the group, a dark, spindly, sickly looking youth with a Browning revolver, well concealed in the deep outer pocket of an overcoat much too big for his tubercular frame. At the end of this uncertain gauntlet was another man concealing a revolver.

That fourth youngster, the one who looked more dead than alive, was a twenty-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip. He had every reason to expect that at least one of the other assassins would score a hit and that he would not be called on to act. But he showed up nonetheless.

Franz Ferdinand and Sophie rode in an open limousine that was perfect for displaying his lavish general’s uniform, including a hat with green plumes, and for showing off his plumply pretty wife in her white silk dress with red sash, immense picture hat, and cape adorned with ermine tails. As the motorcade reached the Cumuria Bridge, the first assassin fumbled his bomb and failed to hurl it. The second managed to throw his bomb, but it bounced off the back of the archduke’s car and rolled in front of the car following it. The explosion damaged that vehicle and sent shrapnel in all directions, injuring several spectators as well as members of the entourage. Poor Sophie’s cheek was stung and bruised by a tiny metal fragment.

As the motorcade passed them, the last three killers were too stunned to do anything at all with their weapons. As the royal limousine drove on down the Appel Quay, Princip dejectedly stalked off, settling at an outdoor table belonging to Moritz Schiller’s cafe. He consoled himself with a hot cup of coffee, the revolver still heavy in his coat pocket.

Franz Ferdinand and his wife attended a reception at the town hall as scheduled. But then the archduke called for a change of plan. He wanted to pay a visit at the local military hospital to look in on those who had been injured by the bomb blast. He did not want Sophie to accompany him. The city streets were clearly too dangerous. But she insisted, and he gave in.

The chauffeur had rehearsed the originally planned itinerary but was unfamiliar with the route to the military hospital. So, at the corner of the Appel Quay and Franz Josef Street, he suddenly turned. The archduke’s military aide shouted to him.

Wrong way!

The driver spun the wheel but couldn’t turn the large touring car around in the narrow, crowded street. So he began to back up—slowly, very slowly, because the crowds behind the car blocked his way. Finally, the chauffeur had to stop. Opposite the vehicle was Moritz Schiller’s cafe and delicatessen. Just five feet away, Gavrilo Princip looked up from his coffee cup.

It was 11:15 in the morning. He recognized his target. He couldn’t believe it. But there he was, Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria- Hungary, heir apparent to the Hapsburg throne. Princip fished for the Browning in his deep pocket, pulled back the hammer, withdrew the weapon, and leveled it. A vigilant policeman saw him and rushed to tackle him. Noting this, an out-of-work actor, apparently harboring nationalist sympathies, shoved the cop out of the way, giving Princip time to fire exactly three shots. One round penetrated the car door and hit Sophie in her stomach. The second drilled into the archduke’s neck, neatly severing the carotid artery before lodging in his spine. The third shot went wild.

Those riding in the car with the stricken pair heard Sophie cry out to her husband, “For God’s sake, what has happened to you?”

She then slumped against the archduke’s chest and crumpled into his lap. The heir apparent cradled her head. “Soferl, Soferl, don’t die! Stay alive for our children!”

But she was already dead. A certain Count Harrach climbed from the front seat into the back, took hold of the archduke, and asked him if he was suffering. The reply was a denial of reality truly worthy of a member of Hapsburg royalty in the twentieth century.

“It is nothing,” he said. “It is nothing, it is nothing.”

They were the final words of the heir apparent. Quickly apprehended, Gavrilo Princip immediately confessed to having pulled the trigger, so there was never any doubt of his guilt. There was not, however, a shred of evidence to implicate the Serbian government in the crime. And that was a problem for Count Leopold von Berchtold, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, who was eager to find a cause for a war that would severely punish Serbia and serve as warning to any other nation that dared to challenge the empire. In the end, it was a problem the count simply ignored. Evidence or no evidence, he accused Serbia and decided to issue an ultimatum to its leaders.

