- The Last Day of the Somme
Overnight on November 17-18, 1916, the first winter snow fell on the slopes around the small French railway-junction town of Albert. That morning, a few miles to the north, five divisions of the British Fifth Army attacked the German lines for the last time in the Battle of the Ancre, the final phase of the Somme offensive. In a vicious close-quarter fight with outnumbered and desperate German defenders, the British line was pushed forward a few hundred yards in places, consolidating a tenuous hold on the villages of Beaumont Hamel and Beaucourt, the last to fall into Allied hands at the end of the long, grueling four-and-a-half-month offensive. Further north, Serre, attacked again by the 31st Division, which had suffered so grievously in front of it on the notorious first day of the offensive—July 1, 1916—remained in German hands. Such was a typical day of action in the Battle of the Somme. There was some desultory small-scale fighting over trenches and strongpoints in the continuing sleet the next morning, but for all intents and purposes the attack was over. Thus, conventionally, ended the Battle of the Somme, in a final, and some have suggested unnecessary British attack: a political battle, fought when all hope of victory was past to sustain the position of the British commander-inchief, General Sir Douglas Haig, while his French counterparts were losing their commands. The Somme offensive appeared to have ended in stalemate, to have petered out along with the willpower of its combatants. For by then, as Private Arthur Wrench noted, "there is not much glory these days in dying for your country."1 But that was not the view of the troops on the ground, or their commanders.
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The war poet Edmund Blunden, who fought there, recollected in his moving postwar memoir, Undertones of War, that the Battle of the Ancre was "a feat of arms vieing with any recorded. The enemy was surprised and beaten."2 Writing home, Lieutenant Arthur Waterhouse affirmed the nature of the British success: "I was with the infantry … when they took those places and could not help feeling at the time that we had got level with the people who had repulsed us when we last had a go at Beaumont Hamel. Under these circumstances the Germans could not hold on." He judged that the Somme had marked "the turning point of the war. The battle … showed [Germany] for the first time that their opponents could break through their hitherto impregnable fortress."3
The Allied armies had reduced that impregnable fortress with a sustained siege. The positions defended on November 18 "had no dugouts at all, because earlier they were shallow communication trenches.… Before the British broke in they merely served as approach routes to the front line, which at that time was a long way off.… The majority of the companies lay in the open in shell holes, half full of water." General Erich Ludendorff noted that on the Ancre the German army received "a particularly heavy blow": his men had been driven from "good positions" in the last of those repetitious, debilitating attacks that had sapped the lifeblood of his army. Ultimately, the attritional strategy that General Erich von Falkenhayn had initiated at Verdun, designed to bleed the French army white, had rebounded. By the end of 1916 surviving German defenders paraded "hollow cheeked, worn out, unwashed, unshaven, in the shreds of their torn and ripped clay covered uniforms." Haig could fairly claim in his post-battle dispatch: "The enemy's power has not yet been broken, nor is it yet possible to form an estimate of the time the war may last before the objects for which the Allies are fighting have been attained. But the Somme battle has placed beyond doubt the ability of the Allies to gain those objects."4
By November the offensive had passed through four stages, epitomizing the nature of battle...