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Remembered Today:

The Somme and Normandy compared


phil andrade

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Gordon Corrigan gave us a lovely talk at the Birmingham conference. Compelling, authoritative and entertaining.

He dispels " myths" about the Western Front, and is keen to use graphs and statistics where necessary.

He makes one claim that troubles me : that the British infantry death rate in the Normandy fighting of 1944 exceeded that of the Somme in 1916.

I was unwillng to stand up and challenge him : to have attempted to refute his argument by discrediting his statistics would have been ungracious at best and downright rude at worst.

And, I must agree, the casualty rates suffered by the infantry in Normandy were certainly heavy enough to dispel any notion that they indicated better leadership by the generals of the 1939-45 war , or that the Second World War was a significantly softer option for the men at the sharp end.

The argument used by Corrigan has gained widespread credence. IIRC he states that 95,000 British deaths were sustained in the Somme, and 22,000 in the Normandy campaign. Using the length of the battle in weeks as one measure, and the number of divisions deployed as another, he produces a figure of 89 deaths per division week on the Somme, and 100 for Normandy.

The 22,000 figure for Normandy comes from CWGC registers. The 95,000 figure for the Somme comes from returns of killed and missing from the British armies engaged, without allowing for well over twenty thousand died from wounds.. The two figures are compiled using different criteria. The criterion of CWGC registers for the Somme would yield a total of more than 127,000 British dead, without including thousands more who died of wounds at base hospitals away from the Somme battlefields or in the UK. Just the 127,000 figure would allow for 116 deaths per division week, higher than that of Normandy.

It's become a mantra now : I've heard Gary Sheffield mention it.

It seems niggardly of me to remonstrate....and I wholeheartedly endorse Corrigan's argument that the Great War has been improperly represented by virtue of lurid and exaggerated claims as to its toll.

Let's dispense with the exaggeration, but please do not lean too far the other way.

Phil (PJA)

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On a similar note I also thought that Caen post D-Day was on a par with the Western Front in the Great War i.e. very attritional

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Gordon Corrigan gave us a lovely talk at the Birmingham conference. Compelling, authoritative and entertaining.

He dispels " myths" about the Western Front, and is keen to use graphs and statistics where necessary.

He makes one claim that troubles me : that the British infantry death rate in the Normandy fighting of 1944 exceeded that of the Somme in 1916.

I was unwillng to stand up and challenge him : to have attempted to refute his argument by discrediting his statistics would have been ungracious at best and downright rude at worst.

And, I must agree, the casualty rates suffered by the infantry in Normandy were certainly heavy enough to dispel any notion that they indicated better leadership by the generals of the 1939-45 war , or that the Second World War was a significantly softer option for the men at the sharp end.

The argument used by Corrigan has gained widespread credence. IIRC he states that 95,000 British deaths were sustained in the Somme, and 22,000 in the Normandy campaign. Using the length of the battle in weeks as one measure, and the number of divisions deployed as another, he produces a figure of 89 deaths per division week on the Somme, and 100 for Normandy.

The 22,000 figure for Normandy comes from CWGC registers. The 95,000 figure for the Somme comes from returns of killed and missing from the British armies engaged, without allowing for well over twenty thousand died from wounds.. The two figures are compiled using different criteria. The criterion of CWGC registers for the Somme would yield a total of more than 127,000 British dead, without including thousands more who died of wounds at base hospitals away from the Somme battlefields or in the UK. Just the 127,000 figure would allow for 116 deaths per division week, higher than that of Normandy.

It's become a mantra now : I've heard Gary Sheffield mention it.

It seems niggardly of me to remonstrate....and I wholeheartedly endorse Corrigan's argument that the Great War has been improperly represented by virtue of lurid and exaggerated claims as to its toll.

Let's dispense with the exaggeration, but please do not lean too far the other way.

Phil (PJA)

Hi Phil,

I agree most emphatically with you---both on the quality of Corrigans historical balance (he readily admits to the huge debt he, and all of us owe to the almost lone voice from the sixties--John Terraine--the man who dragged me then, kicking and screaming, out of the dark abyss of Laffinesque or Liddell-Hartesque 'history') ---- and on your refutation---though quietly, of the slightly flawed figures he uses as comparison.

