Fighting the Somme

German Challenges, Dilemmas and Solutions

Jack Sheldon

Pen & Sword, 2017

A year ago we were wondering just how many more books on the Somme would be coming out during the centenary of the campaign; surely everything that could be written about the battle has been done, with all possible adjectives exhausted? However, our view is still particularly Anglocentric and I doubt many people could hold their hand up and say they have looked at the campaign in detail from the German perspective.

Jack Sheldon is one of the few (published, at least) British historians who has sought to redress the balance by carrying out primary research in German archives. His volumes will be well-known to many, and are a fine collection to which he now adds this concise account of German strategy on the Somme.

Central to German strategy was the concept of ‘Schwerpunkt’, essentially the focal point for main effort. For the German defensive strategy on the Somme, the Schwerpunkt focused on the high ground between Serre and Ovillers, north of the Albert-Bapaume road. Understanding this makes the events of the campaign a whole lot clearer – particularly the emphasis of the German army to recapture the Schwaben Redoubt from 36th Division on 1st July, and their tenacity in holding the Thiepval ridge during the campaign.

Sheldon also explains how the focus on the Schwerpunkt also meant fewer defenders to the south, which contributed to the French successes on the first day of the battle. The British successes here in the early days of the campaign also had an impact. Fricourt was outflanked and had to be evacuated, with La Boisselle taken the following day. If further ground had been ceded by the Germans the British would have gained a foothold on the Serre ridge and the Schwerpunkt would have been threatened.

Sheldon asserts that Haig’s biggest mistake was to take the focus off Theipval and concentrate on the British right flank instead, which took the pressure off the Germans defending the Schwaben Redoubt. He also highlights the importance of Pozieres as a ‘gateway’ to the Schwerpunkt, i.e a blocking position to Thiepval to the North West and on to Serre. This helps explain the ferocity of the fighting at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm as the Germans tried to prevent this from happening.

The German strategy was not perfect – they came close to losing the Schwaben Redoubt completely on 1st July. A counter-attack was difficult to co-ordinate due to communication problems and a breakthrough by the British was only prevented by the last of the German reserves being sent in. The Germans also failed to retake Pozieres on 25th July – by this time they were overextended, had ongoing problems with communication, and were reliant on exhausted and depleted troops. Throughout the campaign they were also up against a numerically superior British and French force and suffered from the in-fighting between the Army commanders, which eventually led to the removal of Falkenhayn and the appointment of Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

The appointment of Crown Prince Rupprecht as Army Commander had a positive impact, and lessons were learned during the campaign such as retaining the Army commander in the area for knowledge and consistency when troops were rotated, holding rear slope positions with a thinly manned front line, and holding reserves close by due to the difficulty moving them by day. However, British artillery superiority was an ongoing problem and by the time of the Autumn crisis both command and troops were demoralised – Sheldon asserts that the Germans were only saved by the onset of the bad weather.

Sheldon concludes that the Somme was a tactical defensive success for the Germans, but one that came at a high cost. Lessons learned were implemented in 1917 in the latter parts of Arras, and during Third Ypres, but ultimately the Somme was the beginning of the end due to its huge impact on the key resources of German men and material.

Fighting the Somme is an informative introduction to German strategy on the Somme and is a must-read for anyone with a serious interest in understanding the campaign.

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Fighting the Somme: German Challenges, Dilemmas and Solutions