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Remembered Today:

Why did the French insist on a 7.30am start, Somme 1st July ?


Simon Cains

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Good morning, I have a few questions about the opening days of the Somme, for a talk I am preparing, so I am sure you experts will be able to help.  Any documented evidence would be very welcome.   I will submit each question separately.

1.  Why did the French insist on a 7.30am start ?  Did they give any military logic which persuaded the British commanders that it was the best option ?  Or were the British really forced into it reluctantly, by their senior ally ?  I suppose it maybe made sense if you really believed that there would be NO Germans firing back after the week-long barrage.  Otherwise, surely it was a big mistake not to move up in the dark and attack at the first light of dawn ?  The French opened their attack south of the Somme several hours later so they were not concerned with simultaneous attack.  Thanks very much.

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Wasn't the start time of the offensive in the British sector set to give 10 mins post Mine Explosions to allow troops to cross no mans land after the earth had settled?. From what I've read I think it was units in the Southern Sector actually went into no mans land during the darkness before dawn and these attacks were actually very effective, although some withdrawals had to be made to maintain flanks...

I'll await more knowledgable scholars to correct me....

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4 hours ago, exXIX said:

Wasn't the start time of the offensive in the British sector set to give 10 mins post Mine Explosions to allow troops to cross no mans land after the earth had settled?. From what I've read I think it was units in the Southern Sector actually went into no mans land during the darkness before dawn and these attacks were actually very effective, although some withdrawals had to be made to maintain flanks...

I'll await more knowledgable scholars to correct me....

Hi, sunrise was at 5.46am, so I wondered why the mines and the attack were not both timed for the pre-dawn, harder for the german machine guns and artillery spotters to see so far .   Yes, some units went into no-mans land a few minutes before 7.30 under the cover of the barrage, usually very succesful eg the Ulsters.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The French didn't insist on a 7.30 start. South of the Somme they started at 9.30 a.m. North of the river they went along with the 7.30 a,m. start time chosen by the British which was itself a compromise. The timing of the mines is irrelevant. All of the mines except for Hawthorn Ridge went off immediately before the attack. The Hawthorn Ridge mine was sprung 10 minutes before zero as a result of various local disagreements and misunderstandings, and apparently at the behest of the OC the local tunnelling company. The issue of falling debris was a red herring as anything damaging fell to earth in seconds and this was well known.

The French wanted to be able to see the effects of their final bombardment and the accurate targeting of their guns was an absolute requirement of Foch's battle plan. Thus they wanted any ground mist to have burned off. As far north as Gommecourt the British bombardment was fired whilst there was a thick ground mist which meant aerial and terrestrial observation was difficult if not impossible. The accuracy and effectiveness of the French bombardment and their counter-battery fire was almost everywhere better than that of the British despite the fact that most of the French guns were obsolete and based on gun tubes manufactured in the 1870s and 80s.

Below are various quotes from a book due to be published this summer:

"On 16th June Rawlinson suggested 7 a.m. though some in Fourth Army would have liked to go in at dawn. Fayolle countered with 9 a.m. as he wished to be able to observe the effect of the final bombardment. This was too late for Rawlinson as it meant keeping the infantry cooped up in the trenches for six hours or more. Finally, they compromised on 7.30 a.m. which, presumably, pleased neither side. South of the Somme, where the French could determine their time of departure on their own, the attack would start two hours later". [GAN Note 9755 determining the understanding between the British and French on the subject of the boundary between the Armies]

"Touching upon the disagreement between the Allies about the timing of zero-hour (the British wanted it early, the French late) Rawlinson then mentioned, almost in passing, an issue which lay at the heart of this dispute. The area bordering the Somme was prone to mists, especially in the morning. Rawlinson acknowledged that often this did not properly clear until as late as 8 or 9 a.m. It was for this reason the French, wanting to ensure their last-minute barrage was accurately targeted, wished to have zero hour after 9 a.m. The eventual compromise north of the Somme of a start time of 7.30 a.m. was an unhappy one to say the least. With the final bombardment starting at 6.25 a.m., large parts of the battlefield might be and, indeed, were, blanketed by mist which made ground and aerial observation of the final 65-minute bombardment tricky if not impossible."

"After a trip to the front to watch the work of the ‘heavies’ on the enemy lines, Rawlinson met with Fayolle at 10.30 a.m. to further discuss the timing of zero. Rawly now favoured 7.30 a.m. but Fayolle hinted some of his Corps commanders didn’t want to attack until after lunch!" [Rawlinson Diary, 26th June 1916.]

"28th June: In the meantime, the times for zero hour, or H Hour for the French, were issued. They were to be 7.30 a.m. for all troops north of the Somme and 9.30 a.m. for the French units south of the river. [Les Armees Francaise dans la Grand Guerre, Tome IV, Vol. 2, Annexes Vol. 2, Annexe 1725, page 682].