I never understand the need to 'compare' casualty figures in both wars---or to 'compare' Generalship---or very much else.

Cheers,

Dave.

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Monty's memoir speaks of 6,010 British killed and 28,690 wounded in Normandy June 6th to July 19th 1944. Nasty enough, especially if we consider the fate of the rifle companies, who represented one fifth of the strength but accounted for more than four fifths of the loss. Very unhappy about stating that this surpassed the Somme, though. Judging by those figures, nowhere near it, actually.

Phil (PJA)

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Statistics can prove anything on any side of any argument. I think Gordon Corrigan was merely making an illustrative point.

Roger

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Statistics can prove anything on any side of any argument. I think Gordon Corrigan was merely making an illustrative point.

Roger

Yes, and he made the point brilliantly, with a superb anecdote about his maiden aunt !

We are on the cusp of a major historiographical development here, with perceptions about the Great War being re-assessed so that we do not fall into the old Joan Littlewood trap. It's right that the myths about the "Lost Generation" should be dispelled, and especially now, as we are on the brink of the Centennial.

We should, however, be wary of leaning too far the other way, and to insist that the Normandy casualty rate exceeded that of the Somme is doing just that.

That same argument was re-iterated by another brilliant speaker later on in the conference, and I, for one, am alarmed at the implications. If someone of that calibre accepts the notion that it was safer to be a British infantryman on the Somme in July 1916 than it was to be a British infantryman in Normandy 28 years later, then there is serious danger of delusion in our study of the Great War.

People are "buying" into a flawed statistical analysis, and that worries me.

Phil (PJA)

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Good Morrning

Another case of "lies, dammed lies and statistics" perhaps.

It may haave been more likley to be killed in action in 1944 Normandy as a daily average but the men of the 14 or so divisioins that attacked on 1st July would disagree and have strong words about ststistics!

Bill

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Hi Bill,

It wasn't just a case of the First Day of the Somme, though.....the South Africans at Delville Wood, the Australians at Pozieres, the Guards and the Kiwis who attacked at Flers : they all suffered casualty rates that were much worse than those suffered by any British division in Normandy ( here I confess that I'm arguing from conviction, rather than by checking ...God help me if I'm wrong ! )

I daresay the same applies to Gullemont, too, and quite a few of those other Somme hamlets which chewed up so many British divisions,

I'm looking at a book on Normandy, and I see what - I assume - was the worst casualty rate suffered by any British division there : 4,981 killed, wounded and missing in the 50th Division. I don't know how many weeks it took for that total to be reached. Now that is a terrible figure, in itself surely enough to dispel the notion that British infantrymen in 1944 were spared the lethal combat that had decimated their fathers' generation. But it certainly does not exceed the losses sustained by some divisions on the Somme, and I'm not just alluding to July 1st 1916. An Australian division suffered significantly more casualties in its tour of duty at Pozieres, and in a shorter time.

I feel anxious that I've spoilt the party, becasue I enjoyed Gordon Corrigan's talk so much, and I rate him highly, and we need the help of people of that calibre.

Let me reiterate my comment that, while we must strive to counter the silly folklore of the Great War, and while it's all too true that there are "Lies, damned lies and statistics", we need to be very careful before we embrace the argument that the Normandy battles were, in proportionate terms, deadlier than the Somme battles of 1916. I, for one, am convinced that this was NOT THE CASE., and I am sure that the registers of the CWGC bear me out.

Phil (PJA)

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Hi chums,

I am wary of all statistics and can never remember them or quote them accurately, but would point out that Gordon prefaced his remarks with a warning that you could prove almost anything with statistics and then proceeded to give as an example that if you take the number of divisions who served on the Somme and Normandy and divided by the total of the casualties over the whole period of the campaign then the daily average suffered by a division on the Somme was lower by some negligible amount. Many more divisions fought on the Somme and there were relative quiet sections of the line and quiet periods too. Hence to me what is merely a statistical quirk not a 'real' tool for analysis. As I understand this matter Gordon has in fact slightly withdrawn from his original position as stated in 'Poppycock' to allow for some fairly vigorous criticism of his figures - though I doubt the obstinate old ****** would ever admit it!

