The Life of Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston MP
Chapter Eleven: A Day of Disaster
At first, the failure of the Gallipoli campaign was eclipsed by the heroism of its participants. For all the mutterings on the peninsula, Hunter-Weston’s name remained linked at home with the ‘Incomparable’ 29th Division. He was knighted by King George V on the day after his return to Britain and quickly received two prestigious job offers. Lord Kitchener wanted him as his Chief of Staff on his mission to the Balkans and the Dardanelles, while Sir John French invited him to become his deputy as Commander of the British Home Forces.1 These approaches were extremely flattering, but there was no doubt that his real desire was for another field command. His patience was rewarded in March 1916 with a return to VIII Corps, which was reforming in Picardy in preparation for the next great offensive, which was to take place around the River Somme.
Although the Western Front seemed to offer a new beginning, ultimately it was corps command at the Somme that would decisively check Hunter-Weston’s career ambitions. His role was not as conspicuous as it had been at Gallipoli, but historians have since been unrelenting in their analysis of the disaster that befell his men. Travers, for example, uses VIII Corps as a case study of what went wrong on the first day of the battle.2 Prior and Wilson cite Hunter-Weston’s ‘malign effect’ on corps artillery arrangements, while Farrar-Hockley categorises his pre-battle preparation ← 211 | 212 → as born of ‘mismanagement or carelessness’.3 For good measure, Simpson remarks that his ‘hands off’ exercise of corps command resembled ‘the steady plod of a sleepwalker’, in marked contrast to his thrusting reputation.4 Although the relationship between the two has not yet been systematically explored, a further feature of the historiography is a willingness to link Hunter-Weston’s performance at the Somme with his previous command at Gallipoli. His failure appears prefigured, if not predestined, by his ‘very mixed reputation’ for over-optimism, recklessness and lack of imagination.5 Crucially, his ‘Westerner’ superiors, Douglas Haig and Henry Rawlinson, the Fourth Army Commander who deplored the Gallipoli adventure, made a similar negative connection. Indeed, their willingness to focus on Hunter-Weston’s ‘different’ experience may have diverted their attention from more endemic flaws in their own planning for the battle.6
In fact, the legacy of Hunter-Weston’s Gallipoli command was highly complex. There is little doubt that he arrived in France desperate to win glory for his corps. His experience on the Gallipoli peninsula had strengthened his belief in the traditional ‘moral’ qualities of discipline and leadership, and instilled in him a fear of fractured, disorganised assaults.7 He had also learned important tactical lessons. His experiment with ‘bite and hold’ tactics had been initiated out of necessity, but he had become increasingly convinced that carefully planned limited offensives, ‘strictly in proportion to the men and munitions available’, offered the only road to success.8 Unfortunately, these good intentions were caught in the crossfire between Haig and Rawlinson as they stumbled towards a hybrid battle plan ← 212 | 213 → that combined a wearing-down artillery assault with an unlimited offensive. Beguiled by the artillery apparently at his disposal, Hunter-Weston did not challenge their approach, even though the depth of penetration it demanded would weaken the intensity of his preliminary bombardment just as surely as his over-extended front had done at Gully Ravine. This equation was enough to deny success at the Somme, but the delegated decision-making structure of Rawlinson’s Fourth Army also left sufficient room for active command errors at corps level. Far from sleepwalking to disaster, it was a combination of Hunter-Weston’s energy and imagination – in particular, his fascination with ‘scientific’ planning, his faith in new technology and his fondness for imaginative ruses de guerre – that would increase the agony for VIII Corps on 1 July 1916.
A New Command
One of Haig’s most biting criticisms of Hunter-Weston and fellow Gallipoli veterans was that they were ‘amateurs in hard fighting’.9 Passing judgment on a soldier who was deeply engaged in his profession, this was wide of the mark. Hunter-Weston was well aware that there had been many changes since he had left Flanders a year before. Not only had the BEF expanded to a force of one and a half million men, but there had also been a dramatic increase in the numbers of heavy guns available to them.10 More subtle shifts had also taken place in the role of army corps. At Gallipoli, VIII Corps had emerged from a haphazard accumulation of units that could no longer be controlled by GHQ. On the Western Front, the development of the corps as the highest level of operational command had been stimulated by the need to coordinate artillery arrangements; as the numbers of corps ← 213 | 214 → expanded, their responsibilities also increased, thereby requiring a more centralised model of command.11
Keen to investigate the latest fighting methods, Hunter-Weston decided to visit France prior to taking up his new posting.12 During a seventeen-day trip, he studied artillery techniques and the intricacies of corps administration, but it was his conversation with Major-General Frederick McCracken, who had commanded the 15th (Scottish) Division at Loos the previous September, that made the deepest impression on him.13 Many features of the battle were familiar from his time on the peninsula, not least the lack of operational experience to mount a large-scale offensive, but the ‘three main facts’ that he drew out were the failure of reserve arrangements; the allocation of objectives that were too distant; and the lack of infrastructural preparation to facilitate rapid troop movement. Where the attack had succeeded, this was ‘because of the extreme care with which all details for the attack were gone into before the day itself’.14
Before he could put these insights into practice, Haig gave him a secret mission. Despite his views on Gallipoli, he was happy to use Hunter-Weston’s expertise in planning a daring expedition to capture the port of Ostend.15 Haig cared deeply about this project, as he viewed the Belgian coast as having great strategic significance for future offensive operations in Flanders. He therefore deputed Hunter-Weston to draw up a scheme in collaboration with Rear-Admiral Reginald Bacon, a controversial officer noted for his technical acumen. In the past Hunter-Weston might have relished leading such an enterprise, but recent experience had given him a more realistic attitude. Lacking the ability to land on a broad enough front to prevent hold ups, he argued that the assault would have to be made on ← 214 | 215 → the heavily defended harbour. Even if the attackers survived the onslaught of German heavy artillery, any radial advance could easily be blocked and there would be no chance of the ‘rapidity and vigour of action’ that such an operation would require.16 Bacon grasped this, but Haig was still convinced that the plan had potential if the military situation were to change. When the three next met again in Dover, there was agreement that any attempt to take Ostend would require the enemy’s reserves to be drawn off beforehand, but Haig ordered a detailed exposition of the scheme nevertheless.17 For the next two months, alongside planning for the Somme, Hunter-Weston would also be absorbed in the Ostend project.18
It was mid-March before he finally arrived at his new HQ, the imposing pre-revolutionary Chateau Marieux.19 His new accommodation was much more spacious than his previous dugout, but his experience as a ‘chateau general’ still left much to be desired. The existing lavatories emptied into an ancient cesspit and the sanitary officers immediately replaced them with a bucket system of latrines situated well clear of the house – ‘far from convenient on a wet night’.20 Nevertheless, he was extremely pleased that fate had brought him to this part of the British lines. The rolling chalk landscape was a striking contrast from ‘horrible’ Flanders; there was plenty of scope for riding through charming little woods, carpeted with wild daffodils and anemones. He also liked his new commander, Rawlinson – ‘a clever man and pleasant’ – and rejoiced that he had avoided the ill-tempered Allenby and the Third Army.21 ← 215 | 216 →
His four divisions had already begun assembling. The first to arrive from Egypt was the 31st Division, a New Army unit, which contained a number of North Country ‘Pals’ battalions; they were commanded by Major-General Robert Wanless O’Gowan (né Smith), who had been rescued from the half-pay list to become Assistant Quartermaster General in 1914. Representing the Territorial Force were the 48th (South Midland) Division, under the popular Major-General Edward Fanshawe.22 Balancing these units were two regular divisions, both very familiar to Hunter-Weston. The 4th Division joined the corps in May along with the 11th Brigade, which was now commanded by Bertie Prowse. The division had suffered heavy losses over the past year, but was ‘fighting fit’ and almost back to its August 1914 standard following impressive new drafts from its traditional recruiting areas; the GOC was Lord French’s former Military Secretary, ‘Billy’ Lambton, reckoned by Margot Asquith to be ‘no genius, but sound and straight’.23 Making an even more welcome reappearance were the 29th Division, even though the nucleus of officers and men who had survived Gallipoli was painfully small; their commander, De Lisle, remained one of Hunter-Weston’s closest associates.24 In moulding together a disparate force, the Corps Commander could not disguise his sentimental attachment to this unit. Perhaps he sensed that they shared similar challenges in readjusting to the Western Front. Just as he had exchanged his singular authority at Helles for being one of five Corps Commanders in the Fourth Army, the 29th Division could no longer count on being ‘the cynosure of every eye, the ”backbone” of every enterprise’.25 ← 216 | 217 →
At the Chantilly Conference in December 1915, evacuation from the Gallipoli peninsula cleared the way for directing Britain’s main military effort towards the Western Front.26 By the time of Hunter-Weston’s arrival, the broad outline of the new offensive had already been decided. His first task as Corps Commander during March was to direct the infrastructural preparations that now underpinned any major battle.27 He had assistance in this massive logistical exercise from his new corps staff – a team he deemed ‘excellent’, although this was not a universally shared view. The rapid expansion of corps had led to a shortage of well-trained staff officers, but while his artillery commander Brigadier T. A. Tancred was considered an effective soldier, this was less true of his chief staff officer, Brigadier ‘Jerry’ Hore-Ruthven VC, a scion of the Scottish aristocracy who had been badly wounded at Gallipoli. Meeting him later in the war, a friend and colleague was astounded to find him in a senior staff position, regarding him as a ‘thorough, good sporting, hard riding man with a minimum of intellect’.28
Hunter-Weston’s second duty involved helping to plan the Fourth Army’s outline scheme of attack. The challenge facing Rawlinson’s force was formidable: they would be engaged in an offensive stretching from Serre in the north to a point just east of Mametz in the south. Facing them was a three-line trench network featuring deep dugouts and a series of fortified villages. Behind this system was another defensive line 2,000–4,000 yards to the rear, with a series of strongpoints lying in between. The construction of a third line was also underway, but was not yet fully developed. Rawlinson’s initial inclination was for a limited, two-stage advance. Having methodically calibrated his targets to allow for the number of heavy ← 217 | 218 → howitzers available, his plan allowed for the initial seizure of the enemy’s first-line defences. From here, the artillery could prepare the way for the next assault on the second-line position. This cautious approach took into account the strength of the German positions, but also reflected the weight of opinion among his Corps Commanders.
