Formulating an Offensive Plan
Somme 1916

The allied plan of attack was for a joint offensive, with the British Fourth Army and French Sixth Army assaulting astride the River Somme. Initial offensive planning for 1916 had intended for the French Army to take the lead. However, since operations at Verdun had swallowed up the majority of French Army reserves, the ever-expanding British Army, despite being the junior partner in the coalition, would now supply the bulk of the fighting troops. It was imperative the two western front allies worked in cooperation with each other to ensure success.

Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson - Commander Fourth Army
Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson - Commander Fourth Army

General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commander of the newly formed Fourth Army and his staff would be responsible for the British involvement. Once an initial British strategy had been formalised it would be presented to the Commander-in-Chief, BEF, General Sir Douglas Haig for approval. It would be Haig’s responsibility to promote the British tactical scheme to his French allies as well as his political masters back in London.


Fourth Army was comprised of three Corps’; Lt. Gen. W N Congreve’s, XIII Corps, (7th, 30th and 18th Divisions), Lt. Gen. Sir T N L Morland’s, X Corps, (32nd, 36th, 48th and 49th Divisions) and Lt. Gen. Sir A G Hunter-Weston’s VIII Corps in reserve (31st Division). By mid-June 1916 Fourth Army would grow to five Corps’ and sixteen Divisions, nearly half a million men.

Gen. Archibald Montgomery Chief of Staff, Fourth Army
Gen. Archibald Montgomery Chief of Staff, Fourth Army

During early March 1916 Rawlinson and his key staff, including his Chief-of-Staff, Maj. Gen. Archibald Montgomery and his artillery adviser Maj. Gen James F Noel Birch, made a complete reconnaissance of the twenty mile Fourth Army front. On 6 March Rawlinson and Montgomery called their Corps commanders to Querrieu for a planning conference. Together, they worked on a proposal to assault on a frontage from Maricourt to Serre, employing massed artillery to overwhelm German first-line defences before using infantry to capture and consolidate the entire German first-line system. The developing plan was a very cautious, step by step strategy, which became known as ‘bite and hold’.

Gen. James F Noel Birch Artillery Adviser, Fourth Army then from May 1916 Artillery Advisor to Gen Haig.
Gen. James F Noel Birch Artillery Adviser, Fourth Army then from May 1916 Artillery Advisor to Gen Haig.

Rawlinson and his staff built their strategy on a number of factors, all of which were connected. First was a comparison between infantry numbers and the total number of artillery pieces, in particular, the number of heavy guns and howitzers which could be deployed. The five Corps of Fourth Army dictated the frontage of attack should be no more than 20,000 yards (a little over 11 miles). This equated to approximately eight infantrymen per one yard attacked and a coverage of one heavy artillery piece for every 57 yards. However, of the 6-inch calibre artillery or heavier, (i.e. his heaviest guns) there was only one gun or howitzer available per 100 yards of enemy front with a lighter field gun every 21 yards of enemy front. Rawlinson’s earlier experiences, gained during British offensive actions in 1915, coupled with what he had gleaned from French and German operational experiences at Champagne and at Verdun, had influenced his thinking. It was clear artillery was king for this new type of warfare, determining success or failure.

Another factor influencing Rawlinson’s strategy was the maximum ‘effective’ range of his field artillery and heavy guns and howitzers. With most artillery batteries positioned 1,000 - 3,000 yards in rear of the first-line trench system, British guns could only effectively destroy German defences and wire to a maximum of 4,000 - 5,000 yards. At this range, all the German first-line system could be reached with a sizable chunk of the German second line system also within scope. Artillery range was only one factor; accuracy was equally important. Artillery observers would require good observation to ensure accuracy of shot. This required daylight shooting, good weather, and clear visibility. At the gun’s maximum range it was difficult for ground observers to correct fall of shot with any precision, even in perfect conditions. If artillery fire was not accurate, it was ineffective. Only air observers in either kite balloons or RFC aircraft could adjust the bombardment at distant longer ranges with any precision. However, balloons and aircraft were few in numbers and required good weather and clear visibility. The artillery plan would also include dedicated counter barrage groups. Aerial observation was also required for these groups to fire accurately on German batteries located in the enemy rear areas. This reduced the number of aerial platforms available for other tasks, such as destruction of defences.