Before he drew up the ultimatum, and even as he called for the immediate mobilization of the Austro-Hungarian army, Berchtold sent a message to the German government, asking if its support could be counted on. Kaiser Wilhelm II responded to the Austro-Hungarian ambassador over lunch in Berlin on July 5, 1914. In the middle of an agreeable meal, the kaiser announced that, yes, yes, he would back Austria-Hungary—even if it meant war with Russia.

It was a reckless knee-jerk response. Kaiser Wilhelm II always wore a military uniform, and he devoted a good deal of his empire’s money to building an army and a navy. But he had no desire for war, not now, at least. Surely, Serbia would bow to whatever demands Berchtold made. The Serbian leadership knew it could not stand up against Austria-Hungary! The kaiser had every reason to believe that there would be no war.

Armed with the kaiser’s promise, Berchtold sent ten demands to Belgrade on July 23 and gave the government forty-eight hours to reply to them. This sent the Serbian premier, Nicholas Pashich, to the bureaucrats who ran the Russian government for Czar Nicholas II. They promised that Russia would stand by Serbia, no matter what. Even so, Pashich quickly agreed to nine out of ten of Berchtold’s demands. The only one at which he drew a line was the demand that Serbia give Austrian government officials the power to conduct police operations inside Serbia. To agree to this would be to cede Serbian sovereignty to the Austro-Hungarian crown.

Still, Berchtold had gained 90 percent of what he had asked for. No matter. Berchtold prevailed on his government to declare war on Serbia. In response, Russia ordered a partial mobilization of its forces near the Austrian border.

In the meantime, Kaiser Wilhelm II frantically tried to stop what he himself had put into motion. His chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, telegraphed Austria’s Berchtold: “Serbia has in fact met the Austrian demands in so wide-sweeping a manner that if the Austro-Hungarian government adopted a wholly uncompromising attitude, a gradual revulsion of public opinion against it in all of Europe would have to be reckoned with.”1

Berchtold withheld any reply, thereby provoking another telegram from Bethmann-Hollweg. This one warned that Germany would refuse to be drawn into war if Austria “ignored our advice.”2 But it was too late. In the absence of conscious human will, events took on a will of their own. Even as he warned Austria-Hungary against counting on Germany’s marching to war alongside it, Bethmann-Hollweg alienated British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey by trying to force Britain into a secret pledge of neutrality. Remain neutral, he proposed, and Germany would not annex any of mainland France. Bethmann-Hollweg also denounced Russia’s partial mobilization as provocative, and the kaiser ordered the mobilization of Germany’s High Seas Fleet in the North Sea. This action provoked Winston Churchill, at the time Britain’s first sea lord, to mobilize the British Grand Fleet.

All of this happened on a single day, July 29, 1914, the very day that Austrian river gunboats began to shell Belgrade, firing the first shots—discounting Princip’s three—of the Great War.

Having partially mobilized on July 28, Russia commenced full mobilization on July 30. Hearing of this, Helmuth von Moltke, chief of staff of the German army, picked up a telephone and called Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, his counterpart in the Austro-Hungarian army.

“Mobilize at once against Russia,” Moltke ordered.

Imagine. A German general—not a head of state and without direction from a head of state—ordered a general commanding the army of a foreign country to take that country into war. Hötzendorf meekly complied. In the meantime, the German government issued an ultimatum to Russia, demanding that it rescind its general mobilization. Germany also issued an ultimatum to France, threatening it with war if it made any move to mobilize. Russia spurned the German ultimatum and continued to mobilize. The French government said nothing more than that it would consult its “own interests.”3

On August 1, 1914, Germany ordered a general mobilization. On August 2, Germany demanded free passage through Belgium. By the time Belgium’s King Albert angrily refused the demand, German divisions were already on the march through Flanders.