 

 
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On 10/04/2024 at 22:36, bmac said:

The French didn't insist on a 7.30 start. South of the Somme they started at 9.30 a.m. North of the river they went along with the 7.30 a,m. start time chosen by the British which was itself a compromise. The timing of the mines is irrelevant. All of the mines except for Hawthorn Ridge went off immediately before the attack. The Hawthorn Ridge mine was sprung 10 minutes before zero as a result of various local disagreements and misunderstandings, and apparently at the behest of the OC the local tunnelling company. The issue of falling debris was a red herring as anything damaging fell to earth in seconds and this was well known.

The French wanted to be able to see the effects of their final bombardment and the accurate targeting of their guns was an absolute requirement of Foch's battle plan. Thus they wanted any ground mist to have burned off. As far north as Gommecourt the British bombardment was fired whilst there was a thick ground mist which meant aerial and terrestrial observation was difficult if not impossible. The accuracy and effectiveness of the French bombardment and their counter-battery fire was almost everywhere better than that of the British despite the fact that most of the French guns were obsolete and based on gun tubes manufactured in the 1870s and 80s.

Below are various quotes from a book due to be published this summer:

"On 16th June Rawlinson suggested 7 a.m. though some in Fourth Army would have liked to go in at dawn. Fayolle countered with 9 a.m. as he wished to be able to observe the effect of the final bombardment. This was too late for Rawlinson as it meant keeping the infantry cooped up in the trenches for six hours or more. Finally, they compromised on 7.30 a.m. which, presumably, pleased neither side. South of the Somme, where the French could determine their time of departure on their own, the attack would start two hours later". [GAN Note 9755 determining the understanding between the British and French on the subject of the boundary between the Armies]

"Touching upon the disagreement between the Allies about the timing of zero-hour (the British wanted it early, the French late) Rawlinson then mentioned, almost in passing, an issue which lay at the heart of this dispute. The area bordering the Somme was prone to mists, especially in the morning. Rawlinson acknowledged that often this did not properly clear until as late as 8 or 9 a.m. It was for this reason the French, wanting to ensure their last-minute barrage was accurately targeted, wished to have zero hour after 9 a.m. The eventual compromise north of the Somme of a start time of 7.30 a.m. was an unhappy one to say the least. With the final bombardment starting at 6.25 a.m., large parts of the battlefield might be and, indeed, were, blanketed by mist which made ground and aerial observation of the final 65-minute bombardment tricky if not impossible."

"After a trip to the front to watch the work of the ‘heavies’ on the enemy lines, Rawlinson met with Fayolle at 10.30 a.m. to further discuss the timing of zero. Rawly now favoured 7.30 a.m. but Fayolle hinted some of his Corps commanders didn’t want to attack until after lunch!" [Rawlinson Diary, 26th June 1916.]

"28th June: In the meantime, the times for zero hour, or H Hour for the French, were issued. They were to be 7.30 a.m. for all troops north of the Somme and 9.30 a.m. for the French units south of the river. [Les Armees Francaise dans la Grand Guerre, Tome IV, Vol. 2, Annexes Vol. 2, Annexe 1725, page 682].

 

 

Hi thanks, I have seen that argument about wanting better visibility, but I can't really follow the logic. The barrage had gone on day and night for 7 days, so why was the last 2 hours so important ?  It seems unlikely that any new targets would appear in those 2 hours.  After zero hour then certainly the Germans would start using previously unseen guns, and moving troops.  But I have the impression that the visibility was so bad due to the shelling, and hidden ground, that no useful information got back for much of the day ?  So with hindsight maybe it did not help much to have the fog clear before zero hour.  

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It has a lot to do with the development of artillery tactics in two two armies. Firstly, French bombardments became progressively more concentrated and powerful as they concentrated their guns over narrower and especially shallower areas. Bear in  mind the French only sought to take the German front line and not achieve the huge deep penetrations demanded of Fourth Army. They had learned painful lessons in Artois and in Champagne when French troops, after the initial break-in, tried to advance against defences which could not be seen from the ground and had not been adequately prepared by the artillery.

The British went into reverse over the same period. The most concentrated, i.e. guns per yards of front, British bombardment up to this time was at Neuve Chapelle and, ever since and at every battle, the concentration of British artillery had dwindled.

I think these figures tell a tale. The French employed 1,412 guns up to 1st July. The British: 1,513. The British front, however, was far wider than the French and, had the British employed the same number of guns per yard of front as the French then they would have needed 3,640 guns of all types. In particular, the French concentrated three times as many medium and heavy howitzers per yard of front as the British. It was these guns Foch deemed the most effective at preparing the way for the infantry.

At the Somme, the depth and width of the area to be bombarded by the British so diluted the effectiveness of the artillery as to render it ineffective in many areas. Haig's artillery adviser, Noel Birch, warned him at the time 'that he was ‘stretching’ his artillery too much.”[BOH, France & Belgium 1916, Vol. 1, page 251.] but his warnings went unheeded. Birch wrote to Brig. Gen. Sir James Edmonds, the compiler of the Official History, in 1930:

"I am not quite sure whether you have sufficiently emphasised the backward state of our artillery and the difficulties of the time. There were miles and miles of wire to cut and no instantaneous fuzes, and poor Haig – as he was always inclined to do – spread his guns.