Focusing the artillery bombardment on the German first-line system would ensure a greater concentration of accurate fire on a limited shorter range objective. If range was extended to include the German second-line system, fire would be diluted as the number of potential targets grew. As range increased, accuracy decreased and the bombardment would become less effective. Furthermore, there was a shortage of several calibres of heavy howitzer ammunition. Heavy guns and howitzers were the only weapons in Rawlinson’s armoury capable of destroying well-constructed defensive positions and underground shelters. Increasing the number of targets i.e. the German second-line system, or by broadening the frontage to be attacked, would decrease the number of potential shells available per target. It would be necessary to ensure that as many heavy shells as possible hit their intended target accurately. For this to be achieved it was vital ‘ground’ Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) could see every shell as it landed on the German first line system. Once ‘fall of shot’ was observed adjustments and corrections could be relayed to the gunners. The shorter the range from gun-line to target and the shorter the distance from FOOs to target, accuracy would increase with less wastage of valuable ammunition.

As a result of these factors Rawlinson advocated an initial lengthy bombardment of no less than five days and nights. A long, sustained, methodical bombardment would ensure the destruction of German defences within range, i.e., the German first-line system and a few defended points beyond. It would also cut wire and have a huge effect on defending troops morale. Only then would infantry attack, their task made easier against a weakened opposition. The infantry assault would breach the German front-line trench then advance to and capture the furthest enemy trench in their first-line system. In places infantry would advance a little further to capture high ground just beyond the last German position, consolidate and ‘hold.’ The furthest ground captured, where possible, would afford good observation over the next ‘bite’ phase.

During the first ‘hold’ phase re-organisation would take place over a period of about three days with artillery and ammunition moving forward and relocating. In turn, this would extend the artillery’s range to the next major objective, the German second-line system. The subsequent attack or ‘bite’ would only take place following another long bombardment. Once defences, trenches and wire were demolished and the enemy troops defending had lost their capacity to resist, Rawlinson would attack again. This, he argued, also had the advantage of drawing German reinforcements into the ‘killing ground.’ The Germans were sure to counter attack. Rawlinson’s artillery advantage meant, in theory, British guns would destroy German infantry every time they attempted to re-capture lost ground. It would also ensure large numbers of enemy would die whilst attempting to hold their new defensive line during each ‘hold’ bombardment phase.

Another advantage of the ‘bite and hold’ tactic was the short distance over which the infantry would attack. Each ‘bite’ phase would advance on average 2,000 yards, but no further than 3,000 yards. Planning for an attack with limited objectives would be simpler and less complicated. Rawlinson was concerned about the experience of his Army. In his view an advance of beyond 3,000 yards could lead to infantry becoming disorganised. An advance of ‘depth,’ fighting through successive defence lines would be challenging even for regular professional troops. New Army battalions were judged not to be experienced enough for multiple phase offensive action. Once ‘limited’ objectives had been captured the movement forward of fresh troops, re-enforcements and infantry support weapons would be quicker and less complicated over a shorter distance. The re-supply of ammunition, water, and rations would have to be manhandled over the captured shell cratered and difficult terrain. This would be considerably easier over a shorter distance. As infantry consolidated their newly captured positions, most field and heavy artillery batteries would remain within range to support them in the event of a German counter attack. In essence, a simple infantry plan with limited objectives was advantageous for an army lacking experience in conducting major offensive operations. Each ‘bite’ and ‘hold’ phase would have an increased chance of success and be less of a risk when compared to a more complicated scheme with far reaching objectives.

It was not only new civilian officers, NCOs and men of the New Army that lacked experience. Even commanders at the highest levels were learning on the job. This type of industrial siege warfare was new to everyone. The war had been underway a little less than two years. It was a steep learning curve in a relatively short space of time. Some commanders were out of their depth, operating beyond their level of expertise and experience. A simple plan was surely the safest option.

There was one tactical element lacking from Rawlinson’s plan of attack; ‘surprise.' The general element of surprise would be lost once the bombardment commenced. It was possible surprise would be lost before this, as German observers would surely notice the build-up and preparations of such a large force. Yet, it could still be possible to achieve a local tactical surprise at Zero Hour. If the infantry could attack and gain the first German trench without being observed, possibly catching the Germans off guard as they hid deep underground in their dugouts, a foothold in the enemy defensive system could be achieved with few casualties sustained in crossing No-Man’s-Land. Fourth Army were aware the German defenders had constructed deep subterranean shelters with numerous reports supporting this.