I have no idea or interest in the details of Gordon's statistical analysis , but surely - as I know Phil accepts and appreciates - the underlying point we can all agree on is just that the Normandy fighting was deadly too - and indeed that it always is when you face the Germans head on! When there was a 'bad day' on the Somme it was indeed much worse.

Pete

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Thanks, Peter, you make the point concisely with customary candour. .

I am rather anxious to make sure that any criticism I make of Gordon's analysis is accompanied by impeccable manners. I would hate to sit here and snipe, and perhaps I ought to contact him directly and make my representation. I would do that if I had contact details for him.

I am quibbling about a statistical detail, and in the general order of things I endorse his argument. Even if we substitute his analysis with what I insist are the "correct" figures, using the same CWGC criterion for both battles, and the Somme is revealed as the deadlier of the two, the margin is not so very big. Enough here to convince all and sundry that the generalship of 1944 did not spare the British infantryman from intense and deadly fighting ; any attempt to expose Haig's generalship as callous or inept by comparison with Monty's is rendered fatuous.

Amen to that.

Phil (PJA)

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I have also read Corrigan's quotes comparing Somme/Normandy casualty rates. I have not seen him mention the relative casualties caused by the actions of the armies involved, i.e. the 'return on investment' recouped by the attacking armies in the two battles.

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I have seen this assertion made elsewhere along with a critical analysis. Similar claims have been made with regard to some of the assaults on German defences in Italy in WW2. Much it seems depends on what you are counting. Proportion of soldiers killed/wounded at the direct point of contact with the enemy or proportion of casualties amongst those involved in the battle as a whole for example. Again over what period. The conclusions (not mine I remain a confused neutral) seem to have been that, because of the more potent weaponry of WW2, at the very sharp end you stood a marginally greater chance of getting killed or wounded in WW2 than WW1 but because of the way forces were organised and the strategy and tactics used over the overall spread of a battle you were more at danger in WW1. So for example if you were part of a squad trying to deal with an armoured assault gun concealed in the boccage in Normandy you were at greater risk but a smaller proportion of those involved in Normandy had to do that sort of thing.

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I have also read Corrigan's quotes comparing Somme/Normandy casualty rates. I have not seen him mention the relative casualties caused by the actions of the armies involved, i.e. the 'return on investment' recouped by the attacking armies in the two battles.

Normandy was radically different from the Somme in that respect, surely.

A reversal of ratios, I would guess : an advantage of fifty per cent for the defender in 1916 ; an advantage of fifty per cent for the attacker in 1944.

That's notional and not at all precise, but I reckon it's essentially valid.

No breakdown in 1944 as to how many of the 294,000 German casualties were attributable to the Anglo- Canadian forces ; there is probably some degree of aportionment for the 437,000 German Somme casualties between those inflicted by the British and those inflicted by the French....apparently, the French suffered fewer thanhalf as many casualties as the British, and inflicted comaprable damage.

We need to address the fact that Corrigan's analysis deals with deaths only, which is not a consistent indicator of total casualties.

Many of the German casualties in Normandy were prisoners....but the cemeteries over there have at least fifty thousand dead Germans from the battle of 1944. Some accounts suggest eighty thousand.

The investment was clearly vastly more rewarding in Normandy.

Phil (PJA)

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I am currently reading 'The Germans in Normandy' by Richard Hargreaves, and having read the chapter on the Falaise Pocket literally yesterday, I'm not inclined to quibble about statistics.