As always, Hunter-Weston had forcefully expounded his views at a Fourth Army Conference on 30 March.29 Although VIII Corps had been assigned the sector from Serre to Beaucourt, specific objectives had not yet been agreed beyond securing a defensive flank for the main advance. He argued that the depth of penetration should be conditional on the number of troops available and the weight of the artillery that could be brought up to support the infantry. At this stage, he showed an acute tactical awareness of the strong likelihood that any initial attempt to storm the German defences that crowned the Serre-Beaucourt ridge would result in very heavy casualties, calculating that each of his two main attacking divisions would be lucky to have a brigade in hand when they reached their objective. The only way that he could contemplate a further 2,000-yard advance to take the enemy’s second line was if he was to have five divisions at his disposal, plus one in reserve – anything else would be ‘foolish generalship’.30 He was also adamant that any advance must be approached in a step-by-step fashion, as the main Serre-Grandcourt objective was not within range of his field artillery. Far being from an advocate of the gallant ‘hooroosh’, as he is often caricatured, Hunter-Weston actually argued that too often in the war substance had been lost ‘by grasping at the shadow’:
I am strongly opposed to a wild rush by the advance line of troops for an objective 4000 yards away from their trenches of departure. Even if they get over the intervening line of trenches, the remnant of the line that started cannot but arrive as a widely spread and disordered rabble, with no power to overcome even a feeble ← 218 | 219 → resistance in the enemy back trenches and with but little chance of being able to maintain themselves therein.31
Rawlinson endorsed his caution, noting in his diary that both he and Thomas Morland of X Corps ‘had good ideas in their heads and will do well’.32 Accordingly, Hunter-Weston had little hesitation in presenting his views to Haig when he visited Marieux on 7 April, explaining to the Commander-in-Chief that he intended to take the enemy’s first trench system, proceeding slowly, stage by stage.33 His timing, however, was unfortunate, as only two days earlier, Haig had dismissed Rawlinson’s preliminary scheme for the attack as lacking in ambition, and instead had proposed ‘getting as large a combined force of French and British across the Somme and fighting the enemy in the open’.34 In Hunter-Weston’s sector this meant that Serre should be captured ‘fairly quickly’ to enable mounted troops and machine-guns to be sent immediately to occupy Miraumont and Grandcourt and then to take the Theipval defences in reverse. Deeming the high ground west of Serre to be suitable terrain for tank operations, Haig was in no mood for conservatism, stressing that VIII Corps needed to be fully prepared to take advantage of surprise.35 He raised the ‘attack problem’ again with Rawlinson the next day, impressing upon him that he must insist on Hunter-Weston gaining his objectives ‘at one single effort’, as the alternative would allow the enemy to bring up reserves as at Verdun, making the efforts to gain the Serre-Grandcourt position even more costly.36
As the discussions between Haig and Rawlinson continued over the next few weeks, an uneven compromise emerged.37 It was everything that Hunter-Weston had feared. A total of eleven divisions were now to mount ← 219 | 220 → the offensive along a 24,000-yard front, involving a diversionary attack Gommecourt in the north and an extension of the main assault to include a junction with the French at Montauban in the south. Rawlinson’s lengthy preliminary bombardment with 220 howitzers was retained, but between Serre and Pozières, including the VIII Corps sector, there was to be a rush to take the German second line, with the depth of the advance ranging from 3,000 to 4,000 yards. The northern corps would then attempt to roll up the rest of this line, which would also be attacked by a thrust from the south along the Contalmaison-Montauban position.
Many crucial issues were left unresolved by this composite plan. These included the problems of wire cutting and providing artillery support at such an extended distance; the need to neutralise the enemy reserves before the assaulting troops reached the second line; as well as the challenge of maintaining coherence in inexperienced units. These doubts would resurface in Hunter-Weston’s own planning. It was even more significant to the success of the enterprise that these distant objectives had the effect of doubling the number of yards of trench requiring a heavy howitzer bombardment, thus diluting the destructive power to be brought to bear on the enemy defences. This was artillery warfare, but without a proportionate increase in the guns and ammunition available it was unlikely that even the German front-line positions would fall to infantry assault.
While he was aware of this risk, Rawlinson also knew his place in the command hierarchy. Bound by the same authority structure, Hunter-Weston and his fellow Corps Commanders fell into line. With the revised Fourth Army plan now in place detailed preparations could begin in earnest at corps level, but as they hammered out their methods of attack, the objectives for the offensive continued to change and grow as the French contribution steadily diminished. By end of June, ‘the great advance’ had become a largely British affair, with the towns of Bapaume, Monchy and Douai designated as distant but ‘achievable’ targets for Haig’s cavalry push.
The challenge facing Hunter-Weston at the Somme was probably greater than that facing any other Corps Commander. Forming the northern anchor of the Fourth Army offensive, VIII corps would attack along a three and a half mile front on either side of Beaumont Hamel village. Not only did the natural landscape of the chalk heights north of the Ancre ← 220 | 221 → overwhelmingly favour his opponents, but the Germans had also maximised their advantage through their extensive defensive preparations. His corps front was marked by a series of large spurs running south-eastwards towards the winding river. Lying in the shallow valley between the Auchonvilliers spur and the Beaucourt spur was the village of Beaumont Hamel, while at the northern end of the Grandcourt spur was the village of Serre. The enemy positions in this sector were held by an estimated nineteen and a half battalions from the 52nd Division, mainly drawn from the Grand Duchy of Baden, and from the 26th Reserve Division, from the neighbouring Württemberg.38 The succession of valleys and ridges gave them protection from shelling, while also offering an excellent view of the British, whose own artillery observation was limited by the location of their trenches on a convex slope.39 The defenders were assisted by two further natural features: Y Ravine, a deeply cut defile in the Beaumont Hamel valley which provided good cover for reserves and supports; and the nearby Hawthorn Ridge, whose commanding presence made any approach extremely dangerous.
The main German artillery positions were on the reverse of the Beaucourt and Grandcourt spurs. Frontline trenches had been constructed on the forward slopes running from the eastern slope of the Auchonvillers spur and passing round the head of Y Ravine to Hawthorn Ridge. Here, a redoubt of machine-gun posts had been built. The line then crossed the Beaumont Hamel valley and continued across the Beaucourt spur towards the knoll upon which Serre was perched. Stretching along the summit behind these trenches was another strong intermediate line – the Munich Trench – with the second main line dug out on the reverse slopes running from Grandcourt to Puisieux, followed by the third trench system three ← 221 | 222 → miles further to the rear. Well-protected with belts of wire, the German trenches had been ingeniously designed, incorporating minor salients to allow interlocking fields of fire, as well as switch trenches and covered communication systems; miners from the Rhineland had been busy since the winter of 1914 building great tunnel-like dugouts to give troops additional protection and allow lateral movement underground.40 As the lynchpin of defensive system, the vital high ground around Serre in the second line had been turned into miniature fortress, while to the south the Quadrilateral strongpoint that jutted out from the German front line had been packed with explosives to form a massive booby trap for attacking infantry. Another hazard was the low-lying Beaumont Hamel village, 500 yards behind the front line, which contained a formidable defensive system of cellars, dugouts and machine-gun posts. No Man’s Land offered little cover, with distances from the German line ranging from 200 yards in the north to an average of 500 yards in the south.41
The undulating terrain and impressive scale of the German defences limited Hunter-Weston’s attack options and made interlocking success in the centre and on the major spurs essential.42 It may seem strange that his notorious ‘cheeriness’ survived, but just a week after he had questioned Haig’s unlimited offensive tactics he had become increasingly confident that his guns could indeed carve a way through for the infantry. Even though there would clearly be no fifth division arriving to strengthen VIII Corps, the appreciation prepared by his Chief of Staff struck a defiant note:
It is assumed that the intensive preliminary bombardment and the elan of the assaulting infantry will carry them through to the first objective within half-an-hour of the commencement of the assault except at the re-entrant east of Serre and the re-entrant west of Beaucourt where it will take ten minutes longer. It is assumed that the artillery bombardment will pin the troops holding the front line to their positions and ← 222 | 223 → at the same time batter down Beaumont Hamel and Serre to such an extent as to nullify all resistance in these two villages.43
While Hunter-Weston’s optimism at Gallipoli had been presented for public consumption, it now seemed to be fuelled by genuine conviction. An explanation for this was the remarkable array of heavy guns accumulating under his command. He detailed his new armoury to the long-suffering Grace with customary precision – although his list did not include his eight obsolete 4.7" guns, which would have an important role in counter-battery work:
I have in all under my command at the present time 600 pieces of Ordnance, less 4, i.e. 596 VIS:
|15" Howitzers, which fire a shell weighing||1300lbs|
|12" Howitzers " " " "||750lbs|
6" guns, which fire a shell weighing 100lbs but of course to a very much greater distance than the Howitzers.