At Loos in September 1915, gas and smoke had been utilised to achieve surprise for the infantry attack. Rawlinson considered both options. Gas was rejected on the grounds that it was impossible to forecast wind direction and speed. The day and time of Zero Hour would be fixed, meaning no delay whilst waiting for favourable conditions. Since Loos the Germans had developed and issued effective gas respirators whilst a British release of gas at, or just prior to Zero Hour, would mean assaulting British units attacking in gas masks. This had proved virtually impossible, with disorientation, lack of command, reduced visibility and breathlessness just some of the restrictions faced by infantrymen.

The use of smoke was another possible option to be used to conceal attacking troops. It could be utilised to screen an assault from the flanks or head-on whilst crossing No-Man’s-Land. Surprise could be achieved if the Germans were deceived into a false sense of security as to the real date and time of attack. If, during the preliminary bombardment, an intensive artillery barrage and release of smoke was fired once or twice per day for the entirety of the five days, each barrage would give the impression an assault was imminent. One would be fired in the morning and the other during the evening, each commencing at a different time but lasting for the same time period, except the very final bombardment. The final phase of each intensive barrage would include a release of smoke. On the morning of Z Day, the final intensive barrage would lift slightly early and smoke dugouts, anticipated the barrage would last longer. Immediately following the early lift of the bombardment, infantry would advance under the cover of smoke, arriving at the enemy’s first trench before would be released. Surprise would be attained if the Germans, sheltering in their any defenders had realised the attack had begun. The ruse of a short final bombardment would be employed along the entire attacking frontage. However, the decision to use smoke would be left to local commanders.

Rawlinson’s ‘bite and hold’ plan was cautious, safe and methodical. It took into consideration the number of troops available, the experience and skill of his army, the leadership and command at all levels, the number and types of artillery pieces available, logistical difficulties and the attrition and demoralisation of the enemy. However, it was not dynamic or decisive and was certainly not going to win the war in one great move.

On 3 April 1916 Rawlinson presented his plan to Haig.

Two days later, Rawlinson held a Corps Commanders conference at Querrieu Chateau. That afternoon Rawlinson and Montgomery drove to Haig’s headquarters, arriving at tea time. During the evening the three men held discussions. Haig responded to Rawlinson's outline plan, rejecting it as too cautious and lacking any element of surprise. The C-in-C stated the plan had tactical objectives which were too modest in width and depth. He insisted the attack should push out beyond the first enemy defensive system on the initial bound and capture high ground around the German second line system. Haig was in favour of an ambitious, broad fronted attack, with break in, deep penetration and breakthrough of the German defences followed by a breakout into the rear, rolling up the German defences from the flank and rear. The two strategies were very different; there would have to be changes or a compromise. Haig wrote in his diary that evening:

His intention is merely to take the enemy’s first and second system of trenches and ‘kill Germans’. He looks upon the gaining of 3 or 4 kilometres more or less of ground immaterial. I think we can do better than this by getting as large a combined force of French and British as possible across the Somme and fighting the enemy in the open.

Haig’s experience during the Battle of Loos had shown there would be a period after the initial assault, before any enemy reserves could arrive, when the Germans were disorganised and demoralised. If sufficient British troops were rapidly moving up, there was a possibility of exploiting initial success by pushing on, capturing the German guns and breaking out into open country. As commander of First Army at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle during March 1915, Haig had achieved complete surprise with a short, sharp hurricane bombardment, followed by a rapid infantry advance. He also remembered how the German Army had almost defeated the BEF at Ypres during late winter 1914. One more large-scale German attack on 31 October at Gheluvelt and on 11 November at Nonne Bosschen would have broken the British line and led to the defeat of the BEF. With these missed opportunities in mind, if he could achieve the same pressure at the Somme, it may lead to victory.

Rawlinson’s proposed 'Bite and Hold' plan.
Rawlinson’s proposed 'Bite and Hold' plan. 1 Preliminary bombardment of up to seven days of the German first line system over 11 miles. 2Infantry assault the German first line system to a maximum depth of 2,000 to 3,000 yards and consolidate. 3Artillery advance forward to new positions over several days then bombard the German second line system. 4Once the German position is reduced by the artillery, the infantry attack, capture the enemy second line and consolidate.

Haig recognised the high ground around Pozières and the ridges running north to the River Ancre and south to Bazentin-le-Grand and Longueval key terrain. Controlling these heights was fundamental to dominating the entire Somme battlefield. As such, he stipulated it must be captured during the opening phase of attack. Once the high ground was in British hands, artillery observers would have complete domination over German held ground for several miles. From Pozières Ridge, Bapaume, a mere 7-miles distant was easily visible. Haig’s optimism on this point is not wholly unreasonable; capture of the high ground would undoubtedly provide a huge advantage to Fourth Army when making any further advance.

