More about this painting :
Note that visible in the painting is a man carrying an orange painted steel marker, painted on one side only. The markers are to to indicate to British artillery observers as to the most forward positions taken by the British advance. Naturally, one does not present the orange side to the enemy!
Markers such as these indicated which trenches had been captured, and allowed the artillery to create shellbursts and lay down fire ahead of the attacking infantry waves. The high visibility of these markers minimised the casualties due to friendly fire by the artillery, though shorts did inflict unnecessary casualties. Shorts are caused by faulty shells/shell fuses, or by continuous firing of artillery barrels over long periods, causing the ambient heat in the barrel to cause inaccuracies, as well as wearing out the rifling in the artillery barrels, causing inaccurate fire.
When Lloyd George became PM, he forced through a reform that increased the proportion of Lewis guns per company to nine - this was done in the face of extreme opposition from high ranking British officers, who, inexplicably, consistently failed to grasp the realities of modern warfare.
Also to be noted is the fact that many of the British shells fired at the Somme simply failed to explode, duds - failing to cut the German wire, and obviously failing to cause German casualties and failing to minimise German resistance. It is estimated that up to a third of the British shells fired during this offensive were duds. This failure on the part of the shell manufacturers exacerbated the infantry casualties during the Somme battles, totally letting the side down, and led to the shell crisis that gave Lloyd George his great political opportunity.
Also to be noted is the great amount of kit being carried by the soldiers, including picks and shovels and empty sandbags. This was in order that the ramparts of captured German trenches could be reversed to face the enemy. It is estimated that the amount of kit carried, including ammunition, 24hrs rations, extra water, changes of socks and clothing, lice -free underwear, blankets, poncho, etc weighed up to 60 pounds. The sheer physical effort needed to carry this considerable load also slowed down the advance, reducing the speed of infantrymen to that of tortoises as physical and emotional exhaustion set in. German observers were quick to note this aspect of unreasonable weights being carried by the attacking personnel. At Verdun, a battle that was taking place at the same time as the Somme offensive, German assault troops were not weighed down by piles of kit like the unfortunate British tommies, who were laden down like pack-horses.
The Somme offensive was a British effort made in response to a French request to take pressure of the French defending Verdun.
When German stormtroopers were trained for the great German offensives of 1918, German planners made sure that their stormtroopers were lightly equipped, wearing a light 1918 fighting rig, the equivalent of combat fighting order and were hence able to move quickly from objective to objective, whilst the picks and shovels, water, rations, and all the heavy stuff was carried by the succeeding waves of reinforcing and mopping up infantry.
Another extraordinary aspect of the Somme offensive is that many British troops were told they would be able to walk towards the enemy, it being presumed, wrongly, that the artillery would dispose of any Germans waiting in their trenches. Part of the reason for this presumptuous view was a deep rooted British regular army bias and prejudice towards many of the British territorials and part time volunteer battalions, civilians in uniform, Kitcheners army, in the terminology of the time. It was felt by the powers that be, that these volunteers were not real soldiers at all, hence the rather condescending and unrealistic order to them - to simply walk in line towards the German positions whilst the artillery and the real soldiers did the heavy lifting. It was felt by the British regular army hierarchy that as these soldiers were not regulars, but were just civvies in uniform, they were therefore pathologically and temperamentally incapable of being trained up to regular army standards, therefore they could not possibly be trained in fire and movement and complex assault techniques; techniques it must be mentioned being used very successfully by the German army at Verdun, concurrent with the Somme battle!
On a positive note, the extremely heavy casualties suffered by the British army during the Somme battles did change perceptions amongst the old and the bold in regard to the capabilities of volunteer soldiers. Many fought stubbornly, even in impossible circumstances during the Somme offensive. By 1918, most of the British army on the western front was composed of conscripted men, in contrast to commonwealth forces, who continued to function and recruit without conscription and compulsion.