5" guns i.e. 60 prs which fire a shell weighing 60lbs.
The above are the Heavy Howitzers, & Heavy guns, then come the Field Howitzers and Field guns, viz:
4.5" Howitzers which fire a shell weighing 37lbs, & the ordinary Field guns (18 prs) which fire a shell weighing 18lbs.
Also the 75mm French guns, which fire a shell weighing about 14lbs, at the rate of 20 rounds a minute.
Then come the Trench mortars:
Heavy Trench mortars which fire a shell weighing about 192lbs.
Medium Trench Mortars which fire a shell weighing about 50lbs
Light Trench Mortars which fire a shell weighing about 11lbs.44
After being starved of resources at Gallipoli, his exhilaration at the possession of this firepower was understandable – indeed, he boasted that with a sixth of the weaponry available to him at the Somme, he would have ← 223 | 224 → reached Constantinople and shortened the war. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of heavy ordinance diverted him from the question of how far this could be effectively concentrated relative to the area of attack. Edmonds, for example, suggests that VIII Corps Heavy Artillery, totalling eighty-one guns, worked out at around one per forty-four yards of front, while the divisional artillery had one field gun per twenty yards.45 This appeared rather more favourable than the Fourth Army average of one per forty-nine yards for heavy guns, and one per twenty-three yards for field guns, but these calculations did not take into consideration the actual area of the enemy’s multi-layered trench system that was to be assaulted. Although he would never have admitted it, Hunter-Weston also lacked experience in commanding heavy artillery. Like most senior officers at the Somme, this led him to overestimate the technical capability of his guns and to neglect consideration of problems of gun design, ammunition supply, shell power and mechanical reliability.46
‘Faulty optimism’ may have influenced Hunter-Weston’s plan of attack, but he also remained aware of risks surrounding deep incursion.47 Ruthven’s appreciation had suggested that gaining their objectives would depend on the amount of warning given and the length of time which the enemy took to bring up his reserves. If there was a short, intense bombardment along the line and a simultaneous infantry assault with the artillery lifting from the first to the second trench line, then the attackers might be able to move to the second line, but they could also be easily caught between the two. However, if the preparatory bombardment was a long one (‘over two hours’) it was difficult to see how the Grandcourt-Serre line could be won without a second bombardment on an equally large scale, as anything less would allow the enemy reserves to reach the line in sufficient force to hold it.48 By May, it had become clear that the preliminary bombardment ← 224 | 225 → was to be methodical and very lengthy indeed; Hunter-Weston’s persistent fear of a disorganised advance beyond the support of his field artillery now added to the complexity of his task.49
As at Gallipoli, his approach to planning was directive rather than consultative in nature. The preliminary schemes of attack from his divisions were refined during a series of planning conferences which took place from March onwards. The essentials of the Fourth Army Plan and Rawlinson’s Tactical Notes were communicated at these meetings amid a mass of directives from Corps HQ setting out guiding principles for the attack, as well as addressing grimly practical necessities such the burial of the dead.50 Hunter-Weston was well to the fore at such occasions, but they also provided an opportunity for developing a shared approach to common problems. Unlike Rawlinson, the Corps Commander’s practice was to set out a firm framework for decision-making at divisional and brigade level, inviting plans of attack that would subsequently be ‘critiqued’ – a process from which even De Lisle’s ‘excellent’ tactical scheme did not emerge unscathed.51 With the lessons of Loos (and Third Krithia) fresh in his mind, for example, he also made it abundantly clear to his divisional commanders that the use of reserves would be tightly monitored, as their proper deployment required ‘the highest moral courage as well as deep military knowledge’.52
As he drove his staff on during these busy weeks, Hunter-Weston was also under pressure from his superiors. His relationship with his Army Commander was still on a sound footing. While Rawlinson doubted the abilities of some of his VIII Corps subordinates (particularly O’Gowan), he found Hunter-Weston to be ‘intelligent and very keen’, although he ← 225 | 226 → cautioned him against overwork.53 In contrast, Haig’s apprehensions had not abated. On 10 May, he joined ‘Rawly’ on a visit to VIII Corps HQ, seizing the opportunity to quiz Hunter-Weston personally on his plans. The session did not go well. Hunter-Weston respected Haig as ‘an old friend’ but he could not conceal his continuing worries over advancing towards distant objectives at full tilt. The exasperated Commander-in Chief set him straight:
I impressed on him that there must be no halting at each trench in succession for rear lines to pass through! The objective must be as far off as our guns can prepare the enemy’s position for attack – and when the attack starts, it must be pushed to the final objective with as little delay as possible. His experiences at Gallipoli were under very different conditions; then he landed in ships, a slow proceeding; now his troops can be formed in succession of lines in great depth, and all can start from the same moment!54
When the VIII Corps scheme was issued on 11 June, it bore the imprint of this exchange. As an administrative order it was not much different from other corps plans, but it was remarkable for its sedulous presentation. The accumulation of minute detail in a bid to control uncertainty had been a feature of Hunter-Weston’s approach even as a junior officer; the situation on the Somme now gave free rein to this tendency, as though to squeeze out the possibility of failure. A thirteen-page summary was followed by a full exposition of sixty-nine pages, with twenty-eight headings which included: dispositions of infantry and artillery; employment of aircraft; trench mortars; mining; machine-guns; ammunition; signals; water; rations; roads forward; and the evacuation of the wounded.55 Not surprisingly, Rawlinson ← 226 | 227 → considered it ‘well worked out and nothing forgotten’, but Brigadier Hubert Rees of the 31st Division felt it was a ‘terrible document’.56
In fact, the difficulty lay less with the document itself than with the planning process. As an outsider who had only joined VIII Corps two weeks before, Rees immediately grasped its deadening effect when he discovered that his own division had produced a further 365 pages of supplementary instructions, which now had to be hacked down into manageable brigade orders.57 Further down the military pecking order, Captain Vallentin also waded through a blizzard of directives, three quarters of which he found to be irrelevant to his field battery.58 While it was unlikely that the enemy would be flattened into submission by this onslaught of paper, the rigidity of such an approach was liable to frustrate improvisation if events did not unfold according to plan. The culture of precision which had gripped VIII Corps in the weeks before the Somme Battle was vividly captured at the conference of 4th Division Staff Captains on 16 June where the first item on the agenda was the question of what breakfast should be served to the men on the morning of the assault (‘a cold bacon sandwich and in some cases hot tea’).59
The most important part of the VIII Corps scheme was, of course, the arrangements for the attack. The scene had already been set by Haig and Rawlinson’s commitment to a common advance across the Fourth Army front rather than attacks at selected tactical points. However, Hunter-Weston’s experience of the chaotic battlefields of Gallipoli and his awareness of the dangers of unsupported infiltration reinforced the emphasis on uniformity. Indeed, controlling his own troops seemed almost as important as suppressing the defenders. At the heart of his offensive scheme was an ← 227 | 228 → ambitious and highly structured timetable. He believed that if they could get the infantry forwards to the Grandcourt-Serre ridge in three hours from the moment of the assault, they would ‘have done very well indeed’.60 Leaving a only modest margin for delay, the 29th Division in the south were ordered to make a 4,000-yard advance eastwards, pushing into the Beaumont Hamel valley and through Munich Trench until they reached their final objective, the enemy’s second line, in just three and a half hours. On their left, operating within the same time frame, the 4th Division was to spearhead an equally ambitious assault along the heavily fortified Redan Ridge. Both operations involved complex arrangements for fresh brigades passing through initial assault units to maintain the momentum of the attack. Meanwhile, in the north the 31st Division had been set target of a 3,000-yard advance. They were to roll up the village of Serre and form a protective ‘shoulder’ as the main assault progressed, their left brigade pivoting at right angles to the main advance while the right was to swing forwards to keep in touch with the 4th Division attack.61
Hunter-Weston had equally firm ideas of how his troops should negotiate no man’s land. For all his new-found eagerness for speed over a staged advance and his injunction that ‘ALL UNITS MUST PUSH FORWARDS RESOLUTELY’, he warned his heavily laden troops against advancing at the double except over short distances such as twenty yards, as doing so would exhaust them and cause the impulsion of the attack to dissipate.62 The operational conditions across his front would make these strictures difficult to enforce, but he believed that it was not only the pace of the assault but also the effective alignment of his troops that would deliver the maximum physical and ‘moral’ blow.