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having read the chapter on the Falaise Pocket literally yesterday,

Which is probably more comparable with Wadi Fara in Sept 1918 than the Somme

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FWIIW I used to use a vufoil when lecturing to German audiences to demonstrate that the expected casualty rate per battalion per day of offensive battle showed distinct similarities throughout the twentieth century. These are the figures which provide the basis for campaign planning by the medical staffs and have been refined constantly over the years. There was not much to pick between typical figures on the Somme, in Normandy or the Falklands. If you ask a man to advance in the open against a multi-layered defence - especially when body armour was much less effective, the enterprise was very risky for the individual. From Normandy to the Baltic a battalion typically lost in casualties 3xthe original number of officers and 2xthe number of OR. Read Martin Lindsay's So Few Got Through for an eye opener. A friend with whom I toured Normandy a couple of times was an HHour, DDay platoon commander on Sword Beach. Ten weeks later he was the only one of the original platoon commanders still serving in his battalion and, of the the starters in the remainder of 3rd Div, if I remember correctly, only three platoon commanders (my man +2) survived Normandy unscathed.

Jack

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Read Martin Lindsay's So Few Got Through for an eye opener.

He writes, on page 254, that the battalion suffered casualties from D-Day to the end of April 1945, of " seventy five officers and 986 other ranks, of whom rather more than one quarter had been killed or died from wounds."

He also mentions , on page 65, that on September 3rd, 1944, at the culmination of the Normandy battles, there was "...a memorial service for those who had fallen in this campaign. It was most moving, and especially when Harry read out the list of 133 officers and men who had been killed or died from wounds."

Bitter, harrowing and intense fighting. But "worse" than the Somme ? No.

I would have thought that some of the battalions that fought on the Somme would have considered themselves relatively fortunate if their total fatalities were under 150 after three months.

No complacency about Normandy, or NW Europe 1944-5....it sounds horrific. I suppose the higher degree of weapons' sophistication meant that a smaller proportion of each battalion was actually engaged at the sharp end as riflemen, and this would impinge on the percentage rate of fatalities in those contingents.

Anxious as I am to support Corrigan's pitch, I hate the idea of understating the lethality of battle in the Great War.

Phil (PJA)

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Not taking sides (I've not done the research to back up any position I might adopt) but the overall casualty figures of WWI and WWII have always 'confused' me. From the top of my head (so please be gentle with me) the British spent 4+ years face to face with the bulk of the German Army on the Western Front between 1914-18 and suffered 750,000 on all fronts.

In WWII except for a fairly short period in 1940 and from June 1944 to May 1945 we were NOT in touch with a large part of the German Army (ignoring the Eastern Front!!) yet still suffered 250,000 casualties. I accept that in WWII we were fighting in Burma, Italy and Libya and Greece etc. but in WWI we were also fighting at Gallipoli, Salonika, in Africa etc. Huge and tragic though they were looking at the 'contact ratio' I might have expected even larger WWI losses given the WWII losses that - to me at least - seemed to arise from much less direct contact.

As I said, I'm confused... :wacko:

Bernard

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Good points, Bernard....the significant thing that you have not mentioned is that, while land warfare in WWII was relatively confined and small scale for the British armies, the loss of airmen and sailors 1939-45 was on a greater scale.

It's no exaggeration to claim that the men of RAF Bomber Command were massacred in the Second World War. The cost of keeping the sea lanes open was tremendous. Deaths in the British Army in WWII were only a fraction - barely one fifth - of what they had been in the years 1914-18 ; this reflects the points you make in your posts.

From memory, fatalites in the army : 1914-1918, 704,000. 1939-1945, 144,000

navy : 1914-1918, 32,000 1939-1945 51,000

air force : 1914-1918, 9,000 1939-1945 70,000 ( 55,000 in Bomber command)

Merchant Navy, 1914-1918 15,000 ; 1939-1945, 30,000

Civilians killed by bombardment 1914-1918, 1,500. 1939-1945, 60,000

These are UK figures only, and do not include Dominions and India

.

Phil (PJA)

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...the overall casualty figures of WWI and WWII have always 'confused' me.
Bernard, the fundamental difference lay in the huge burden borne by the Soviet Union during the period when British forces were not on mainland Europe in WW2. If Britain and the Dominion forces had taken on more of the European Continental war then we would not even be discussing the attritional battles of WW1, except to say how good the WW1 generals were at husbanding their forces by comparison.

Robert

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For the soldier at the sharp end warfare has always been a bloody and dangerous activity.

