The “Somme”, Success and Strategy

Last weekend I watched an excellent BBC documentary on the battle of the Somme in WWI.

It detailed the lives of several soldiers of the British army via their letters to loved ones and their thoughts prior to the fateful battle. I was particularly struck by the elegance of the letters of Captain Charles “Charlie” May of the 22nd Manchesters, his devoted love and self describing longing for his wife “Bessie” and baby.

His thoughtful intelligence, disclosures, dearest personal insights, and observations of the people, places and prospects around him were particularly moving.

“I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water. I cannot think of it with even the semblance of equanimity.”
Captain Charles May – Aged 27 – June 16 1916

He was no fool and believed clearly in the moral responsibly that he felt and the sense of duty, but was underpinned with a melancholic realisation what lay before him. Just before ‘going over the top’ he penned a moving farewell letter to his wife and baby and he asked a friend and fellow officer Captain FJ Earles to look after his wife and child, should he not return.

Later that day that responsibility fell to Captain Earles.

The BBC documentary was much more than just Captain May’s story, it detailed the entire battle plan, the successes, the decisions, the personalities, the failures as well as the indescribable pointless and universal loss of life.

I was unusually moved at the waste of human life after watching the ‘Battle of the Somme’. These kind of historical documentaries normally sweep past my mind like abstract facts rather than personal accounts.

But rather than let this temporary emotion pass me by – being  swamped by the hum drum of the next days work , I determined: “what can I learn from this, how can Captain May’s life benefit me. Surely, I can take something away from this! What can this fine man’s life, ever so short, benefit me”.

So here are my key points and thoughts I have taken from the ‘Battle of the Somme’ and Captain May.

(1) In uncertainty don’t trust “THE PLAN”

The British army spent many, many months with detailed planning of their attack. They relied on the effectiveness of a prolonged artillery engagement destroying German defenses, followed by a regimented artillery support of infantry on a pre-determined time scale. They checked and double check the effectiveness of their days long bombardments. With the commanding general, Sir Douglas Haig, even demanding to verify the effectiveness himself  with a personal  flight on a rudimentary  spotter aeroplane.

When actual weather conditions were not perfect, (i.e. outside  plan parameters) on the scheduled day, they delayed until perfect conditions prevailed.

Everything was perfect. Plans were perfect, the preparation perfect, the confidence in themselves perfect, the British War machine effeciency perfect, the weather perfect, but moreover, and critically, they had a perfect erroneous confidence in their ‘perfect’ plan.

The timing of the attacks were detailed to an exact level with the British soldiers trained to walk in attack between the trenches rather than run, to allow perfect synchronicity with their allotted fire support. Like a well oiled machine, the British army would march forward. Artilliary bursts, timed according the time taken to walk between trenches.

With such planning and double checking, and the obvious brutal effectiveness of the artillery how could have anything went wrong?

Captain May was killed when his group were 3 minutes late in attacking the second line of German defenses.

Those 3 minutes gave the Germans all the time they needed to man their only slightly portable 62kg maxim machine guns – taken from their 40 foot deep bunkers safe from even the most vicious shelling. (The British didn’t know these existed, even though the trenches were only less than 100metres apart in some areas.)

The British walked and not did run, upright in an exposed manner (as trained), bravely, obediently, in a perfectly Victorian way,  in synchronicity with the plan, seeming oblivious to the beat of the music of the vicious clatter of the German maxims.

This was repeated all down the line. The massacre of the “somme” was to begin. When reports came in down the line of some success and failures, British command didn’t react when unexpected opportunity presented itself, and could not conceptualize what reports were coming in because it didn’t fit the ‘plan’. Some groups lost 50% of unit strength in the first 10 minutes of battle – incredible.

In your next plan, for a project and business, do you have too much confidence in it? Do you discount potential risks as unlikely to occur because you have them ‘managed’? Do you trust to much in your risk mitigation?

I am reminded of the many IT start-up plans that I have reviewed for venture capitalists, and how the founders often become ‘wed’ to their vision and plans- when success doesn’t come their way.  They often  want even more capital to keep doing the same thing more – executing the same failing plan.

The British responded to the failure, by wanting more men, more artillery.

(2) Planning has Diminishing Returns

The only success of the battle were from the ‘Crazy’ unorganised French. Their Gaelic and Latin traditions weren’t as organised, or efficient (in the eyes of the British). They said “Here is the high level objectives and co-ordination and for the rest – we’ll sort it out as we go along”. They were wholly successful, because their field commanders (inadvertently or otherwise) could react faster.

They had the perfect level of detail of planning. The plan wasn’t perfect. It was flexible.

Is the level of planning in your organisation correct? Do you tend to over or under plan?

(3) Keep you Artillery and Firepower close – Direct them from the front lines.

Moreover the French had close artillery support based from their field commanders. When pinned down by machine gun fire the french could call in firepower to remove the obstruction. Where by the British, walked (literally for goodness sake) across no-man’s land with active machine guns, because that is what the plan dictated, artillery support or no.

The unorganised French won in the “Somme”. Be that a lesson to those “organiser” personalities. You know who I am talking to.

When I see the project gantt chart with 500 tasks spanning 3 years, with an estimate of +-10% on something which have never been done before, by staff who have never worked together before, who are working in a business that they have little experience, next time perhaps I should rip up that plan?

(comment on the above by ADF Reserve Battery Commander Major A. Fleming: “Manoeuvre, Surprise and Simplicity (effected through the use of Directive Control i.e. flexibility in the execution of command) were the essence of Blitzkrieg used to devastating effect by the Germans in WWII”)

(4) Trust exclusively in new technology at your peril – particularly when computers are involved.

The new high explosives artillery shells powered by Mr Nobel’s dynamite (of Nobel prize fame), and the precisely calculated differential equations of shell trajectory by the early “computers” (the names given by people, mostly women, who had the unexciting task of producing shell trajectory tables), could land a shell with amazing precision at a location at many many miles distant. However, this technology no matter how impressive was not the deciding factor.

I can think of only one or two occasions were technology was the key and crucial factor in sustained competitive advantage. Technology won’t in and of itself make you or your business successful.

The next time you hear your IT boffins waxing lyrical about SOA, SAS, Cloud computing etc or how some new application will revolutionise your company. Throw a bucket of cold water over them. You may be wrong, but on the balance of probabilities you won’t be.

(5) Tell your superiors the bad news Fast, Factually and Firmly with decisive options.

The British high command did not believe the bad news, and or didn’t have a planned response to the bad news when it appeared. They weren’t incompetent, just ignorant. (There is a big difference).

I was reminded of a much loved saying of an acquaintance – a manager of a national automotive franchise network – “Don’t come to me with a problem without at least one thought through solution” – he would bark at his staff. It seemed to work well for him.

Assume your boss is ignorant (but highly intelligent of course). Give him or her the problem, and have an answer handy.

(6) Make Life long Friends

At the age of 27 Captain May had a friendship to which he could entrust his most valuable and most prized possessions – his family.

In the hustle and bustle of this world, we should develop great friendships and fellowships with our chosen acquaintances. Foster and grow those relationships, invest in them.

I am going to try to develop more deeper friendships and fellowships.


The story has a ‘happy’ ending of sorts.

Captain Eales kept his promise to his friend, and married the widowed “Bessie”, and nurtured, raised and cared for both the loved wife and baby of his friend Captain May.

5 thoughts on “The “Somme”, Success and Strategy

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