Specifying the deployments in some detail, VIII Corps orders were therefore intended to maximise energy and cohesion. In the 29th Division ← 228 | 229 → each battalion was to attack on a three-company front with one in support. Although the Corps Scheme did not specify which attack formation they should adopt to reach their first objective, they were instructed to move beyond it in columns and to be ready to extend when necessary. The 4th Division were also to assault their first objective on a three-company front, with battalions attacking in four waves. The less experienced 31st Division were to attack closest to the enemy front line positions. Here the eight platoons from 94th Brigade forming the first wave were to lie down in No Man’s Land ten minutes prior to zero hour, while the 93rd Brigade advanced on a two-company front, with the first two waves extended to an interval of three paces. In all cases, the Corps Commander was keen to emphasise the importance of the attacking units lining up parallel with the enemy trenches that formed their objectives. Immediately prior to the attack, the plan was that the leading waves would emerge and form up in this alignment, supported by a hurricane barrage from the trench mortars – as an early supporter of the light Stokes mortar, Hunter-Weston continued to be impressed by the tactical flexibility and destructive power of its larger cousins.63
Considerable preparatory work was necessary before his men could reach this critical point. As a prelude to the offensive, Hunter-Weston’s heavy guns were to play their part in the slow bombardment intended to subdue enemy resistance across the Fourth Army’s area of operations. He knew that his artillery would also have to silence the enemy during the actual attack, as his infantry lacked the weapons to do so. Fire and movement tactics were still at a basic stage, but the solution he arrived at was an early version of the creeping barrage, designed to move at a pre-arranged pace in front of the infantry to neutralise enemy troops still in the trenches and eliminate machine-guns between defensive lines. Indeed, the VIII Corps Scheme was one of the first times that the ‘creeping’ terminology was explicitly used and the concept was novel enough to require explaining ← 229 | 230 → to his divisional commanders more than once.64 The guiding principle was that a shrapnel barrage should progress on the basis of strictly timed lifts, conforming to the infantry’s rate of advance, which had been calculated at fifty yards per minute. At the beginning of each infantry attack, the divisional guns would lift 100 yards and continue lifting at the rate of fifty yards a minute to the objective, firing three rounds of gunfire at each step.65 A total of six lifts were laid down, with the Corps Heavy Artillery lifting in all cases five minutes beforehand and moving straight to the objective. For the 29th Division, this highly structured programme was timed to finish precisely at 4.40 p.m., ‘when the division will have met all its objectives’.66
Despite all the hunger for certainty and completeness that drove the VIII Corps Scheme, two decisions taken during the final days before the battle were to become associated with the scale of loss on 1 July. The most controversial of these was the order to detonate over 40,000lbs of explosive under Hawthorn Redoubt 10 minutes before zero hour.67 The origins of the idea lay in an earlier proposal from Hunter-Weston to schedule the detonation at 6 p.m. the evening before the attack.68 By creating uncertainty over the timing of the impending assault, he hoped to regain the element of surprise lost by the lengthy bombardment, reasoning that a platoon with a machine-gun would be ample to hold the crater without giving the enemy a ‘magnificent target’.69 Although, like artillery lifts, the deployment of mines had been left to corps discretion, GHQ vetoed his proposal on the advice of Major-General R. N. Harvey, the Inspector of Mines, who was sceptical that the position could be captured and held.70 The mine was ← 230 | 231 → consequently timed to explode at zero hour in the original corps plan of attack, but Ruthven believed that the compromise time of 7.20 a.m. had been agreed at a conference held around 29 June.71 Writing to Edmonds thirteen years later, Hunter-Weston accepted full responsibility for the order as Corps Commander, arguing that, ‘the reasons which lead to the issue of any Army Corps order are only of academical interest’.72 His generosity in this respect was commendable, as none of his colleagues wanted to admit involvement in such a disastrous decision. As a result, the official historian found it difficult to get to the bottom of the issue. Comparing notes with Ruthven, Hunter-Weston recalled that De Lisle and Brigadier W. de L. Williams of the 86th Brigade had persuaded him to change the original orders, arguing that the mine would do as much damage to the assaulting troops as the Germans.73 In contrast, J. F. C. Fuller, GSO3 of the 29th Division, rather unconvincingly placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Major Reginald Trower, the O.C. 252nd Tunnelling Company, who had expressly requested ten minutes grace to ensure the mine exploded properly.74 De Lisle attempted to distance himself even further by suggesting that he had complained to Haig and Rawlinson about the early detonation, but that his superiors sanctioned the measure to divert the enemy’s attention away from the main attack, which was to be made by XIII and XV corps south of the Ancre.75
Such claims aside, the balance of probability is that ‘Hunter-Bunter’s folly’, as Harvey termed it, lay in the Corps Commander’s willingness to ← 231 | 232 → oblige his most trusted division. Although he was a sapper, he had no experience of the effects of mining on this scale and may also have been influenced by the ‘magnificent waterfall of earth’ that he witnessed following a large mine explosion at an earlier training exercise.76 Horrified at the latest change in orders and certain that the impetus had come from 29th Division officers, Lieut.-Colonel Frank Preedy, the Controller of Mines, asked Major-General Reginald Buckland, the Fourth Army’s Chief Engineer, to take up the matter at VIII Corps HQ. This was to no avail because, as Buckland informed him, ‘it had been decided to stick to the arrangement made and the Corps did want not to force the 29th Division against its will’.77
This fateful departure from Hunter-Weston’s normal planning methods had a further knock-on effect. The Corps Heavy Artillery could not continue to fire while the Hawthorn crater was under attack. However, rather than limiting the lift to this immediate sector, the decision was taken to apply this all along the line, so that all his heavy guns would move to target the rearward defences ten minutes prior to the assault. This is another rather murky episode, not least as the original artillery order was not widely circulated and has apparently not survived. As far as the tasks of the Corps Heavy Artillery were concerned, the Corps Commander considered it unnecessary to ‘burden’ the infantry with detailed information.78 He had, of course, shown a similar eagerness for an early lift at the Third Battle of Krithia, but this time the experiment was prompted by lingering concerns over how to meet his ambitious objectives. He was confident of taking the front line trenches, but had concerns about how to hold them and assault the second line, as he realised that the prolonged barrage would give the Germans time to bring up reserves. A rapid, coordinated movement to bombard the reserve trenches would pin the enemy down while ← 232 | 233 → also keeping his corps in line as they attacked. In place of the corps artillery, he placed his faith in new military technology – in the ten minutes prior to the assault, enemy fire would be suppressed by the planned trench mortar barrage as well as intensified fire from the divisional artillery.79 Despite protests from his officers, he remained resolute in his decision and on this occasion GHQ did not intervene to contradict him.80
Preparations gathered momentum as the day of battle drew closer. The lack of labour battalions meant that the construction work required tended to detract from the training schedule across the Fourth Army, but in the case of VIII Corps, Hunter-Weston ensured that the time dedicated to brigade and divisional training was greater than in other formations, even though it alternated with wearying fatigues.81 He had devolved training down to divisional level in April but ensured that this was being carried out to his scrupulous standards. As a result, he was constantly on the move in the weeks before the offensive, motoring and riding round his corps.82
If the training received by Hunter-Weston’s troops was regarded as ‘excellent’, the same could not be said of his artillery preparation.83 The ← 233 | 234 → preliminary five-day bombardment began on 24 June and was directed at wire cutting, destroying trench systems and machine-gun posts and subduing enemy batteries. The bulk of this destructive work fell to the VIII Corps Heavy Artillery, which was divided into four groups, two in the northern sector and two in the south.84 The task of destroying machine-guns and dugouts near the front line was assigned to trench mortars and the 4.5-inch divisional field howitzers, while the field artillery attempted to disrupt communications, especially at night, to prevent the enemy from repairing the damage. No single Corps Heavy Artillery group had been allotted to counter-battery work, and when not being used for this task, their 60 pounders and 4.7-inch guns were switched to distant wire-cutting duties, which were beyond the range of the flat-trajectory 18 pounders.85