On August 3, at three in the afternoon, Edward Grey told the British Parliament that Britain was pledged to protect Belgian neutrality. “If . . . we run away from these obligations of honor and interest as regards the Belgian Treaty . . . I do not believe for a moment that, at the end of this war . . . we should be able . . . to prevent the whole of the West of Europe opposite us from falling under the domination of a single power . . . and we should, I believe, sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.”4

Thus was Britain brought into the war. That evening, after Germany formally declared war on France, Sir Edward watched daylight dissolve into twilight and twilight into night. “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he remarked to a friend. “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”5

By dawn, having already invaded it, Germany declared war on Belgium, and England joined the other powers of Europe in a rush to deal death and to die. In fact, among most of the belligerent nations, people were thrilled by the prospect of what they believed would be a short, sharp, cheaply won war. They believed it because their leaders told them it would be so. The greatest anxiety many young men had in the summer of 1914 was that the war would end before they had a chance to join, let alone fight and win glory. Besides, labor at this point in the progress of the European Industrial Revolution was dull, dreary, and draining. Everywhere, men dropped their tools, threw down their picks and shovels, or closed their tedious ledger books, and dashed for the nearest recruiting office.

Germany entered the war with the famous Schlieffen Plan, drawn up, beginning in 1905–1906, by Count Alfred von Schlieffen, chief of the German General Staff. It called for a high-speed offensive thrust not simply from east to west, but in a “great wheel” arcing northwest-ward, westward, and then southwestward, swinging through Belgium and northern France so as to position for a coup de grâce attack against Paris from behind the principal armies defending it. While focusing on achieving a rapid victory in the west, the Germans would fight a defensive holding action in the east, keeping the big but bumbling Russians at bay until troops could be transferred after victory on the Western Front to triumph on the Eastern.

As for the French army, its plan bore a number, not a name. Plan XVII was more an article of faith than a plan of war. Founded on the idea of a certain French war spirit, a furia francese that was driven by what the great French philosopher Henri Bergson called élan vital, Plan XVII called for an unremitting mass offensive that would arrest, turn back, or destroy any German advance. French ground was deemed sacred, and French forces were never to yield a single meter of territory, regardless of the cost in men. The principal objective of Plan XVII was to charge into the Alsace and Lorraine, the French provinces lost to Germany as a result of the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. In bold proclamation of their unstoppable élan, the French army went to war dressed in its traditional bright blue greatcoats, trousers of even brighter red, and soft cloth caps (kepis) instead of helmets. An ensemble designed to inspire courage, it created targets. By the end of 1914, French casualties numbered nearly a million, and Germany was firmly positioned to fight the entire Western Front war on French soil.

For that matter, during the first full month of the war, August 1914, it looked as if France would be forced to yield to Germany by early autumn. In August, the German armies defeated the French in encounter after encounter on the sacred ground of France. Simultaneously, German columns sliced through Belgium and then crossed into northern France through the virtually undefended Franco-Belgian frontier. In northern France, they encountered the British army, which, in the form of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had rushed to defend the neutrality of Belgium.

Germany went to war in 1914 with an army of 4.5 million, Austria-Hungary with three million, France with just over four million, and Russia with nearly six million. Throughout the nineteenth century and going into the Great War, British military power was founded largely on its navy, the magnificent instrument of imperial expansion and trade. The function of the ground forces, the British army, was to garrison the outposts of a global empire and to function as a small, highly mobile force to quell any developing unrest or conflict in the colonies. Fighting a new Napoleonic-style war, a great conflict on the Continent, was a scenario British military planners had failed to imagine, let alone seriously contemplate. In consequence, Great Britain was the only major combatant whose army consisted entirely of volunteers. There was no conscription. The army of August 1914 consisted of just four hundred thousand troops, more than half of them outside of Europe, garrisoning outposts of the far-flung British Empire. Of the total, only about 120,000 were full-time professional soldiers. The rest were a mix of Regular Army reserve personnel and reservists serving in the Territorial Force, an all-volunteer ready reserve component that had been established by the so-called Haldane Reforms in 1908 for home defense. It is widely believed that, on August 19, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II personally issued his armies an order to “exterminate . . . the treacherous English and walk over General [Sir John] French’s contemptible little army.”6 Although this order has never been located, the few who survived service in the British army of 1914 proudly called themselves “The Old Contemptibles.”

