British troops negotiate a trench as they go forward in support of an attack on the village of Morval during the Battle of the Somme. Photograph: PA. Courtesy of the Guardian of London
‘The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war’
Secretary of State for War and subsequently Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.
At 7:30 am on 1 July 1916, subalterns blew their whistles and one hundred thousand British soldiers, each carrying 60 pounds of equipment, climbed out of their trenches and began to plod as quickly as they could toward the German lines. Preceding the attack had been a staggering artillery barrage of a million shells fired over the course of a week.
Unfortunately for the British, this had little effect on the Germans who had dug very deep bunkers in the hard chalk soil. A creeping artillery barrage preceded the British troops as they attacked but it went too fast and left the men exposed. The Germans mowed down the attacking British. Literally. It was a slaughter. I’ve been re-reading John Keegan’s excellent history, “The First World War” which I recommend most fervently.
Of that horrific day Keegan writes that of the 100,000 men who advanced into no man’s land, 20,000 were killed, 40,000 wounded. It was the bloodiest day in British military history and haunted the survivors till the end of their days. To make it worse, if that is possible, Keegan says, “in offensive terms, the advance had achieved nothing. Most of the dead were killed on the ground the British held before the advance began.”
Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander, felt the Germans had been shaken by the attack. This was before he knew the full extent of the disaster which had befallen British arms that day. Writes Keegan, “if the Germans had been shaken, it was by the amazing spectacle of unexampled gallantry, courage and bulldog determination….”
Once many German units realized their lives were no longer at risk and the British were falling back, they ceased fire so the more lightly wounded British soldiers could make it back to their own lines. “60% of all officers involved on the first day were killed,” according to the BBC.
Incredibly, the British and French regrouped and attacked at different places along the German line for another almost five months. The Battle of the Somme, which encompasses all twelve battles in the area associated with the campaign, began on 1 July 1916 and ended on 18 November 1916. The British Army suffered 420,000 casualties (that is killed and wounded) and the French Army suffered over 195,000 casualties making a total of 615,000 casualties for the Allies. The horrific slaughter accomplished almost nothing.
A British trench near the Albert-Bapaume road at Ovillers-la-Boisselle, July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The men are from A Company, 11th Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment
The Germans took more than 650,000 casualties making a total of more than 1.2. million men killed or wounded on all sides. (Figures from the BBC). Hence, the Somme goes down as one of the bloodiest battles in the history of the Western world. Truly, it would have been far better for Western civilization if Imperial Germany had knocked France out of the war in the first few months, which she almost did, and negotiating a peace agreement. So many lives would have been saved.
The catastrophe of the Somme led to the collapse of the Asquith government in Great Britain and Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by David Lloyd George on 7 December 1916, twenty days after the end of the battle.
The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. Over 90% of those commemorated died between July and November 1916. (photo courtesy of ww.1cemeteries.com)