Rangers on the Somme - One Hundred Years Later

The British Army that started the great Somme Offensive of 1916 was enthusiastic, amateurish, and the disaster of the first day was --until the surrender of Singapore in 1942 -- the worst catastrophe in the history of the British Army.  With 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead, to the British 4th Army alone on July 1st, it was certainly the bloodiest day in the history of British arms.

While many people regard this -- rightly -- as a debacle, they forget that the Somme Offensive continued until early November; even then this is widely regarded as an exercise in bloody-minded futility by a set of out-dated Generals incapable of understanding modern war.  This opinion is dead wrong.  

The months of the Somme Offensive turned into a laboratory for new organizations and techniques that led to eventual victory.  The Army that emerged from the Somme was far more modern, professional, and dangerous... perhaps none of its formatons more so than the divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The traditional Canadian narrative of Courcelette, Regina Trench and the Sugar Factory is usually a continuation of the traditional Somme myth of poor suffering soldiers rushing to their doom at the compelled behest of incompetent leaders.  What the veterans of the 20th Battalion CEF thought about their time on the Somme was quite different; they thought they were quite successful.

The Rangers, for this was how the 20th Battalion thought of themselves, had deployed into the trenches in September 1915 and spent the next six months learning the ways of trench-life.  They had also learned some hard lessons about attacking in the April 1916 Battle of the Craters of St Eloi -- as had the entire 2nd Canadian Division.  Maps had been rare, land-scape was disorienting, and the Rangers had gone forward with enthusiasm into the teeth of interlocked Maxim Guns and snipers; lessons were definitely learned.  They were also applied -- at some cost to the Germans -- in June at the Battle of Sorrel.

The Canadian Corps that turned up for the continuing Somme Offensive had already made some changes.  Sir Sam Hughes' jam-prone Ross had finally been chucked in for the Lee-Enfield MK III, Lewis guns and grenades were now plentiful, and the comprehensive shoulder patch ID system of the Canadian Corps had been sewn in place.  Lessons in initiative and resourcefulness (always easily learned by Canadians) had been accepted and the NCOs and Officers were now experienced.

The British Armies on the Somme had also been thinking hard about how to beat the paradigm of the trenches, and a growing realization that a 'breakthrough' was nigh impossible was becoming accepted.  Instead, the new concept was for 'Bite and Hold" attacks; objectives would be more limited and easier to capture, so that the inevitable German counter-attack could be chewed up when it came.  

The third phase of the Somme Offensive began on September 15th with the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.  That morning, the 20th Battalion was aimed at Candy Trench and new weapons and tactics were making their debut... these included the first appearance of both the tank and the rolling barrage.  While both did not work quite as expected, the Rangers did get into Candy Trench and held it.  When the Germans counter-attacked, they got their noses bloodied. 

The 20th Battalion stayed until rotated out on the 18th, but went back into the trenches twice more in the next two weeks.  They also made a significant attack (as a part of the fighting for Thiepval Ridge) on October 1st.  This fight was another British debut for indirect machine-gun fire, new chemical weapons, and tank-infantry cooperation.  As it was, the Germans were disinclined to counter-attack the Rangers that day, but that didn't stop a couple of platoons from making a significant intervention on their own initiative when a neighbouring British battalion (King's Own Yorkshires) had their hands full.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment's famous assault on the first day of the Somme cost 658 men out of the 780 that rushed into No-Man's Land, and none made it across.  As a contrast that illustrates the Army that emerged during the Somme; the Rangers spent three weeks in and out of the front lines; took two tough objectives and held them; and lost a total of 111 dead and 319 wounded during those three weeks.

By October 4th, the Canadian Corps were pulled out of the lines in the Somme and had a relatively quiet winter.  But from the Corps Commander (Sir Julian "Bungo" Byng) down to the ranks, the Winter was a time to absorb more of the lessons of the Somme and apply them.  The results would been seen at Vimy Ridge in the Spring.