Under Sir John French, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed on the French army’s left and thus constituted the northern-most flank of the Allied line on the Western Front. On August 23, 1914, outnumbered two to one, the BEF fought valiantly and inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans at the Battle of Mons, in Belgium, but was forced into a long retreat to the very outskirts of Paris. Here, French’s army participated in the “miracle” of the Marne, the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–12, 1914), which succeeded in arresting Germany’s monthlong juggernaut of conquest.

With Germany’s forward momentum halted, the opposing armies began furiously and fruitlessly trying to outflank one another, sidestepping in what was soon called a “Race to the Sea.” This resulted in a series of bloody battles, the costliest of which was the First Battle of Ypres (October 19–November 22, 1914) in Belgium. The BEF made up just 163,897 of the 4.4 million Allied troops who did battle against 5.4 million Germans. Strategically, the result of First Ypres was indecisive. In terms of casualties, it was catastrophic. The Germans suffered 46,765 killed, wounded, or missing. The French army lost between fifty thousand and eighty thousand (killed, wounded, or missing) out of nearly four million deployed. The Belgians, having fielded about 247,000 men, lost 21,562. But the British suffered 58,155 casualties out of 163,897. The First Battle of Ypres was essentially the end of the original BEF, which meant that it was nearly the end of the British professional army, which was the first of three armies Britain would commit to the war.

At the very outset of the conflict, Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, Britain’s magnificently mustachioed secretary of state for war and the most senior officer in the British army, had been the sole member of the Cabinet to predict that the war would not be over quickly. On the contrary, he was certain it would last at least three years and would “plumb the depths of [British] manpower to the last million,” by which he meant that many would be killed or wounded.7 The First Battle of Ypres was a compelling validation of this prediction, which had initially seemed outlandish. Accordingly, Kitchener was authorized to institute a massive recruitment campaign during 1914 and 1915. The enduring icon of this effort was a poster featuring an imposing head-on portrait of Lord Kitchener, his finger pointing from its gauntlet directly into the viewer’s face. Above the image was the boldface headline “BRITONS.” Below the image was





So familiar was Kitchener’s likeness that his name appeared nowhere on the poster. But hundreds of thousands answered Lord Kitchener’s call. This became Britain’s “second army,” called Kitchener’s Army, and it was assembled so rapidly that many recruits went months before receiving either a uniform or a rifle.


After the First Battle of Ypres, the Western Front was doomed to stalemate. The sea put a geographical stop to the Dance of Death that was the flanking-outflanking maneuvers. Now there could be no further movement without one side or the other making a head-on, headlong breakthrough. But the awesome destructive technology of weapons available at this time favored defenders and doomed attackers. Two men manning a machine gun from a dugout or trench could kill hundreds of troops charging at them with bayonets and rifles. Heavy artillery could drive defenders out of their trenches, of course—but, then, both sides had artillery. And so, despite the defensive advantage provided by trenches, barbed wire, and machine guns, battle naturally tended toward strategic stalemate. Tactical victory or tactical defeat was measured strictly in casualties inflicted and casualties suffered.

Artist Alfred Leete’s newspaper ad became the most famous recruitment poster of World War I. WIKIMEDIA

By early 1915, both sides stubbornly tried to buck the odds against making a breakthrough. Both sides continued to squander men in attacks across no-man’s-land—the fire-swept space between opposing trenches—that always ended badly for both sides, though typically worse for the attacker. Yet the big picture was this. Germany did not occupy anonymous no-man’s-land. Its troops were dug into French territory. This was not only an intolerable assault upon French sovereignty, the lands occupied were some of the nation’s richest and most productive in crops and coal. Stalemate was therefore hardest on the occupied nation. Realizing this, the Germans, who had been relentless aggressors in the first full month of the war, now assumed the defensive. They clung to the land like an infection, and, like an infection, they had to be driven out. For the Allies, defensive tactics did not seem a viable option. They felt they had no choice but to go on the attack.

