Monday, July 4, 2016

Leo Lessman Fights in the Battle of the Somme – The Centenary of the WWI Battles of Verdun and the Somme

On July 1, Britain marked the centenary of one of the traumatic events in its history, the Battle of the Somme. Here we present some more photographs from Leo Lessman's war diary, showing scenes from the German side of the battle.

This year marks the centenary of two of the greatest battles of the First World War, the Battle of Verdun (February - December 1916), and the battle on the river Somme (July - November 1916). The battle of the Somme is regarded as one of the bloodiest in world history. The importance of these battles goes beyond military history--they profoundly influenced the warring countries: Germany, France and Britain. The continuing struggle and terrible losses undercut the foundations of society in these states, which were never the same afterwards.

At Verdun, the Germans planned to draw the French into battle for a position which they would feel compelled to defend at all costs. Verdun was such a position. A fortress city since the Roman period, it was the last French position to surrender in the 1870/71 Franco-Prussian war and was a source of pride for the French in their defeat. The chief of staff of the German army, Erich von Falkenhayn (of which we have written before) believed that the French would not cede Verdun and it was a chance to "bleed the French white." He planned a series of limited attacks on positions on the perimeter of Verdun, which would draw the French to concentrate forces and fight for them. Falkenhayn planned to concentrate massive numbers of artillery and butcher the French, forcing them to retreat and even stop fighting.

The offensive opened on February 21st and was a success at first. The Germans took some key positions. Just as they hoped, the French decided to fight and defend Verdun. They moved large number of troops to the Verdun front, and rotated units every 2 weeks, to lessen the attrition in battle. They also massed their own artillery and showed the Germans that they could inflict heavy losses. In the end, the French recaptured all the land taken by the Germans, but at a terrible cost – it is estimated that both sides lost between 714,000 to 972,000 troops – killed, wounded and missing.

The Allied Somme river offensive was planned in December 1915 as the great offensive of the year against Germany. The German offensive in Verdun made the battle even more important – as a means to draw Germans forces away and to aid a great Russian offensive (the "Brusilov offensive" June – September 1916). Verdun changed the planning – the French could not lead the attack and the British were now the main force with French support. The British army was now a large volunteer army, made up of men who had answered Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener's call for "100,000 volunteers". 2.5 million men answered the call. "Kitchener's army" had all the enthusiasm and patriotism in the world, but it lacked sound training and experience (most of those who could have trained them better, the professional army, were either dead, wounded or prisoner).
World War I recruitment poster featuring Lord Kitchener/Wikipedia

On 0730, July 1st 1916, after a weeklong bombardment, the British soldiers "went over the top" – climbed out of the trenches, formed groups and started advancing towards the German lines. The British commanders told their troops that the heavy artillery had demolished the German lines, and that all they had to do is cross "no-man's land" and take the German lines.  This was not true. British patrols and raids mounted during lulls in the bombardment found that German barbed wire was intact and that many German units were well dug in. This information was not received by British high command.  The German soldiers were protected in underground bomb shelters and were mostly unscathed by the heavy fire.

As the assault commenced, the German troops ran to their positions and opened fire on the oncoming British troops. The concentration of the British soldiers in large groups made the slaughter all too great – 57,000 casualties, 21,000 of them killed. It was the largest number of casualties for a single day of fighting in the history of the British.  The British catastrophe was larger than statistics can show.   The British units were "Pals battalions" – whole units recruited from the same geographic area, from cities and villages. Friends, neighbors, co-workers all volunteered together – and were killed together. In one morning, thousands of women were bereaved. The losses crossed all social boundaries.

 The battle did not end after one day. The British resumed their attacks, and the Germans counter attacked. The German Army commander on the Somme, Fritz von Below ordered his troops:" the vital thing is to hold on to our positions at all costs…The enemy should have to carve its way over heaps of corpses". The battle raged all summer. The thunder of guns was heard as far away as London. In September the British introduced a new weapon – the tank, but it did not achieve the break through expected.

The battle ended by November. The British forces conquered an area in the depth of 10 kilometers in the German lines. The cost was terrible – 600-700,000 casualties (150,000 killed) for the British and French, 450, 000 Germans (164, 000 killed).

According to his diary, Leo Lessman fought in the Battle of the Somme (Somme-Schlacht). His unit was stationed by Bapaume, a town in northern France, just outside of the area the British were planning to attack. Lessman's 103 Field Artillery regiment provided close cover fire to the German front line forces, who were trying to stop the British. The album does not show photos of the battlefield but Lessman took many pictures of Bapaume, which was badly hit during the battle (here are more photos of the damage in Bapaume from the Bundesarchiv/Wikicommons).
 The Germans retreated from Bapaum in March 1917, when the German army conducted a strategic retreat to a new, heavily fortified line that was supposed to spare them another Somme blood bath. A year later, in March 1918 during the great German Spring offensive, the Germans retook Bapaume. It was finally liberated by Australian troops in September 1918. (Bapaume has a Chemin des Anzacs since).
A hotel in Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment

Townhall of Bapaume, damaged in a bombardment
Hospital road in Bapaume
A German observation balloon, near Bapaume

 A street concert in Vaulx, probably in the vicinity of Bapaume
Infantry reinforcements on the way to the front, Vaulx (near Bapaume)

Ruins of what was the village Serra (west of Bapaume). The village changed hands several times and was totally destroyed 

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