It soon became clear from night-time reconnaissance raids that the artillery programme was having very mixed results. In the 31st and 29th Division sectors, patrols were continually unsuccessful due to uncut wire and prompt artillery retaliation.86 Wire was reported to be ‘fairly well cut’ in the 4th Division area, but here the enemy dugouts were found not only to be intact, but even still ‘in excellent repair and scrupulously clean’.87 The 1/Rifle Brigade’s experience on one of these adventures also gave an early warning of the ‘very unsatisfactory’ performance of trench mortars, with bombs falling sixty yards short of the German front line.88 Without more comprehensive intelligence it was difficult to judge the effects of the bombardment on the German defensive network, although there were worrying signs that strong-points had not been eliminated. On the 4th Division’s front, C. B. Simonds of the 170th Artillery Brigade recalled his frustration when the Corps Heavy Artillery was unable to respond to requests for assistance to blast a suspected machine-gun nest, an omission which would ← 234 | 235 → later lead to a heavy toll of casualties.89 Meanwhile, regular reports of ‘fairly active’ hostile shelling suggested that the lack of effective massed artillery was also limiting VIII Corps counter-battery work; this was in addition to the use of maps showing enemy batteries that were ‘incomplete and so misleading’.90 Not surprisingly, when poor weather caused a two-day postponement of the offensive, the gunners took the opportunity to accelerate wire-cutting activity and give further attention to the latent artillery threat, while also shelling distant billets and communication lines.91
For Douglas Haig, the negative reports issuing from Hunter-Weston’s HQ confirmed his doubts over the ‘amateurism’ of VIII Corps. He believed that failures in trench-raiding indicated a lack of leadership, and after visiting the 29th and 31st Divisions on 28 June, he commented that both seemed ‘poor’.92 Counter-battery work was a particular worry – indeed, this was one of the few occasions in his later typescript diary that he added comments to underline his original judgement.93 Despite his earlier confidence in Hunter-Weston, Rawlinson’s worries were also growing. At a meeting with Joffre on 28 June, he openly shared with the French commander that he was dissatisfied with VIII Corps artillery preparation; indeed it was clear from his diary that by the eve of battle he viewed Hunter-Weston’s corps as the weak link in an attacking force of otherwise ‘proven fighters’.94 How far this criticism was personally directed at the Corps Commander is unclear. It may be that both he and Haig preferred to localise these issues rather than confront the evidence that artillery problems were actually undermining the planned offensive across most of the Fourth Army front. ← 235 | 236 → Prior and Wilson suggest, for example, that counter-battery work was only being taken seriously in the XIII Corps sector, while success in wire cutting and trench destruction appeared generally to be patchy, with poor results and limited information also evident in the central area assigned to X and III Corps.95
The most critical of these observations remained private for the time being and Hunter-Weston remained in high spirits as ‘Zero Day’ approached – not least because intelligence from prisoners suggested that the Germans in the north expected only a series of raids or a ‘minor enterprise’ rather than a major attack.96 His job was now to instil similar confidence into his troops. Visiting the 4th Division on the afternoon of 30 June, he addressed the CO of the 2/Lancashire Fusiliers – ‘Splendid, Freeth! The enemy’s trenches are full of Germans, they will be blown to pieces in the morning’. When these comments were conveyed to the men, Major Collis-Brown recalled ‘we though this must be the start of the end of the war!!!’97 Trusting his regulars, Hunter-Weston devoted most of his attention that day to the ‘new blood’ of the 31st Division by personally addressing each of its eight battalions.98 Even Rees had to admit that his ‘magnificent speech’ at Observatory Wood strongly impressed his men, although for one young soldier of Sheffield City Battalion the uplifting effect was rather spoiled by the band playing ‘When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day’.99 Despite Hunter-Weston’s best efforts, optimism was not universal across VIII Corps. Gloom had descended on the officers of the 1/Royal Warwickshire with the news of the early detonation of the Hawthorn Redoubt mine, while 12th Brigade also anticipated heavy ← 236 | 237 → casualties and sought permission to bury their dead on the spot – this request was refused.100
Writing to Grace on the eve of battle had become a ritual, but Hunter-Weston’s letter on this occasion went beyond his usual self-congratulatory forecasts. As had been the case at Gallipoli, there was something about the scale of the enterprise that encouraged him to place his faith in a Higher Power. His Commander-in-Chief would have applauded his piety, if not the estimation of his corps:
Tomorrow is the great day, & by this time tomorrow another great page in History will be turned. Everything promises well for the success of the great Venture & I have never entered a campaign with so many chances in our favour. The result is in the hands of God, but I can say that all has been done to done by Haig, by Rawlinson, and by my staff.
Difficulties, disappointments, contretemps & heavy losses there are sure to be, but I rejoice in difficulties & pray God that I may be given strength & judgement to put right the matters that require to be put right, as the difficulties arise.101
The narrative of VIII Corps seems curiously unbalanced. After months of planning and preparation, its fate was quickly, brutally and finally decided in a few minutes. Hunter-Weston later commented that offensives were decided by luck, but at the Somme ‘luck’ lay overwhelmingly with the defenders.102
Dawn promised a warm day. Hidden saps and tunnels had already been opened up towards the enemy, and at 5 a.m. VIII Corps heavy howitzers began their steady bombardment of the first and second German positions, ← 237 | 238 → gradually increasing their rate of fire until intensity was reached at 7.10 a.m. After ten minutes, in accordance with the corps artillery programme, the howitzers firing on the first line lifted to the reserve trenches, followed at 7.25 am by those that had been firing on the support trenches.103 At Corps HQ, the detonation of the Hawthorn Ridge mine was recorded at 7.21 a.m.; the trench mortars and divisional guns had already begun their fusillade as leading assault battalions assembled in No Man’s Land prior to zero hour at 7.30 a.m.
The attack of the 29th Division unravelled immediately. The Germans had begun appearing in their front trenches even before the heavy artillery barrage had lifted and easily won the race for the vast Hawthorn Ridge crater, creating a serious obstacle to any further advance.104 The explosion was also the signal for a machine-gun barrage that caught the leading companies of the 87th Brigade as they formed up outside their trenches.105 At this crucial moment, the thin shrapnel barrage from the British lines was further weakened by the division’s decision that field batteries should adopt a phased lift from the front line three minutes before zero hour.106 As the brigade attacked downhill at the deadly Y Ravine, struggling through partially cut wire and blasted by batteries firing unchecked from behind the Beaucourt Ridge, the guns continued their timetabled ‘creep’, removing any chance of receiving the close support that they desperately needed. By 8 a.m. their advance was at a standstill, while back at the brigade’s empty ‘Cage’ for German prisoners there was a sickening awareness that something was going badly wrong.107 On their left, having failed to secure the mine crater, the 86th Brigade’s attempt to seize Beaumont Hamel made even less progress. Here, an artillery barrage was placed on the British front trenches as soon as the leading battalions began to advance. Starved of ammunition, the trench mortars could make little impact in the face of ← 238 | 239 → heavy machine-gun fire.108 Exaggerated reports of a breakthrough in the 87th Brigade sector encouraged De Lisle to use his reserves aggressively, as Hunter-Weston had envisaged. He urgently sent forward the 1/Essex and 1/Royal Newfoundland Battalions ‘to clear the whole front system’, but after two disastrous assaults he was forced to suspend operations at 10.05 a.m.109
The 4th Division’s attack on Redan Ridge began more hopefully, but also quickly fell victim to poor preparatory work. Although the wire had been more effectively cut in this sector, the main danger came from undisturbed machine-guns and from defenders emerging from deep dugouts. Again, the German machine-guns had continued to operate even during the final heavy artillery bombardment up to 7.20 a.m., with their reserves already massed in trenches on the Beaucourt spur in anticipation of any attack. Some observers felt ‘practically nothing’ of the Beaumont Hamel explosion, but enemy batteries now became increasingly active in bombarding No Man’s Land before shifting their attention to the British front line.110 Nevertheless, the advance battalions of the 11th Brigade were largely spared casualties in their assembly trenches; some companies rushed out of tunnel exits while others were seen advancing at a slow trot.111 Together they were able to seize a foothold in the German front lines, although their right was badly mauled by machine-gun fire. Here, the creeping barrage was apparently more successful. Assisted by the enemy’s mistake in detonating the mine under the Quadrilateral position, they managed to penetrate even further into the defensive network. A confused grenade fight followed, ← 239 | 240 → but the failure to ‘mop up’ during the advance again led to growing casualties.112 The assault was fast losing any cohesion and Lambton ordered a halt at 9.30 a.m., since throwing in more men looked like an ‘unwarranted gamble’.113 His signal did not reach the 10th and 12th Brigades, who continued to advance in accordance with the strict timetable set out in VIII Corps orders. As a result, there was confusion in the communication trenches; their Brigadiers lost control as their battalions advanced too soon and became mixed with units of the 11th Brigade.114 It was now only a matter of time before the survivors would be driven out as their ammunition ran low and enemy bombers worked round their flanks.