It would be General Sir Douglas Haig, commanding the First Army, who would make the first determined British attempt at a major breakthrough on March 10, 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of northern France. Haig was an impressive officer. In contrast to the rapidly aging, stocky, white-haired, white-mustachioed commander-in-chief of the BEF, Sir John French, Haig, ten years younger, appeared lean and fit. He also had a reputation for formidable intelligence. He had been educated at Clifton College and Brasenose College, Oxford, and then at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He rose quickly in colonial action in the Sudan and during the Second (Great) Boer War in South Africa. From the latter conflict, he emerged with an appointment as aide de camp to no less than King Edward VII. From this post, he became an officer of great influence in the army, first as inspector general of the cavalry and then as director of military training at the War Office. It was Haig, acting under the direction of Secretary of State for War Richard Haldane, who created the Territorial Army in 1908.

At the Somme, Sir Douglas Haig, commanding officer of the BEF, led the British army to the greatest single-day loss of life in its history. WIKIMEDIA

After serving next as chief of staff in India, Haig became, in 1912, commander-in-chief at Aldershot, the home of the regular British army. Here, he directed that force’s training and preparation for war. Here, he laid down the basic principles of warfighting, as he saw them. He was convinced that every conflict invariably began with maneuvering for advantageous position, followed by the first big battle, and then played out through a long process of attrition leading up to an opportunity for one side or the other to deliver a decisive stroke: the breakthrough. This template would be used to justify much of the chaotic bloodletting of World War I.

For all his education, experience, and vaunted intellect, Douglas Haig was ultimately in tune with the unthinking French faith in the sovereign spirit of those fighting the war. Inculcate the proper spirit, the fire in the belly, and an army could overcome any adversary, even if that adversary were better trained, better armed, and blessed with larger numbers. Moreover, while strategic planning was important, Haig believed that tactics vigorously pursued were far more essential to victory than sound strategy. Thus, a good plan indifferently executed was far inferior to a bad plan applied with spirit. Much the same was true of decision making. Of course, it was always best to make the right decisions and then act on them. But there was something far worse than a bad decision, and that was no decision. As Haig saw it, the course of battle provided a chance to make up for bad decisions and inadequate or misguided strategy. Do something. Even if that something had little promise of success, do it, and you would find some opportunity.

At Neuve Chapelle, Haig was indeed able to achieve a breakthrough, but the British army suffered such heavy casualties that he was unable to exploit the breakthrough. It was, therefore, a short-term tactical victory rather than an enduring strategic triumph. It did, however, demonstrate that breaking through even very well-defended trench lines was possible, provided that surprise could be achieved and follow-through discipline maintained. The battle also persuaded the French that their British colleagues were actually capable of planning and executing an organized and vigorous attack. Finally, the scale and cost of the battle—eleven thousand British and Indian troops killed or wounded out of four divisions (about seventy thousand men)—began to accustom the British public to the high cost of a war that was far from approaching an end. Brigadier General John Charteris, who commanded a brigade in the battle, observed that England would “have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German army.”8

General Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of Haig’s corps commanders in the battle, drew his own valuable lesson when he sought to decisively “pinch out” the German salient at Neuve Chapelle using artillery rather than infantry. He said, “If the artillery cannot crush and demoralize the enemy’s infantry by their fire effect, the enterprise will not succeed.”9

General Henry Rawlinson, 1st Baron Rawlinson, was commanding officer of the Fourth Army, the principal British force at the Somme. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Unlike his commanding officer Haig, Rawlinson did not aspire to a sudden breakthrough, but to what he called an opportunity to “bite and hold.” He believed that a piece of the enemy’s line could be bitten off—the Neuve Chapelle salient, for example—and then held against counterattack. Do this systematically and patiently in as many places as possible along the line, and a breakthrough would eventually follow. Rawlinson believed that “biting” would not be terribly costly, and that the follow-on “holding” would compel the Germans to make counterattacks so costly that the enemy would suffer at least twice the casualties as the British troops assigned to hold the line.