The idea of a surprise attack at that time in France was out of the question. After Neuve Chapelle the Germans took every precaution to strengthen their wire both in depth and quantity, and to cut it even with instantaneous fuzes would have given away the whole show unless we had cut equally in say three different parts of the long English (sic) line. For this there were neither guns nor ammunition.

I think I am right in saying it was the first battle for not a few of the gunners and they were put to tasks that had never been contemplated...

In truth the problem of semi-siege warfare and the large concentrations of guns necessary for the work had never been studied by the General Staff in peace, nor by any of the leading gunners, or gunnery schools, so we had to learn our lesson in the pitiless school of war." [Comment on the OH by Maj. Gen. F J N Birch, 8th July 1930, National Archives]

On Fourth Army's front there was an enormous amount of firing off-map, little in the way of a co-ordinated counter-battery programme in the centre and northern parts of the front, and a huge waste shells fired at targets which could only be seen from the air and/or which the infantry never reached on 1st July (or, in some cases, at all).

The instructions from Foch prior to the attack was that, with the exception of the very long range guns used to interdict supply routes and concentration areas to the rear, guns should only fire at targets visible from the the French lines and only when the results could be seen. Firing off-map was only to be done if the weather prevented terrestrial observation. As it happens, this occurred quite a lot during the bombardment. Foch and Fayolle also had a far more rigorous approach to counter battery fire than the BEF at this time. Their view was that, if a German gun was firing, then any French batteries within range should retaliate. The idea pre-1st July was destruction, the idea on 1st July was neutralisation, i.e. ideally German gunners should be unable to fire once the French infantry was 'above ground' and crossing No Man's Land. To achieve these results the artillery needed to see what they were doing.

Foch provided very detailed instructions about targeting: e.g. how many shells from the various calibres of guns were needed to destroy or neutralise a German battery, a machine gun position, barbed wire (on forward and reverse slopes), etc.. All of this detail, and a whole lot more, was included in a lengthy document entitled La Bataille Offensive published on 20th April 1916.

Almost every British Corps was given a group of French 75 batteries even if they were mostly mis-used (often firing gas shell of dubious utility but used to cut wire effectively on 36th Division's front using their instantaneous graze fuse which helps explain their initially successful advance).

It is fair to say that French assistance in destroying German batteries supporting Montauban was considerable even if they had a vested interest in their destruction as their troops advanced eastwards from Maricourt. Some obsolete heavy guns (the groupe de Menthon: 16 x 220mm mortiers) were provided to XIII Corps, with more arriving after 1st July. Co-operation between Congreve and French senior officers appears to have been good and effective.

The final French barrage was, therefore, fired at targets which could be seen and with a specific purpose in mind. A large number of British shells simply disappeared into the mist.

As an aside, the French also employed very large numbers of 58-mm trench mortars to destroy the front line and these also helped at Montauban. To quote from the forthcoming book:

"39e Division, 20e Corps, for example, deployed four batteries each of twelve Mortier de 58 T No. 2 or 1 bis on their frontage north and east of Maricourt. One battery, the 117e Batterie of the 39e régiment d’artillerie de campagne, lined up its twelve guns (all No. 2 variants) immediately to the right of the Maricourt – Briqueterie Road, the border between the Fourth Army and VIe Armée. These guns occupied a stretch of trench no more 200 metres long and were to take on three lines of German trenches of the same width, a strongpoint linking the German front and support trenches, a short communication trench, and several junctions along it.... 

The job of the 117e Batterie was to ease the path for Bataillon Lepetit of the 153e RI which was tasked with taking these trenches (and nothing more). During the bombardment, and in the hours before Zero, the battery fired c. 2,600 of various bombs containing c. 15,000 Kgs of explosive or the equivalent of 15 Kgs of explosive per metre of fire or communication trench. It is little wonder the JMO of the 117e Batterie records Bataillon Lepetit:

“… took the first three German lines with great dash and without firing a shot. Hundreds of prisoners taken without resistance were completely panic stricken.” [JMO, 117e Batterie, 139e regiment d’artillerie de campagne].

 

 
Edited by bmac
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  • 3 weeks later...

It's always struck me that an attack at dawn was most foolhardy. The rising sun in the east would have been blinding as it came over the low hills of the Somme valley directly into the eyes of the attacking allied troops., any lowlying river mist would have compounded the difficulty of an attack. By 7:00 am  on that date, the sun would have risen higher, but would still be a visual problem on a clear, bright sunny morning. I've done the journey many a time in both directions, and that rising eastern sun is almost blinding, I would like to think that it may have a bearing on timing the attack.

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