The efforts of 4th Division to consolidate their desperate grip were greatly handicapped by the failed attacks taking place on either side of them.115 The limitations of counter-battery work were clearest and most costly on the 31st Division’s front. Given the excellent observation in the north, the Germans hardly needed the Hawthorn Ridge explosion or the lifting of the Corps Heavy Artillery to tell them that an attack was imminent.116 Machine-guns opened up on the 94th Brigade as the first waves of infantry moved into No Man’s Land at 7.20 a.m., but the intensity of the barrage from the trench mortars and eighteen pounders encouraged Rees to hope that success might be still possible.117 All doubt was removed at zero hour when the full weight of the enemy’s artillery was felt along the British front line and support trenches, reminding him of a ‘thick belt of poplar trees’.118 The fire was particularly destructive on the division’s unprotected left flank, but it was impossible to stop the advance of either ← 240 | 241 → brigade as they had already been ordered to move immediately in order to reach their objectives on time; in the event, only a few isolated parties managed to reach the German front line and enter Serre village, with entire battalions from the 93rd Brigade virtually wiped out by the wall of machine-gun and artillery fire.
Ten miles away at Chateau Marieux, Hunter-Weston was apparently fighting a different battle. For the first hour of the action, initial summaries were ‘rosy’, and it was not until 8.40 a.m. that the first real check, involving the 31st Division, was reported.119 An avalanche of bad news then cascaded in, but he responded quickly by abandoning any attempt to capture the German second position by 10.25 a.m. and instead concentrating on consolidating the gains made by the 4th Division in Munich Trench.120 He ordered the divisional and heavy artillery to redirect their bombardment to a 1,000-yard frontage in preparation for a combined operation by the 88th and 10th Brigades at 12.30 p.m., while also moving up the 48th Division in readiness. However, it was impossible to regain the tactical initiative given the congested trenches and fractured communication lines involved; the attacks were therefore cancelled by mid-afternoon. By this point, De Lisle and Lambton had made it clear that they were no longer capable of undertaking offensive action; the 86th Brigade had ‘practically no one left’ and the 87th was ‘all but used up’, while the shredded battalions of the 4th Division were slowly drifting back to their starting positions.121 In the 31st Division sector, rumours that Serre village had been captured gave Hunter-Weston some lingering hope, but Rees and O’Gowan were reluctant to risk further assaults without confirmation.122 Desperate to salvage something from the day, Hunter-Weston ordered the 92nd Brigade to attack under cover of darkness and join up with any remaining forward units, but then ← 241 | 242 → wisely countermanded this order at 9.45 p.m. As dusk fell, his men began organising their defensive lines and counting their dead.
The defeat of VIII Corps on 1 July was total. Its casualties were estimated at over 14,000 or around 50 per cent of its strength, a figure greater than any other corps in the Fourth Army.123 Hunter-Weston appeared to absorb the shock philosophically, admitting to Grace with characteristic understatement that ‘we have not attained the success we had hoped for’.124 Elsewhere along the line the story was similar. On the left, a diversionary attack at Gommecourt, led by Snow, had been a miserable failure, while on the right the assaults by Morland’s X Corps on the strongpoints of Thiepval and Mouquet Farm had also been repulsed at the cost of some 10,000 men. In the centre of the Fourth Army front, the sector most vital to Haig’s plans, Pulteney’s III Corps had sustained 12,000 casualties without making a breakthrough. Only in the south was there any positive news, as XV Corps, and XIII Corps in particular, had achieved better results, assisted by favourable terrain, weaker German defences and more effective counter-battery work.
Although he was far from alone in his lack of success, there was little safety in numbers. Despite his apparent composure, Hunter-Weston was steeped enough in the culture of the British officer corps to know that it was not only his corps that he now had to rebuild, but also his professional reputation. ← 242 | 243 →
Convinced that VIII Corps wanted ‘looking after’, Haig and Rawlinson assigned it to Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army along with X Corps, in the hope that he could ‘push them on again’.125 The vigorous Gough immediately motored northwards on the night of 1 July, but after discussing the situation with Hunter-Weston he knew that further attacks were futile.126 Instead, the massive task of clearing of the battlefield now began. Despite the careful preparations which had been made for the disposal of the dead, the trench tramway set aside for the purpose proved to be completely inadequate, leading in some sectors to ‘an enormous stack of corpses which were extremely bad for morale’.127 Among the casualties were some of the last of the colleagues who had sailed with Hunter-Weston for France in August 1914, including Bertie Prowse, who had been shot in the back while rallying his brigade. Prowse was at least spared the ignominy of mass burial; the Corps Commander later arranged railings and a ‘pretty cross’ for his grave at Vauchelles.128
Expectations of victory made the disappointment across VIII Corps all the more painful.129 Hunter-Weston decided to direct the full force of his personality towards rebuilding morale by visiting battalions who had been in action and circulating a printed message to every soldier in his command. His address acknowledged the difficulty of their undertaking at Serre and Beaumont Hamel, while saluting ‘a magnificent display of disciplined courage worth of the best traditions of the British race’.130 The number of copies carefully preserved by survivors suggests that his consoling ← 243 | 244 → sentiments struck a resonant note.131 The return to familiar military routine also helped. VIII Corps was ordered to take over the line held by the 36th Division as far as the Ancre on 2 July, and battalions began the work of digging, patrolling and absorbing reliefs; in less than a fortnight, survivors from the 29th Division were parading in Paris in celebration of Bastille Day.132 Nor did Hunter-Weston give up hope of returning to the offensive. As Anglo-French operations continued against the German Second Army during July, he prepared his corps to move forward by sapping and mining in anticipation of an enemy withdrawal in the north.133
Whether a similar sense of normality would return to his career was another matter. The war had elevated ‘whitewashing’ to a new military art form, of which the key components were speed and consistency. Hunter-Weston’s mission to explain began when he offered to drive over to visit Sir William Robertson after breakfast on 2 July.134 Whether briefing the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, writing to well-wishers or lunching informally at GHQ, his consistent strategic priority was to divert attention from any personal planning failures, particularly with regard to artillery support. With this in mind, he cited verbal testimony from Brigadier Lees which highlighted that the strength of the bombardment immediately before the assault was timely and helpful, and duly embellished it with some heroic rhetoric – much to Lees’ later embarrassment.135
His own account stuck doggedly to four themes. The first was that he and his staff ‘could not have done more’ in view of the lack of surprise and the strength of the enemy’s defences and massed artillery. Second, he ← 244 | 245 → argued that although the losses from the German artillery barrage were heavy, they were not enough to stop his men – ‘it was the machine guns that finally wiped them out’. Third, he suggested, in complete contrast to his initial optimism, that a major contributory cause of the defeat was the inadequacy of his artillery and ammunition; he explained to Robertson that his howitzers could not stand continuous fire and that he had insufficient heavy howitzer shells with which to concentrate his fire on the enemy’s front-line trenches. Fourth, he stressed that the gallantry and discipline and devotion of his troops on the day had been beyond praise.136 Indeed, while whitewashing was often accompanied by scapegoating, Hunter-Weston remained fiercely loyal to his officers and men, including his divisional commanders, although his special fondness for the ‘supra-excellent’ 29th Division remained.137 In time, he would weave these themes into a larger explanatory framework which banished failure even further from view. After Joffre publically acknowledged the contribution made by the ‘hard fighting in the north’, he felt entitled to claim that while the VIII Corps attempt had not been ‘directly’ successful, it had ‘indirectly’ made the victories on the British right possible by pinning down the enemy in a vital position.138
Self-preservation and wishful thinking aside, Hunter-Weston was stumbling close to the truth of the Somme. He had believed that the result of the battle would be determined by ‘the spirit and fighting power of the men’, but gallantry had not been enough to prevail against modern firepower.139 While he could share the ‘unpleasant and dangerous facts’ of his artillery weakness with Robertson, it was more difficult to admit that it was Haig and Rawlinson’s plan that had spread these resources even more thinly in the first place. Nor was he able (or willing) to confront his own shortcomings in command. While high-level decision-making had ultimately determined the outcome the Fourth Army’s offensive, poor ← 245 | 246 → counter-battery work, a very rigid plan of attack and the failure to integrate the mine explosion with his infantry assault had made the disaster all the more complete for VIII Corps. For the second time in his career, Hunter-Weston had set aside his own initial scepticism and decided to embrace a flawed strategy rather too enthusiastically.