It made some sense. At least, there was more strategy in the bite and hold approach than in a proposed breakthrough that relied entirely on spirit. Nevertheless, in 1915, even a relatively modest “bite and hold” strategy was beyond the capacity of the Allies, who had not invested sufficiently in the necessary heavy artillery.

Thus the First Chantilly Conference took place against a background of outright defeats, disappointments, and dull glimmers of mere possibility, which, however, a shortage of manpower and artillery prevented from fanning into full flame.


The Second Chantilly Conference was convened on December 6, 1915, five months after the first. By this time, more battles had been fought in the northern portion of the Western Front, the greatest of which was at Loos from September 25 to October 14. Haig’s First Army now had three corps, and it was the largest British battle of that year, pitting six British divisions against three German. Loos was only the British component in an ambitious Anglo-French offensive the French called the Third Battle of Artois. They expected the British to attack on a very wide front. Given the modest size of the British army, it was an unrealistic expectation, but Haig convinced himself that there was no alternative to fully cooperating with the French.

Keenly aware that First Army possessed insufficient artillery to deliver a crippling barrage against the German line, Haig decided to use a chlorine gas barrage to offset the deficiency in explosive firepower. The Germans, after all, had used poison gas in April at the Second Battle of Ypres—and it proved highly effective, very nearly breaking the British lines. Rawlinson, commanding IV Corps in the First Army, did not believe that poison gas was in any way a substitute for adequate artillery, but did not feel entitled to object to his commanding officer. Haig further proposed to make up for the shortage of firepower by extending the duration of the barrage that would precede the infantry attack. There would be four days of shelling, followed by the gas barrage, and then the infantry attack. It would be brutal, but it would also sacrifice any element of surprise—the very element Rawlinson had deemed essential to a breakthrough.

Haig, like other British commanders, habitually overestimated the effect of artillery on German positions. That is because he based his assessment on the effect German artillery had on British trenches—which was devastating indeed. Haig and others failed to take into account the elaborate nature of German entrenchments, which were deeper than what the British dug and which also included deep dugouts, often reinforced with poured concrete. By 1915, in response to orders from Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German General Staff, German strategy had changed from an essentially offensive orientation to an essentially defensive one. The German idea was to occupy French territory, thereby forcing the Allies to attack—and to attack very hardened positions. Moreover, the Germans were developing defense in depth. They created at least two fortified entrenched lines behind their front line. In contrast to the French, who were under orders never to retreat, withdrawing from one line of defense to another was not only accepted in the German tactical playbook, it was a key aspect of German tactics. By retreating in one sector, the Germans could draw the French or British troops farther from their own trenches, and then attack, flank, isolate, and cut them off from their comrades. It is much easier to retreat when you are giving up enemy territory to the enemy, not the soil of your homeland.

Thus the British offensive at Loos was virtually set up to fail. It wasn’t that the German soldiers were better than the British. It was that the German defenses were far, far better, the trenches deeper, the dugouts essentially shell-proof, and the barbed wire thicker and more extensively deployed. Many of the French villages the Germans captured were hardened into fortified complexes, and lines of communication and support were robust. Most important of all was the Germans’ positioning of artillery and machine guns to create lethal interlocking fields of fire. British and French positions were deliberately designed to discourage defensive thinking. If it was natural to seek safety in a deep trench, then encourage offensive action by making the trenches shallower. German defenses, in contrast, were designed to provide shelter, conserve manpower, and survive Allied attack in order to enhance German counterattack.