Haig also wanted a wider 25,000-yard front, extending the left flank north past Gommecourt. Even Maj. Gen. Noel Birch, the newly appointed chief artillery advisor to GHQ, said that this was too far - the artillery would be overstretched. Haig also sought a short but intensive bombardment, believing it would achieve surprise. It may have achieved ‘some’ surprise but there was an insufficient number of artillery pieces, particularly heavy guns, to destroy the enemy wire in one short intensive bombardment over such a wide front. Haig would later back down on his short bombardment theory in favour of a longer methodical bombardment. The Commander-in-Chief turned this criticism into a direct order on 12 April. He summarised his decision into a letter of instruction. Fourth Army would assault on the left of the French between Maricourt in the south to a point near Hébuterne in the north. The initial aim would be to establish a strong defensive flank on the spur running south-east from Serre to Miraumont and the high ground on Pozières Ridge, running south to Fricourt through Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, Ovillers and La Boisselle. In general, this was an advance to take the German first line system. To the south of Fricourt Ridge the line swung around, meaning the direction of attack would be northward. Haig stressed the attack on the southern extremity of Fourth Army, opposing the village of Montauban and Montauban Ridge to Mametz, were vital features to be seized as soon as possible since their possession would be of considerable tactical value in the second stage of operations. The directive instruction continued: After gaining the ground described above, your next effort must be directed to capturing by attacks from the west and south, the Ginchy to Bazentin le Grand ridge, then pushing eastwards along the high ground towards Combles in order to co-operate with the French Army on your right, in effecting the passage of the River Somme.

Rawlinson’s proposed 'Bite and Hold' plan.
Haig’s initial ambitious proposed strategy. 1Short surprise hurricane bombardment out to the maximum range of the artillery. 2Infantry assault in either one or two phases to the high ground to including most of the German second line system. I3i Breach of the German defensive line, followed by rapid breakout towards Bapaume. Breakout troops form a defensive flank on the south and east and wheel north to roll up the German line from the south.

This would involve breaching the German second line, which ran along the ridge, Bazentin-le-Grand, Longueval, Ginchy and on to Combles. The east of this ridge lay almost on the German third line. Haig’s instruction provided no detail as to how this could be achieved and failed to mention whether these two advances were to be made as part of one attack or as two separate attacks. It implied a rapid breach of the enemy’s second line was required but offered no solution to explain how this could be achieved without moving forward the artillery after the successful capture of the first line positions. Any advance to the German second line would have left the infantry at the very edge of artillery support. Rawlinson’s ‘Bite and Hold’ scheme would have negated this danger, yet Haig would not sanction its use.

In short, Haig was pushing for an ambitious scheme with an advance on a front of fourteen miles to an average depth of approximately one and a half miles. This was a far wider frontage with a deeper advance than Rawlinson wanted. Still, despite severe reservations, Rawlinson acquiesced and agreed to carry out the directive.

On 19 April, Rawlinson, having conferred with his Corps Commanders, replied to Haig, saying he would modify the tactical plan as ordered. It would now include a push to the Pozières, Grandcourt, Serre ridges on the opening day and conform with Haig’s wish in not waiting to move forward his guns during this opening phase until the high ground was captured. He pointed out that tackling even part of the enemy's second line so soon and without adequate gun coverage was a gamble, but that no doubt the Commander-in-Chief was in a position to know if this was a risk worth taking. Haig replied, saying he had considered the question of the length of bombardment and was now supportive of a longer bombardment prior to the opening assault.

By mid-May, RFC reconnaissance had discovered the Germans were constructing a third defensive line. Even with this new development Haig continued to pressure Rawlinson to plan for an even more ambitious alternative in which the cavalry reserve and Gen. Gough’s Reserve Army might be pushed through any breach created by Fourth Army. Especially, he said, if the high ground around Pozières was captured, the reserve force could push through and break out towards Arras, rolling up German defences from south to north. Haig’s ambitious ideas were very much driven by political pressures for a quick and final victory, and pressure from his demanding French ally, who expected a British assault to relieve pressure on their own army at Verdun. Rawlinson was left with little choice. Haig was, after all, his superior, and so his hand was forced to revise his scheme in line with the C-in-C’s demands. The plan that eventually evolved was a series of compromises suiting neither those planning the offensive nor those tasked with conducting operations.