The shell crisis was supposed to be over. Herculean work by Liberal politicians, a change of government, Parliamentary oversight, and cross-channel cooperation have led to vastly-improved output of artillery guns and ammunition. The munition shortages which manifested 80 days into the war, and which have bedeviled or delayed action on countless occasions during nearly two years of conflict, were supposed to have been resolved. Launching the Battle of the Somme with a five-day barrage of nearly 1.5 million shells — a quarter-million in the final hours alone — the British Army seemed confident of its resources.
Yet on the fifth day of the British Army’s greatest effort of the entire war, the British Army General Headquarters at Montreuil-sur-Mer regrets to inform the Fourth Army that artillery ammunition stocks are getting low. Across their entire front, the rate of fire by 18-pounder field guns must drop to no more than 56,000 rounds per day. The heavier 6-inch guns must be limited to 5,000 shells per day. This reduced volume of fire will obviously affect the rate at which the Fourth Army can attack, turning yet another strategic opportunity for success into a cauldron of wasted life and resources.
The commanders can sense failure looming and the ‘blame game’ has already begun in earnest. Meeting with Field Marshall Douglas Haig at GHQ two days ago (see above), French Supreme Commander Joseph Joffre threw a tantrum accusing his counterparts of not doing enough on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Witnessed by Ferdinand Foch, Joffre’s future successor, the accusation is completely unfair: at tremendous cost, British troops have overwhelmed the entire German front line from below Theipval to the banks of the Somme.
Responsible only to his government, whatever Joffre’s titular position above him in the command structure of the multinational coalition fighting on the Western Front, Haig was having none of it. He will keep to his own timetable as best as possible and let the French try to keep up. As if to prove his point, today the French division on the immediate right flank of the Fourth Army is being held up at Bois Faviere, where the Germans are counterattacking, and as a result, General Henry Rawlinson must agree to postpone a joint offensive in the sector for three more days, giving the German 2nd Army precious time to reinforce their defenses.
Beginning as a titan that crushed the enemy with godlike power, the Somme offensive will now devolve into spastic, less-coordinated actions at smaller scales, heaving in bloody fits of attrition rather than succeeding in a great wave. Grand vision is giving way to disorganization. Material limitations are precluding moral victories. Reflecting the distrust between their commanders, the two allied armies will now diverge in their planning and execution of a joint battle.
For his own part, Joffre is desperate to distract Germany from their offensive at Verdun, which has devolved in much the same way. Indeed, every major European offensive this year — including the ongoing Brusilov offensive on the Eastern Front — shares a similar outline: crushing initial success for a bold, sweeping plan, followed by disappointments and recriminations, butchering men by thousands over relatively small strips of territory for months at a time.
Operating within the 22nd Brigade of the 7th Division, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers took part in the attack at Fricourt on the battle’s first day. Today they are tasked with capturing the Quadrangle Trench, a German defensive bastion, as part of a larger attack on Mametz Wood and the trenchline supporting it. Their attack was delayed for hours by heavy rainstorms that have turned the battlefield into a muddy swamp; then, forty-five minutes after midnight this morning, the RWF went over the top with three other units, walking slowly across no man’s land, all fumbling for gaps in the German wire.
Unfortunately, much of that defensive belt is still intact. Quality control at British shell production centers has diminished in favor of mass quantity, with the result that too many shells are duds. However impressive the mountain of shell casings may seem, the shell mix being fired is ineffective. It includes too few high explosive rounds and too many shrapnel shells. In diagnosing his country’s ammunition problems a year ago, Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George wryly observed that the War Office displayed a kind of religious conviction about the efficacy of shrapnel, which must be perfectly-fused in order to cut barbed wire and is virtually useless against trenches; his concerns have been proven all too well-founded.
Although the Fusiliers capture their objectives, the rest of the attacking units are held up by wire and met by enemy counterattacks. As dawn breaks, the rain intensifies in a watery bombardment that slows the British Army down better than a German barrage, while the next line of German defenses — the so-called Quadrangle Support Trench — stubbornly resists. Word of the French delay soon reaches them, further frustrating any sense of progress that might justify the horror. Despite Haig’s best-laid plans, the Battle of the Somme is turning into a piecemeal affair that will kill many and satisfy no one.