A dead German soldier near the door of one of the elaborately constructed dugouts that were features of German entrenchments. The horror in the soldier’s face and position is fresh, even though his body is partly skeletonized. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVE

And so the British offensive at Loos failed and failed catastrophically. Of the roughly 108,000 British troops deployed at Loos, 59,247, nearly 60 percent, became casualties. On the German side, of some sixty thousand engaged, twenty-six thousand were killed or wounded. The British public, politicians, and press demanded that someone be held responsible for the slaughter. When the Second Chantilly Conference convened on December 6, gathering together military representatives from France, Italy, Russia, and Britain, it was Sir John French who headed the British delegation. Surely, Sir John’s mind could not have been entirely on the conference. Since October and the defeat at Loos, pressure had been mounting for the BEF commander-in-chief to fall on his sword and resign. He resisted, but on December 4, General French received a phone call from Walter Hulme Long, First Viscount Long and secretary of state for the colonies. Long conveyed the decision made by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith: Sir John French must resign. Accordingly, the general sent his letter of resignation immediately, but it did not even reach the prime minister’s desk until December 6. Having received no response from Asquith on the opening day of the conference, French attended. In the event, Asquith informed French that his resignation, while accepted, would not go into effect until December 18. So French was the lamest of lame ducks when he represented Britain in the meeting by which the Allies formulated their coordinated military agenda for 1916. General Sir Douglas Haig, the very man who had actually planned and directed the failed Loos offensive, was named to replace French as BEF commander-in-chief, but he was not even present at the conference.

General Joseph Joffre proposed that the Allies conduct a series of offensives in 1916 designed expressly to end the war. They were to be coordinated not only on the Western Front, but on the Italian Front and the Russian Front as well. Wherever possible, the offensives were to be conducted simultaneously. At the very least they were planned to be no more than a month apart. The objective was to make it impossible for the enemy to transport reserves from one front to another.

That was the vision of Chantilly: to hit the enemy hard and repeatedly from every direction, so that he could not build up reserves in any one place. Coordinate and maintain this offensive pressure, and Germany was sure to crack. Little wonder that the Second Chantilly Conference created a heady atmosphere among the Allies. The Germans could not be everywhere at once. Coordinate simultaneous offensives from the east (Russia), the south (Italy), and the west (France and Britain), and 1916 could hardly fail to be the year of Allied triumph.


Among the British, the optimism was strongest. “Kitchener’s Armies” were rapidly filling up with bright, eager, spirited young men. Sir John French, thoroughly scapegoated for the fruitless slaughter at Loos, was out, and Douglas Haig was in as the new BEF commander-in-chief. In London, the Imperial General Staff also had a new chief, General Sir William Robertson.

Back in 1877, “Wully,” as Robertson was affectionately called, had lied about his age to obtain enlistment in the army. He worked himself up from private through all the non-commissioned ranks and, after a dozen years as an enlisted trooper, he was promoted to second lieutenant of the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He served as an officer in India and India’s North West Frontier with Afghanistan and then in the Second (Great) Boer War before entering into a series of high-level administrative posts. After serving as commandant of the Staff College, he was named Quartermaster General for the BEF at the outbreak of the Great War. It was from this important post that he was elevated to chief of the Imperial General Staff. Wully Robertson’s combination of combat experience and ample administrative ability made him a welcome replacement for Sir Archibald Murray, in whom many had lost confidence after he suffered a physical collapse during the British retreat from Mons on August 23, 1914.

Yes, 1916 promised a fresh start in so many ways, and Douglas Haig, the newly minted commander-in-charge of the BEF, looked forward to a grand offensive with France in the Somme region, centered at the very place where the northern flank of the French army made contact with the southern flank of the British. A great and promising enterprise it would be. If only the four Allies could maintain the close collaboration, victory was surely within reach before the coming year was out. 

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