If the failure of his corps had been due to a lack of offensive spirit, as Haig had originally believed, Hunter-Weston’s dismissal would have been easy, but as the scale of loss became apparent, more complex considerations intervened to save him.140 Competent corps commanders were fairly thin on the ground and the summary removal of Hunter-Weston without a credible replacement might have had a demoralising effect. Besides, as Carrington pointed out, ‘the hero of Gallipoli’ … could not be ‘sacked like an office boy’.141 His qualities as a trainer were also to his credit, and Haig no doubt calculated that he would be eager and conscientious in any new defensive role that he was given. At any rate, no more could be expected of his depleted force. On 19 July, the Commander-in-Chief gave orders for his corps to be withdrawn from active operations at the Somme and exchanged with XIV Corps on the Ypres sector.142 Haig let Hunter-Weston down as gently as possible, asking his Chief of General Staff, Sir Launcelot Kiggell, to write to him with personal assurances that the move would allow him to refit and be ready for any new campaign in the north, especially if this involved an amphibious element.143 Nevertheless, Hunter-Weston was bitterly disappointed for himself and for his men, who would not now have the opportunity to ‘get a bit of their own back.’144 While happy enough to escape from Gough, whose ‘impetuosity’ and ‘over-optimism’ had become trying, it was galling that club drawing room gossips would assume that he had been ‘stellenbosched’.145 He would spend the months ahead trying to rationalise his fate, but for Grace’s benefit, at least, he remained robust ← 246 | 247 → and unapologetic: ‘As a matter of fact, this humble one and the whole of VIII Corps is very highly thought of … Don’t let it worry you. It doesn’t disturb me in the least. He is a poor fellow that can’t stand the rebuff of fortune … If things go wrong under my Command, I accept all blame. In this case, however, there has been no blame’.146 ← 247 | 248 →
← 248 | 249 →
1 Summary of Personal Movements, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. He was too ill to take up Kitchener’s post, but he remained a staunch supporter of ‘K’, believing that French’s GHQ had become the heart of an anti-Kitchener conspiracy: HW to C. Wigham 24 May 1915, Hunter-Weston Papers, 6503/39/21, NAM.
2 Travers, Killing Ground, 157–60.
3 Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 304; Anthony Farrar-Hockley, The Somme (London: Pan, 1966), 113.
4 Simpson, Directing Operations, 198.
5 Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front (London: Weidenfield and Nicholson, 2005), 134. See also Travers, Killing Ground, 157.
6 Prior and Wilson, Somme, 65–8.
7 HW Private War Diary, 25 April 1916, 48365, BL.
8 Note on action to be taken by his Corps, when acting on the left flank of the general attack from near Fonquevillers to near the River Ancre, 25 March 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
9 Haig Diary, 30 June 1916, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
10 Prior and Wilson, Command on the Western Front, 137–8.
11 Simpson, Directing Operations, 19.
12 HW Private War Diary, 29 January-17 February 1915, 48365, BL.
13 Hunter-Weston also received a personal tactical briefing from Haig: Haig Diary, 8 February 1916, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
14 HW Official War Diary, 9 February 1916, 48357, BL.
15 HW Official War Diary, 18 February 1916, 48357, BL; for Haig’s views on Gallipoli evacuation, see Haig Diary, 20 December 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS; John Terraine, Douglas Haig: The Educated Soldier (London: Leo Cooper, 1990), 146.
16 A Note on the Projected Landing at Ostend, 24 February 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
17 Haig Diary, 25 December 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
18 It was not until 18 April that Haig allowed him to devote his time exclusively to corps planning, but he continued to advise Bacon until the operation was shelved in June 1916 pending progress at Ypres: Haig Diary, 12 June 1916, Acc. 3155/96, NLS; Andrew Wiest, ‘The Planned Amphibious Assault’ in Peter Liddle (ed.), Passchendaele in Perspective: the Third Battle of Ypres (London: Leo Cooper, 1997), 201–14.
19 HW Official War Diary, 18 March 1916, 48357, BL.
20 HW to C. Wigram, 2 April 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
21 HW to GHW, 25 April 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
22 Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 102.
23 C. M. Vallentin, to J. E. Edmonds, Notes on Draft, nd., CAB 45/138; Holmes, Little Field Marshall, 255.
24 Hunter-Weston campaigned for De Lisle to be rewarded for his services on the peninsula – the lack of decorations for the 29th Division was a concern shared by both men: HW Official War Diary, 22 March 1916, 48357, BL.
25 Gillon, Story of the 29th Division, 77–8.
26 For an overview of the extensive literature on the background to the Somme campaign, see Prior and Wilson, Somme, 15–34.
27 See VIII Corps G31, Preliminary Order for the Somme, 25 March 1916: HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
28 Travers, Killing Ground, 275. He was later raised to the peerage as the First Earl of Gowrie and became Governor-General of Australia.
29 Battle of the Somme: Preparations by the Fourth Army, Fourth Army: Operations, WO 158/233, TNA.
30 Note on action to be taken by his Corps, 25 March 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
31 Note on action to be taken by his Corps, 25 March 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
32 Sir Henry Rawlinson Diary, 10 April 1916, Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/5, CCC.
33 Haig Diary, 7 April 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS; Rawlinson Diary, 8 April 1916, Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/5, CCC.
34 Haig Diary, 5 April 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
35 Haig Diary, 7 April 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
36 Haig Diary, 8 April 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
37 See Prior and Wilson, Command on the Western Front, 146–53.
38 Appreciation of the probable line of defence which the enemy may reasonably be expected to adopt against an attack by VIII Corps [A. Hore-Ruthven], 12 April 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL; Christopher Duffy, Through German Eyes: The British and the Somme, 1916 (London: Phoenix, 2006), 138.
39 J. E. Edmonds, History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence: Military Operations in France and Belgium, 1916. Volume I: Sir Douglas Haig’s Command to the 1st July: Battle of the Somme (London: Macmillan, 1932), 426–7 [OH 1916 (1)].
40 R. Spencer Smith to J. E. Edmonds, 17 July 1930, CAB 45/137, TNA; Duffy, Through German Eyes, 143.
41 VIII Corps, G31, Preliminary Order for the Somme, 25 March 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
42 Farrar-Hockley, Somme, 98; for ‘Code Blue’ risk, see Fourth Army Plan of Attack: Haig Diary (typescript), Acc. 3155/106, NLS.
43 Appreciation of the probable line of defence, 12 April 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
44 HW to GHW, 26 June 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
45 Hunter-Weston’s list corresponds to that given in the Official History with the exception of the 4.7 inch guns: OH 1916 (1), 427.
46 Prior and Wilson, Command on the Western Front, 164–6.
47 J. Hartley to J. E. Edmonds, 5 November 1929, CAB 45/134, TNA.
48 Appreciation of the probable line of defence, 12 April 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
49 VIII Corps Conference, 23 May 1916, Corps Commander’s Remarks, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
50 Notes of Two Conferences held at Corps Headquarters, 21, 23 June 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
51 HW to H. B. De Lisle, 21 June 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
52 HW to W. Lambton, R. W. O’Gowan and H. B. De Lisle, 28 June 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
53 Rawlinson Diary, 2 May 1916, Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/5, CCC.
54 Haig Diary, 10 May 1916, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
55 VIII Corps Scheme for Offensive, [11 June 1916], HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. In comparison, the XIII Corps plan takes up twenty-nine pages in the Official History and is succinct enough not to require a summary. Even the VIII Corps précis was more than twice the length of any other in the Fourth Army Plan of Attack: Haig Papers, Acc. 3155/106, NLS.
56 Rawlinson Diary, 12 June 1916, Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/5, CCC; H. C. Rees to J. E. Edmonds, 14 November 1929, CAB 45/137, TNA; Griffiths, Battle Tactics, 58; OH 1916 (1), 270.
57 For the 4th Division’s administrative preparations, see H. F. Davies to J. E. Edmonds, 29 November 1929, CAB 45/132, TNA.
58 C. M. Vallentin to J. E. Edmonds, Notes on Draft, n.d., CAB 45/138, TNA.
59 Notes on Conference of Staff Captains, 14 June 1916, 4th Division War Diary, WO 95/1444, TNA.
60 Notes of Two Conferences, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
61 The 48th Division formed the corps reserve, to be used ‘Offensively not Defensively’ and ‘not dribbled up to reinforce part of the line that may be hard pressed’: Notes of Two Conferences, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
62 VIII Corps Scheme for Offensive; see also Notes of Two Conferences, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
63 VIII Corps Scheme for Offensive, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. After one training exercise he remarked that the largest mortar left a crater thirty feet deep and forty feet wide: HW Private War Diary, 14 April 1916 48365, BL.
64 VIII Corps G1585, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. See Major A. F. Becke, ‘The Coming of the Creeping Barrage’, Journal of the Royal Artillery 58/1 (1931/2), 19–42.
65 VIII Corps Scheme for Offensive, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL; see Section 13 on ‘Artillery Lifts’.
66 VIII Corps G1585, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
67 Simon Jones, Underground Warfare, 1914–18 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2010), 115–17.
68 OH 1916 (1), 429; R. N. Harvey to J. E. Edmonds, 21 January 1930, CAB 45/189, TNA.
69 HW to H. B. De Lisle, 21 June 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
70 R. N. Harvey to J. E. Edmonds, 28 October 1929, CAB 45/189.
71 This probably refers to the conference of divisional commanders which took place on 30 June: J. Ruthven to J. E. Edmonds, 30 October 1929, CAB 45/137, TNA.
72 HW to J. E. Edmonds, 12 December 1929, CAB 45/138, TNA.
73 Another motivation at Corps HQ may have been the wish to let poisonous gases dispel: W. Dobbie to J. E. Edmonds 31 October 1929, CAB 45/132, TNA.
