Friday, 1 July 2016

The Somme: 100 Years On

by James Burkinshaw

British soldiers advancing into No Man's Land - July 1, 1916

The Somme offensive began 100 years ago on 1st July at 7.30 am, when 110,000 British soldiers climbed out of their trenches (along a 13-mile front) and began advancing toward the German line.   

For a week prior to the infantry's attack, the British artillery had bombarded the enemy trenches with 1.5 million shells in an attempt to destroy the German front-line positions. However, unknown to the British soldiers (and to their generals) the artillery effort had been a complete failure. The German army had safely withstood the bombardment in their deep, reinforced dugouts (far superior to the leaking, rat-infested trenches of their British counterparts) and quietly re-emerged, when the enemy artillery fell silent, ready to meet the offensive. The British marched with bayonets fixed; the Germans had machine-guns. 

The carnage was appalling - of the 110,000 British soldiers who took part in the July 1st offensive, 20,000 were killed and 40,000 badly wounded. The casualties were the worst in the history of the British army. Survivors later recalled that, days later, the wounded in No Man's Land, were still crying out in agony; many were haunted by the sound for the rest of their lives. 

July 1st 1916 was perhaps the single most brutal, futile day of a brutal, futile war. "The Somme" remains a byword, even a hundred years later, for incompetent and complacent generalship and for the extraordinary courage of the soldiers in the face of incomprehensible horror. 

Class tensions lie at the heart of the Somme narrative. In his classic work, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell writes: "The planners assumed that these troops - burdened for the assault with 66 pounds of equipment - were too simple and animal to cross the space between the opposing trenches in any way except in full daylight and aligned in rows (or "waves"). It was felt that the troops would become confused by more subtle tactics like rushing from cover to cover or assault firing or following close upon a continuous creeping barrage." 

The British general staff seemed to adopt an approach more suited to the age of the musket than the machine gun. Fussell again: "A final cause of the disaster was the total lack of surprise.  There was a hopeless absence of cleverness about the whole thing, entirely characteristic of its author (General Haig). The attackers could have feinted: they could have lifted the bombardment for two minutes at dawn - the expected hour for attack - and then immediately resumed it, which might have caught the seduced German machine-gunners unprotected up at their open firing position. But one suspects that, if such a feint was ever considered, it was rejected as unsporting."

"By the end of the day" reflected soldier-poet Edmund Blunden, "both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men . ..  (that) neither race had won, nor could win, the War. The War had won, and would go on winning." 

Regardless, the Somme offensive continued for another five, catastrophic months, until finally brought to an inconclusive end by the winter weather. By then, the British and French armies had advanced about 6 miles - at a cost of over a million casualties (over 600,000 Allied and nearly 500,000 German). The War itself would go on winning for another two years. 

Across the United Kingdom, the 100th anniversary of the Somme was commemorated on July 1st:

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