Before an infantry advance during the First World War, it was a common strategy to bombard enemy defences with all available heavy artillery. The idea was that this preliminary bombardment would either kill the defending soldiers or would at least force them to retreat. Although used throughout the First World War on the Western Front, this strategy was largely unsuccessful. Even after a three-week bombardment at the Somme in the summer of 1916, the defenders were able to return to their positions by the time the infantry advance took place.
Members of the Royal Artillery were always frightened of bombing their own men. George Mallorywas the commander of the 40th Siege Battery during the Somme offensive. In a letter to his wife he pointed out: "Before I went to sleep I heard distinctly from the murmur of voices in the tent some mention of our troops being shelled out of a trench by our own guns... I can't tell you what a miserable time I had after that. You see, if my registration had been untrue, it was my fault... I went over and over again in my mind all the circumstantial evidence that it was really our shells I had seen bursting and had horrid doubts and fears."
Heavy bombardment was unable to destroy a sophisticated trench-system that included deep dug-outsand concrete machine-gun posts. Preliminary bombardment also had the disadvantage of informing defenders that an infantry attack was imminent. This gave military commanders time to call up reinforcements to that part of the front-line. In 1916 both sides employed creeping barrage as a means of capturing enemy trenches. Although this was sometimes successful when the commander had limited objectives, it failed to provide the means to end the stalemate on the Western Front.
(1) George Mallory, letter to his wife, Ruth Mallory (26th July, 1914)
Before I went to sleep I heard distinctly from the murmur of voices in the tent some mention of our troops being shelled out of a trench by our own guns... I can't tell you what a miserable time I had after that. You see, if my registration had been untrue, it was my fault... I went over and over again in my mind all the circumstantial evidence that it was really our shells I had seen bursting and had horrid doubts and fears.
(2) Robert Sherriff, No Leading Lady (1968)
The great preliminary bombardment had begun. We were surrounded by batteries of artillery, and for three nights it was bedlam. It had now begun to rain... Living conditions in our camp were sordid beyond belief. The cookhouse was flooded, and most of the food was uneatable. There was nothing but sodden biscuits and cold stew. The cooks tried to supply bacon for breakfast, but the men complained that it "smelled like dead men".
The latrines consisted of buckets with wet planks for the men to sit on, but there weren't enough of them. Something had given the men diarrhoea. They would grope out of their shelters, flounder helplessly in the mud, and relieve themselves anywhere. Some of the older men, worn out by the long marching and wretched food, were sick. They would come groping out of their shelters, lean their heads against the corrugated iron walls, and stand there retching and vomiting and groaning. Then they would go back to their huts and lie on the damp straw with their canvas packs for pillows. These were the men who were to break through the German lines, advance into Belgium and win the war.
In contrast with this human misery, there was something grand and awe-inspiring in that tremendous cannonade of guns. If you stood out there at night, you would see the whole surrounding country lit with thousands of red stabs of flame as salvo after salvo went screaming overhead.