The Battle of the Somme opened on July 1, 1916, when a quarter of a million British and French troops attacked German lines along a 30-mile front straddling the river Somme in Northern France. The main strategy in this huge attack had been to relieve pressure on the French defenses at Verdun and help pin down German resources in the face of the Brusilov offensive by the Russions on the Eastern Front.
The assault petered out in November 1916 after staggering human and material losses on both sides. Whether the attack was a success or a failure has been the subject of much debate over the past 100 years. The entries in Scientific American that reported on that battle contained painfully little specific information because of strict military censorship, but they display quite an accurate interpretation of the strategic thinking at the time.
Bear in mind that it between a week and 10 days between event and reports appearing in print:
From July 1, 1916, reporting on events as of June 22, 1916:
“Germany cannot dare weaken her western lines in France and Flanders, for it is most evident that the great new British forces are but awaiting an opportunity to surge forward at the most propitious moment .... The opinion is therefore ventured that initiation of the general offensive by the Entente cannot and will not be long delayed.”
In the issue of July 8, 1916, a report from June 29 on the vast British artillery bombardment designed to prepare the way for the attack:
“For three days intense artillery activity has been reported along the British line. If one recalls that every enterprise of moment which has been undertaken by either side has been preceded by this powerful concentration of gunfire, the deduction that major movements are about to take place is very tempting to the observer.”
From the issue of July 15, 1916, reporting as of July 7:
“The inevitable which has been foreshadowed for weeks, the only possible answer which could exist to the question of the long inaction of the English armies, has come at last and the great Entente offensive on the western front is in full blast. That the time for it was at hand was clearly indicated last week by the tremendous volume of artillery fire which was concentrated upon the German lines from the Somme to the sea.
The result of the grand attack cannot be measured in terms of villages gained, miles won; whether it is to be a success or a failure cannot be determined until time shows that material strategic gain has been made or that such gain has failed to materialize, and the offensive is yet too young to permit any perspective. There are, however, certain factors which should go far toward determining probabilities. The most important is that with practically two years of war behind them, the forces now on the general offensive for the first time should have the benefit of experience to their credit, as to the number of men it will be necessary to sacrifice to carry a given section of a hostile series of defenses, the number needed to carry through, the amount of all-important artillery ammunition necessary to blast a way through the lines and the probable time necessary to achieve a given distance. Germany, when she concluded to center her attacking activities upon certain points had nothing to go upon but theory, and theory has not consistently worked out: witness the attack upon Verdun. It is most reasonable to assume that Germany would never have given the tremendous effort she has to an attempt upon so powerful a military point without the promise of material gain in case of success; and unless she believed success possible, she would never have made the attempt.
There has been a fly in the ointment somewhere ....”
“With these lessons fresh in mind, with every aspect of the situation closely scanned for informative disclosures, Britain has devoted every effort to the completion of the vast forces which constitute the legacy of Lord Kitchener to his country, that they should be ready at the propitious moment for attack. The men have been organized into units and trained; their officers have been clothed with authority and, as far as possible, trained; almost incomprehensible quantities of munitions, rifles, equipment and shells, shells, shells, have been gathered for the mighty effort ....”
“It is about time that the Allies got together. Thus far, they have seemed content to let the individual states of their membership go off on a little individual offensive whenever the spirit moved them-when the state of the ammunition larder permitted. Now they appear to be working in unison ....”
“Germany, with her vastly superior military and political organization, has fought a most marvelous fight against tremendous odds in man-power and resources, and she has been sustained by a national confidence in the prowess of her arms; to her people, trained as a military people, Germany has typified the invincible, and every citizen has willingly given his all in the strength of his belief. But once this belief should become shaken, the very overpowering factor of resources massed against her must beat into the consciousness of her people; and a country with shaken morale cannot fight to the last ditch for ... nothing.
Germany is by no means at the last ditch, or anywhere near it. It has been a conviction of the writer's that if Germany chooses to continue the struggle to the end, in the hypothetical case that her lines are definitely broken on one or more fronts, with her military ability and resources, coupled with the importance of the possession of ideal interior lines of strategy, the real battles will not begin until she is thoroughly on the defensive on or in rear of her own frontiers. But what would the gain be in a war of attrition, man given for man, the theoretical time come when, outnumbered in man-power two to one, she could not place another man on the line while her enemies possessed millions of reserves? At the beginning of the war the available man-power stood: Entente, 28,000,000; Teutonia, 14,000,000. Arithmetic cannot be denied.”
One assessment of this battle comes from “Ring of Steel” by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2014), an erudite and detailed look at the First World War, written in English but from the German and Austrian point of view: “The Somme battle’s most damaging impact on the German army was in fact not material but psychological” in that it showed that the Germans could be beaten by overwhelming enemy resources.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on strategy and tactics in the First World War. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/