74 J. F. C. Fuller to J. E. Edmonds, 24 January 1930, CAB 45/133, TNA. Harvey placed considerable blame on Fuller, whose opinion was allegedly accepted at 29th Division HQ to because he was a sapper: R. N. Harvey to J. E. Edmonds, 27 February 1930, CAB 45/189.
75 H. B. De Lisle to J. E. Edmonds, 12 November 1929, CAB 45/134, TNA. Edmonds included this interpretation in his narrative: OH 1916 (1), 430. See also De Lisle, ‘My Narrative of the Great German War’, vol. 2, 9, GB99/1, LHCMA.
76 HW to GHW, 20 May 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
77 F. Preedy to J. E. Edmonds, 22 March 1930, CAB 45/136.
78 VIII Corps G1585, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. The first operational order for the heavy artillery has very little information on ‘Z Day’ – arrangements were to be notified later: Operational Order No. 1 by D. F. F. Logan Commanding VIII Heavy Artillery, 16 June 1916: VIII Corps Artillery War Diary, WO 95/825, TNA.
79 The corps contained eight heavy mortar batteries, nineteen medium batteries and thirty-two light batteries: VIII Corps Scheme for Offensive, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
80 Travers, Killing Ground, 158; Farrar-Hockley, Somme, 113; J. H. Gibbon to J. E. Edmonds 13 February 1930, CAB 45/132, TNA.
81 Time Allotted for Brigade and Divisional Training by Corps, Haig Diary (typescript), Acc. 3155/106, NLS. Work on the 31st Division front alone included thirty-eight miles of trenches, eighty-six dugouts and thirty-four observation posts: J. P. Macready to J. E. Edmonds, 17 December 1929, CAB 45/136, TNA.
82 Notes on a Conference held at VIII HQ, 1 April 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. For a typical day’s activity, see HW Private War Diary, 22 May 1916, 48365, BL.
83 A. Johnston to J. E. Edmonds, 21 December 29, CAB 45/135, TNA.
84 Fourth Army Plan of Attack: Haig Diary (typescript), Acc. 3155/106, NLS.
85 Artillery Programme V Day, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
86 GHQ War Diary, 27–9 June 1916, Haig Papers, Acc.3155/191, NLS.
87 Report of a raid carried out by the 1/Lancashire Fusiliers on the night of 3/4 June, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
88 1/Rifle Brigade War Diary, 29 June 1916, WO 95/1496, TNA.
89 C. B. Simonds to J. E. Edmonds, 3 February 1930, CAB 45/137, TNA.
90 GHQ War Diary, 26–8 June 1916, Haig Papers, Acc. 3155/191, NLS; C. M. Hogg to J. E. Edmonds, 4 November 1929, CAB 45/134, TNA.
91 VIII Corps Artillery War Diary, 29–30 June 1916, WO 95/824, TNA.
92 Haig Diary, 28 June 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
93 See his typescript entry for 10 May 1916 Acc. 3155/106: ‘The hostile fire, moreover, is very different here. We must silence the hostile guns, and push on our infantry while the hostile guns are quiet’. Note also his addition to the entry for 29 June 1916 regarding his fears for the leadership at company and platoon level after the failure of the trench raids.
94 Rawlinson Diary, 28, 30 June 1916, Rawlinson Papers, RWLN 1/5, CCC.
95 Prior and Wilson, Somme, 65–9.
96 HW to GHW, 27 June 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
97 J. Collis-Brown to J. E. Edmonds, 12 November 1932, CAB 45/132.
98 HW to GHW, 30 June 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
99 IWM Interview 16467: Donald Cheshire Cameron (12/York and Lancaster Regiment). Note also the testimony of IWM Interview 16473: Reginald Glenn from the same battalion.
100 C. J. P. Ball to J. H. Gibbon, n.d., CAB 45/132; H. F. Davies to J. E. Edmonds, 29 November 1929, CAB 45/132, TNA.
101 HW to GHW, 30 June 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
102 HW to GHW, 9 April 1917, HW Private War Diary, 48366, BL.
103 Action of VIII Corps Heavy Artillery on 1 July 1916, VIII Corps Artillery War Diary, 98/825, TNA.
104 J. Hamilton Hall to J. E. Edmonds, 30 December 1929, CAB 45/134, TNA.
105 G. T. Raikes to J. E. Edmonds, 28 October 1930, CAB 45/137, TNA.
106 OH 1916 (1), 431; E. W. S. Sheppard to J. E. Edmonds, n.d., CAB 45/137, TNA.
107 A. Stair Gillon to J. E. Edmonds, 6 September 1929, CAB 45/134, TNA.
108 Report on Operations of 29th Division from 30 June to Night of 1/2 July, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. Fuller later admitted that they had overestimated the effectiveness of these bulky and inaccurate weapons: J. F. C. Fuller to J. E. Edmonds, 24 January 1930, CAB 45/133, TNA.
109 HW Official War Diary, 1 July 1916, 48357, BL; G. A. Mackay Paxton to J. E. Edmonds, 19 December 1929, CAB 45/136, TNA.
110 G. C. Robson to J. E. Edmonds, n.d., CAB 45/137 TNA; OH 1916 (1), 438. Before setting off, the CO of the 1/East Lancashires counted five machine-guns on the frontage assigned to his battalion: J. Green to J. E. Edmonds, 19 November 1930, 95/134, TNA.
111 1/Somerset Light Infantry War Diary, 1 July 1916, WO 95/1499, TNA.
112 Three companies of the 1/East Lancashires were reported to have been captured by Germans coming out from cover at 7.35 a.m.: War Diary, 1 July 1916, WO 95/1498, TNA.
113 W. Bartholomew to J. E. Edmonds, n.d., CAB 45/132, TNA.
114 W. Lambton to J. E. Edmonds, 29 October 1929, CAB 45/135, TNA. See also F. A. Wilson to J. E. Edmonds, 17 July 1930, CAB 45/138, TNA.
115 Lieut.-Colonel Dannerman to J. E. Edmonds, 23 December 1929, CAB 45/132, TNA.
116 E. P. Lambert to J. E. Edmonds, 1 November 1929, CAB 45/135.
117 Memoirs of H. C. Rees, 77/179/1, IWM.
118 H. C. Rees to J. E. Edmonds, 14 November 1929, CAB 45/137.
119 VIII Corps Narrative of Operations of 1st July 1916. Showing the Situation as it Appeared to General Staff, VIII Corps from Information Received During the Day, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
120 VIII Corps Narrative of Operations, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
121 HW Official War Diary, 1 July 1916, 48357, BL. The Quadrilateral position was finally abandoned the next morning.
122 Memoirs of H. C. Rees, 77/179/1, IWM.
123 OH 1916 (1), 450.
124 HW to GHW, 1 July 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
125 Haig Diary, 1 July 1915, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
126 Hubert Gough, The Fifth Army (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968), 137.
127 W. P. H. Hill to J. E. Edmonds, 13 January 1930, CAB 45/134, TNA; H. F. Davies to J. E. Edmonds, 29 November 1929, CAB 45/132, TNA.
128 HW Private War Diary, 15 July 1916, 48365, BL.
129 J. C. Hawkhurst to J. E. Edmonds, 5 November n.d., CAB 45/134, TNA.
130 Message from Lieut-General SIR AYLMER HUNTER-WESTON to ALL OFFICERS, N.C.O.s and MEN of the VIII Army Corps, 4 July 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL. For his visit to the 1/8 Warwicks and his address to the 93rd and 94th Brigades, see 4 July 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
131 This was certainly the case for one old soldier who ‘would not part with his for anything’; see Yorkshire Evening Post, 23 March 1940.
132 HW Official War Diary, 2 July 1916, 48357, BL.; HW Private War Diary, 14 July 1916, 48365, BL.
133 Notes of a Conference at Corps HQ, 16 July 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
134 HW to W. Robertson, 2 July 1916, Robertson Papers, 7/5/26, LHCMA.
135 H. C. Rees to J. E. Edmonds, 14 November 1929, CAB 45/137. Hunter-Weston enclosed a copy for Robertson.
136 G. S. Clive Diary, CAB 45/201; HW to W. Birdwood, 10 July 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL; HW to W. Robertson, 2 July 1916, 7/5/26, LHCMA.
137 HW to L. Kiggell, 22 July 1916 [draft], HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
138 HW to J. E. Edmonds, 12 December 1929, CAB 45/138, TNA.
139 HW to GHW, 30 June 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.
140 Haig Diary, 1 July 1916, Acc. 3155/96, NLS.
141 Carrington, Soldier from the Wars Returning, 119.
142 GHQ War Diary, 19 July 1916, Acc 3155/191, NLS.
143 L. Kiggell to HW 22 July 1916, HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
144 HW to D. Haig, 22 July 1916 [draft], HW Official War Diary, 48357, BL.
145 Brigadier Philip Howell Diary, 16 July 1916, 6/2/1, LHCMA.
146 HW to GHW, 27 July 1916, HW Private War Diary, 48365, BL.