In the era of combat with edged weapons there was the horror of fighting close up and personal and with only basic medical knowledge even minor wounds were usually lethal due to infection. The French Knights at Agincourt suffered horrible deathss being wounded and trampled on or the humiliation of being butchered by their inferiors the "professional" archers of Henry V's army.

Infantry on the Somme in 1916 and Normandy in 1944 suffered from the same basic weapon types but by 1944 the machine gun, mortar and artillery fire was more efficient. However this greater lethality was offset by improved medical science in 44 compared with 16. The WW2 soldier did not suffer the horror of a gas attack but there was the sickening sight and smell of a "brewed up" tank.

As Sherman said (and in any period of history)

"War is hell".

Going back to statistics the British Army in WW2 suffered about half the casualties of WW1 but it was also, by the number of divisions, about half the size. Perhaps a better comparison would be Normandy and the last 100 days. I say this because both these campaigns were not completly dominated by longstanding fixed defences.

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Infantry on the Somme in 1916 and Normandy in 1944 suffered from the same basic weapon types but by 1944 the machine gun, mortar and artillery fire was more efficient.

Perhaps a better comparison would be Normandy and the last 100 days. I say this because both these campaigns were not completly dominated by longstanding fixed defences.

This is a better comparison. Although the basic weapon types were similar, there was a huge change in the distribution of forces. If you look at the frontage of a unit in WW1 versus WW2 then you can see an enormous difference. WW2 forces were spread over a much wider area. The same applied to the depth of defenses too. Think of how far the British tanks advanced in Operation Goodwood and yet they never emerged into open undefended territory.

By the last 100 days, necessity was forcing the British and Dominion forces to adopt a more widely scattered distribution of attacking forces. The same influences were at play in the French and German forces. The US forces were significantly better off, manpower-wise. As early as Third Ypres, however, it was being realised that smaller numbers per sector could work because of the increased firepower available to infantry platoons. The next big step in this change, however, required the ability to communicate by man-portable radios.

Robert

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From memory, fatalites in the army : 1914-1918, 704,000. 1939-1945, 144,000

navy : 1914-1918, 32,000 1939-1945 51,000

air force : 1914-1918, 9,000 1939-1945 70,000 ( 55,000 in Bomber command)

Merchant Navy, 1914-1918 15,000 ; 1939-1945, 30,000

Civilians killed by bombardment 1914-1918, 1,500. 1939-1945, 60,000

I can't help thinking that the ability to conjure these figures from memory evinces an unhealthy focus on statistics that neglects the 'ground truth' and grim reality of the Normandy campaign. Is this discussion only about British casualties, or does it also include Canadians, Poles, French, Americans, and, dare I say it, Germans?

I'm not familiar with Wada Fara, as mentioned by Centurion, but some of the accounts in 'The Germans in Normandy' remind me of the Basra road, and German witnesses describe the carnage in the Falaise Pocket as comparable with their worst experiences on the Eastern Front.

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Still confused but thanks for the comments. I need to have a look sometime at the 'best' loss figures that are out there and see if I can make any sense of them.

I have in my head the figures of '750,000' lost in WWI and '250,000' in WWII. Admittedly looking 'broad brush' we (I'm not even sure who 'we' is in this losses context; does it include the 'Commonwealth' forces?) were engaged with the Germans on the Western Front from August 1914-November 1918 - about 50 months or so. The main area of battle allowing for the dangerous places such as Gallipoli etc. must be France and Flanders.

In WWII we lost 250,000 but were only engaged 'head on' in France and Belgium for a couple of months in 1940 and a year from June 1944 - May 1945. Yes, the Germans were massively engaged on the Eastern Front which - to me - underlines the fact that our WWII losses seem very heavy given that we were actually fighting a relatively small (if very dangerous) portion of the German Army. I note the points on naval losses etc. but these still don't seem to square the circle for me.

It goes without saying that all losses were tragedies; its not just about statistics...

Bernard

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I know nothing about Normandy casualties but I am dubious of the value of comparing a seaborne landing and the mobile fighting in the bocage which followed, with the trench fighting on the Somme. One thing I am confident of, staistics never lie. Only people do that. The oft quoted statement re lies and statistics is on a par with the statement that ' history is bunk' and about as useful in a reasoned debate.

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